"A way to displace us"

The cost of limited water and electricity for Palestinians

Under her kitchen counter, Fatima Mohammad Mahmoud Alwahsh keeps many bottles. There are old 1-liter soft drink bottles of in a purple plastic basket. There’s another blue basket, also filled with bottles. There are several bigger yellow and white jugs.

All the jugs and bottles are filled with water. Water that she’s boiled on a gas stove and bottled for the family to use for washing dishes, bathing or cooking.

Next to the home there’s an underground cistern and a tank for storing water. On the roof there are several more tanks, also for storing water. When the water lines to the village are turned on once a week, or sometimes less often than that, everyone fills up their cisterns, tanks and bottles and hopes the water will last them the week. That’s the reality of Fatima’s life in Jubbet Ad Dhib, a Palestinian village in the West Bank nearly four miles south of Bethlehem.

Not enough water

This is the story of Fatima Mahammad Mahmoud Alwahsh, one of the people we work with in Palestine and Israel.
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Just up the hill from Jubbet Ad Dhib there’s an Israeli settlement. Though the two communities are within sight of each other, their access to water couldn’t be more different. Residents in the settlement have 24/7 access to water. They don’t need to boil their water, have cisterns or water tanks. They don’t need to keep bottles and bottles and bottles of water under their kitchen counter.

“We see that they [in the settlements] have a cow farm, they have a swimming pool. We’re jealous when we see them swimming,” Fatima says. “They use a great amount of water for their plants and their consumption. They have a lot of animals. They have horses, sheep. I am sure they have water for this.”

Fatima Mohammad Mahmoud Alwahsh on the roof of her home, surrounded by the black tanks used to store water. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

Within two miles of Jubbet Ad Dhib there are two official Israeli settlements and six settlement outposts (an informal collection of housing for Israelis that often grows into a larger settlement). These settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law, yet the Israeli settlers have access to four or five times more water than Palestinians. Eighty percent of the groundwater in the West Bank is diverted by Israeli water company Mekorot, mostly for the use of Israeli settlements. Palestinians can access the water taken from their land, but must buy it back at higher prices. (Learn more about access to water in the West Bank and Gaza.)

And when that water comes to Palestinians, the quality is questionable, having arrived through pipes that aren’t well maintained. The Israeli permit required to make repairs or improvement to the systems is nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain. In the spring, Fatima and her sister-in-law cleaned out their water tanks and found a layer of sand and dirt that had come in with the water. “Since that day we stopped drinking water from that tank and we buy water [to drink] from the market,” she says.

Tayseer Khalef Mahmoud Alwahsh and Fatima Mohammad Mahmoud Alwahsh with their daughters Zeina, 8, and Zein, 2. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

Between buying water to drink and storing what comes through the system, Fatima and her family still have to be careful about how much they use. “I buy plastic cups and plates so I don’t need to waste water to wash dishes,” she says. “I only use water for necessities. Cleaning the house, cooking, laundry and bathing the children. Other things that will waste water like washing blankets or carpets, I try to do that once a year.”

Things get harder in summer.

If you climb up the stairs to the roof of the Alwahsh’s home, you’ll find several plastic planters filled with dirt. Each one has two small plastic pipes poking out of the dirt. Provided by MCC partner The Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ), these wicking beds are designed to grow more vegetables with less water. Water is poured into the pipe and provides moisture to the plants’ roots from below, preventing evaporation.

Wicking beds Fatima Mohammad Mahmoud Alwahsh keeps on the roof her house. They can be used to grow vegetables in places with limited access to water. MCC photo/Emily Loewen

But under the June sun, the beds are empty, the dirt dried out. When the weather gets hot, there isn’t enough water to grow vegetables. “The water I would put on the plants I use to bathe my children,” Fatima says, “or use it to clean the home, to wash the laundry.”

Access to electricity in the small village is worse. Since the 1980s, the village has applied to the Israeli Civil Administration to get access to electricity, but have been denied because the village has no official civic plan. Those plans are essentially impossible for Palestinians to get even though several nearby illegal settlement outposts have had the same kind of plans retroactively created after they were established.

Until November of 2016 the villages had no electricity at all; families paid to access a generator provided by the Palestinian Authority. Some people traveled to the nearest village, three miles away, just to charge their cellphones. In November 2016, an Israeli-Palestinian organization set up solar panels with funding from the Netherlands. But families have to pay for access, and they pay more than in the rest of the West Bank. The electricity available still doesn’t meet all their needs.

