Palestine Is Drying Up Before Our Eyes: Thirsting for Justice Under Water Apartheid
by Danny Muller
The water crisis in Palestine is 100% human-made, not a climate change catastrophe, not an issue of deforestation or drought. Don’t let the geography fool you, as Ziyad Lunat from the Thirsting For Justice campaign pointed out, Jerusalem gets nearly the same amount of rainfall as London.
We say Palestine, mind you, not the West Bank and/or Gaza and/or the Occupied Territories. When we say Palestine, we mean all of it. The Palestine that is Gaza, the West Bank, the 64+ year flood of refugees in Jordan and Syria and Turkey and Chicago—the largest flood of refugees in modern history that spans across the globe.
This water catastrophe—this other type of nakba—is the definitive result of Israel’s continued conduct and apartheid policies, evident in the waterborne disease spreading throughout Palestinian refugee camps that are perhaps not an accident, but an inconvenient oversight. Perhaps they are part of the continuing collateral damage of a so-called unsolvable crisis that in person, feels much more like the combination of a big lie and a large land grab. And, as many others are learning across the globe, behind every land grab is a water grab.
Israeli policies and practices limit Palestinians’ access to the water they are entitled to under international law. Israel controls all sources of freshwater in the West Bank. In Gaza, 90 to 95 percent of the coastal aquifer, on which Gaza inhabitants are dependent for water, is contaminated due to over-extraction and sewage contamination, making it unfit for human consumption. For most Palestinians, this ongoing and catastrophic water crisis is what they face daily, when they wash clothing, need a glass of water, or try to water their crops.
Thirsting for Justice
During my most recent trip to Palestine while traveling with Barbara Lubin, Executive Director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), I was directly asked by one of MECA’s partners to take part in the Thirsting for Justice Summer Challenge and only consume 6.3 gallons of water for one 24-hour period in solidarity with Palestinians. In the moment, I promised to participate and now I ask you to consider joining this campaign as well.
In Palestine, MECA was working to further our partnership with UNRWA to sustain and support MECA’s ongoing Maia project, which provides clean drinking water for children throughout kindergartens and UN schools in Gaza. As a natural extension of MECA's humanitarian efforts, they are a member of the Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene group (EWASH), a coalition of 30 leading humanitarian organizations that launched this Thirsting for Justice Campaign. These groups have realized that demand for clean water will only increase unless there is some component where they do not just respond to the overwhelming need for clean water, but they advocate for a change in Israel’s water policy—a policy that amounts to liquid apartheid.
Taking the Challenge
I am not going to lie to you for a moment. This challenge is an impossible and completely symbolic task. How does one in the places we live respond to such a challenge? I, for one, procrastinated and delayed, as such is my privilege, since this is a symbolic nothingness, a gesture, a shoulder shrug. Solidarity? Perhaps. But solidarity means nothing when the 6.3 gallons I consumed during my allotted and chosen 24 hours were highly purified, compared to the water in Gaza, where I know from experience that if you take a hot shower the salt in the water burns your skin, that friends invite you to brush your teeth with their own bottled water so that your teeth won’t begin to erode for use of tap water. Water in Palestine is often so heavily salinated or in short supply that blue baby syndrome, liver afflictions, and kidney problems are all too commonly spoken on the lips of mothers when talking about their children.
Yet still I delayed. A 6.3 gallon challenge? Are you kidding me? I flush the toilet twice in the same day and I fail. If I do a load of laundry, or turn on the dishwasher, I fail. One shower, failure. I am American, therefore entitled to unlimited resources, am I not? Isn’t the American way of life not up for negotiation?
I finally acquiesced and undertook the Thirsting For Justice Challenge. Yesterday, instead of showering, I swam in the ocean. I pissed outdoors—no flushing required. I did not use dishes, except for one glass. I attempted the challenge and in the process spent countless gallons of oil and even more kilowatts of electricity—especially if you are reading this—in order to communicate to you the importance of the Thirsting for Justice campaign, all in an attempt to wash off the guilt and the default complicity we share in this occupation, all to complete a promise.
Taking part in the Thirsting for Justice Summer Challenge did make me think more about what it means to consume. Consume. Consume. The American mantra. We consume and destroy, and we do not question policies like the ongoing occupation and division of Palestine that we fund every day with US tax dollars. And this complicity, of course, is completely absent from debates, from dialogue, from the ongoing election cycle that makes one nauseous enough it makes it difficult to swallow. Even this symbolic feeling of being deprived of water, if just for one day, gives one pause to think about such things.
This symbolic challenge is a challenge nonetheless, one I invite you to consider, to embrace. Perhaps it will make you pause, despite all the noise, and join in the walk with the peoples of Palestine. The more who join the walk will be haunted as am I by Martin Luther King’s words: "In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
When I left Palestine weeks ago and returned home (as is my privilege, I have freedom to travel, I am not Palestinian) things seemed more silent than ever. I began to think about how much harder it is to speak when you are thirsty. I wished there was an easy way to be heard by the Israeli government. Because they—and those who support or remain silent of their policies—are choking Palestine. There literally is no Jordan River anymore. Israel dam(n)s the water from the underground aquifers that provide water to Palestinians, poisons their wells, build walls to encompass the high ground, and re-directs the streams to fill the swimming pools of settlers (many of them surprisingly well armed with unsurprising US weaponry). The settlers, born of other lands and granted other privileges, splash in the water of Palestine.
6.3 gallons. Per person. Per diem. I grab at the easy words in easy reach, carpe diem, to louden the call to join this Thirsting for Justice campaign today, but I cringe now at this phrase. Being in Palestine makes you realize seizure means something different when you are on the receiving end of of being seized.
What is 6.3 gallons? It is Israeli water torture. It is part of the occupation. It is part of maintaining the stalemate, the status quo, the divide and conquer, the non-solution is a solution. In the meantime, in the never ending interim, if you are Palestinian, just keep your water consumption under 6.3 gallons a day or there will be hell to pay.
I now know more deeply that expecting one to live on 6.3 gallons of water in a day is an insult. It’s collective punishment. It’s fucking horrible. An allotment of 6.3 gallons of water a day makes you want to flee.
This is not about me or you joining the Thirsting for Justice Summer campaign. This is about Israel using allotment of water resources as one of the many weapons in their arsenal to maintain their ongoing occupation. This is about making Palestine unlivable. This is about creating a different kind of Exodus. This is about a new Trail of Tears. But this is a controlled amount of tears, and it is controlled at the water spigots, controlled at the borders, controlled in the halls in Washington and the Knesset and in the lack of news you hear about the unwillingness of many Palestinians to be truly part of their two paltry puppets, the PA and Hamas.
This other Trail of Tears is drier and longer and older than you think. Listen. Do you hear the footsteps? More feet down the trail every day, with our silence. More tears. All happening in real time, all with the blind allegiance and support of the US government.
By no means, do I know what it is to walk any Trail of Tears. All I can think is to try to strive to accompany in some small way those who have been forced on this path by no choice of their own. That many of those walking are children. That there are choices before all of us, that we can, in fact, ourselves thirst for justice in our own way and shrink the gap between those on the receiving end, those whose lives know only war and occupation and those of us who, by default, by waking up in America, are the ones who are partly responsible.
Danny Muller has worked with the Middle East Children's Alliance since they were jointly breaking the economic sanctions against Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness in the 1990’s. He is raising money to build a water treatment unit at the UNRWA Rehabilitation Centre for Visually Impaired (RCVI) where almost 500 students come for training and treatment but have no access to clean water, and asks that you consider making a donation and support Palestine.