Ibrahim Ali Mohammad Khamis, with his wife Ratiba Hasan Salama and their daughter Manal Ibrahim Ali Mohammad Khamis, 13. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

Ibrahim Ali Mohammad Khamis, who lives across the street from Fatima’s family, says the amount of electricity his family could purchase from the solar panels is only enough to run their small fridge, one light and charge their cellphones. It’s about 30-40 percent of what he estimates the family needs and at twice the cost someone would pay through the official Israeli network. They still have a generator for supplementary power. (Learn more about access to electricity in Gaza and the West Bank.

Even that limited, expensive access is fragile. In June of 2017, the village was raided by the Israeli military and the solar panels were confiscated because there was no permit. Eventually, after protests from the Netherlands, the panels were returned in September 2017.

Solar panels provide limited, expensive electricity to residents in Jubbet Ad Dhib. The panels were confiscated for several months in 2017 until the Netherlands put pressure on Israel to return them. MCC photo/Emily Loewen

Ibrahim has lived in Jubbet Ad Dhib his whole life. He’s seen changes in technology requiring more access to electricity and finds it difficult to keep up. The challenge isn’t money, it’s a lack of access. “The occupation is 100 percent responsible for the bad conditions we are living,” he says. 

Life with little power

This is the story of Ibrahim Ali Mohammad Khamis, one of the people we work with in Palestine and Israel
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You might think that after years of applying for access to electricity, and years of limited water, the people of Jubbet Ad Dhib would consider leaving.

For a time, Fatima actually did. When she first moved to the village after her wedding, she was shocked at the conditions. Until her marriage to her husband, Tayseer Khalaf Mohammad Alwahsh, she lived with her parents in Al- Rashyda. She doesn’t remember running out of water there. Unhappy with local services, she brought her husband to live in a house near her parents where they’d have access to more water and electricity. But in local custom, women move to their husband’s community not the other way around, and Tayseer didn’t want to leave his mother alone back in Jubbet Ad Dhib. So the family moved back. This time Fatima was determined to improve things.

Fatima Mohammad Mahmoud Alwahsh with her daughters Zeina, 8, and Zein, 2. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

Fatima was tired of taking her children to another village for school or to use computers for homework since Jubbet Ad Dhib doesn’t have enough electricity to have their own. “We all agreed together that we need electricity even if it is from solar power,” she says. “Seeing the villages around us with electricity we decided we needed it too. We are so close to them. How come we do not have it?”

She wasn’t alone. She and other women in the village formed a women’s group and started advocating to the Palestinian Authority for change. “Women from outside the village coming in are more motivated and have more courage to change the situation,” she says. Having grown up elsewhere they know things can be better.

Over the last few years, the women’s group, of which Fatima is vice-president, advocated for a library, a small convenience store and is working on getting improved road access and more secure water and electricity. And just because they have some power from the solar project doesn’t mean they’ve stopped fighting for a connection to the state electricity system.

Despite the challenges in Jubbet Ad Dhib, the families who have lived their whole lives in that village have no desire to leave. Families fear that if they leave, Israeli settlers will soon move onto their land.

Ibrahim Ali Mohammad Khamis has lived in Jubbet Ad Dhib for his whole life and despite limited access to water and electricity he doesn’t want to move. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

In the West Bank, the law is that if land isn’t used for three years it automatically becomes the property of the state of Israel. This presents a challenge to the residents of Jubbet Ad Dhib, many of whom used to earn a living from farming. The settlements have grown up around them, cutting families off from their farm land. They need to get permission from Israel to even visit or work or harvest their land.

Fatima suspects their limited access to water and electricity is a way to force residents out and claim the land. “I think they control the water and then they give us a small share of water as a way to [push us out],” she says. “Cutting [water] for three-four weeks is a way to displace us.”

Families also stay because of a love for the land, the only home people like Ibrahim have ever known. “I was born here and I will die here if God permits. This is my land, my country, and I am not moving out from here,” Ibrahim says. “It’s my hometown and it’s precious to me. I am 55 years old and my fingerprints are all over this place, it’s not easy to just get rid of 55 years and say goodbye.”

This story is part of A Cry for Home, which offers stories, videos and fact sheets from MCC on Palestine and Israel. Learn more about A Cry for Home.