Palestinian Water Woes Highlight Dashed Hopes of Oslo Accords

Palestinian farmer Bassam Dudin can no longer draw water from his wells since Israeli forces poured cement into them- AP
Palestinian farmer Bassam Dudin can no longer draw water from his wells since Israeli forces poured cement into them- AP
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Palestinian Water Woes Highlight Dashed Hopes of Oslo Accords

Palestinian farmer Bassam Dudin can no longer draw water from his wells since Israeli forces poured cement into them- AP
Palestinian farmer Bassam Dudin can no longer draw water from his wells since Israeli forces poured cement into them- AP

Thirty years after the landmark Oslo Accords, Palestinian hopes for statehood seem as remote as ever and popular frustration is rife -- nowhere more than over access to water.

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute centres on land but also on the water resources that sustain life in the sun-parched land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan river.

Hopes for peace were high when then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands with Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, watched by US president Bill Clinton.

The historic deal they struck created a limited degree of Palestinian self-rule and was intended as a first step toward resolving the status of Jerusalem and the plight of Palestinian refugees.

The ultimate goal for many was the creation of a Palestinian state whose people would one day live freely and peacefully alongside Israel.

Instead, three decades on, Israeli settlements have mushroomed across the occupied West Bank, deadly violence has flared, and the blockaded Gaza Strip is littered with the ruins of several wars.

For Palestinian farmer Bassam Dudin, the most immediate concern is that he can no longer draw water from his wells, since Israeli forces came in July and poured cement into them.

"They didn't give me any advance warning," said Dudin, 47, standing amid sun-scorched vegetables on his field at Al-Hijra village in the West Bank's southern Hebron area.

"We are living in a very, very difficult situation."

Israeli military authorities argued that Dudin, who holds a land title dating back to the era of Ottoman rule over historic Palestine, had tapped the groundwater illegally.

The body running civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories, COGAT, argued that the wells were "drilled in violation of the construction agreement, harmed the natural water sources and posed a risk of contamination of the aquifer".

- 'Mickey Mouse forum' -

The peace push of 1993 was meant to secure both Israelis and Palestinians fair access to water from the Jordan river, the Sea of Galilee, and the Mountain and Coastal Aquifers that stretch below the divided land.

But today, Palestinians complain of unequal access to clean water, even as Israel boasts a world-class system with vast underground tunnels and pipes, coastal desalination plants, high-efficiency water usage and wastewater recycling.

Israel, which has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967, now controls its water infrastructure through the national water company Mekorot.

The Israeli firm also supplies 22 percent of water used by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, according to Palestinian data.

Dudin is not allowed to dig for water on his land without permission, under rules that were cemented by the Oslo Accords of the 1990s and follow-up agreements.

His farm lies in the 60 percent of the West Bank that was declared "Area C" and placed under Israeli army control. (Area A is administered by the Palestinians and Area B is under mixed Israeli and Palestinian control.)

Area C residents must seek Israeli permits for any construction, including wells, but in practice these are almost impossible to obtain.

This is despite the establishment of a Joint Water Committee under the Accords.

Palestinian former water negotiator Shaddad Attili ridiculed the committee as a "Mickey Mouse forum" in which, he said, Israel often rejects projects or stalls them for years.

"Whenever we say no to an Israeli project, they implement it anyway, because they do have the power," he charged.

Israel's Water Authority declined to be interviewed and directed AFP to COGAT, which also refused repeated requests to discuss the topic.

- Dusty water pipes -

Rows of date palms and banana plants ring vegetable fields near the West Bank city of Jericho in the verdant Jordan Valley, seen as the Palestinian breadbasket.

Birdsong is interrupted by the occasional roar of Israeli warplanes above in the area from which, as well as from parts of the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces were meant to withdraw under the Oslo Accords.

But in many villages in the Jericho area too, water scarcity is an urgent problem, the result of what residents describe as unfair distribution of resources.

Looking at his dusty water pipes, farmer Diab Attiyyat said his farmland in Israeli-controlled Area C receives water just once a week, pumped from the Al-Auja spring a few kilometres away.

Attiyat harnesses drip irrigation to use the water sparingly.

"The situation is really miserable," said the 42-year-old, who receives support from the UN World Food Programme.

"You live in difficulty and stagnation. Sometimes the Al-Auja spring is operational and sometimes it's cut off."

In Palestinian-controlled Jericho city, part of Area A, there is water aplenty. Springs feed several water parks and palatial villas boast private swimming pools.

But Attili, the former negotiator, said the costs of pumping water to even nearby communities, and the difficulty of obtaining permissions, make it impossible to fairly distribute the water.

Daily water use around Jericho is about 183 litres per person -- more than double the average 86 litres elsewhere in the Palestinian territories excluding annexed east Jerusalem, according to 2021 data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Attiyyat, the farmer, is galled too: "This bothers me, when I see others wasting water."

- 'Not fit for consumption' -

Water scarcity is no problem in the Israeli settlement bloc of Gush Etzion, said its spokesman Josh Hasten.

The Gush Etzion settlements, like other ones across the West Bank, are deemed illegal under international law and have expanded massively since the 1990s.

Excluding east Jerusalem, the occupied territory is now home to around 490,000 Israeli settlers.

Hasten praised the massive investments in seawater desalination, which now supplies 63 percent of Israeli domestic usage, and other "advancements and improvements".

He slammed the Oslo Accords as "a complete disaster in every which way, shape or form" and accused the Palestinian Authority of mismanaging natural resources.

Water scarcity suffered by Palestinians is most acute in Gaza, the crowded and impoverished coastal enclave blockaded by Israel that is home to around 2.3 million people.

Past wars and restrictions on imports of construction materials, spare parts and fuel have devastated much of Gaza's water and sanitation infrastructure, driving a public health crisis.

"Water in Gaza isn't fit for human consumption," said water plant technician Zain al-Abadeen, who blamed high salinity from seawater intrusion into the depleted aquifer.

In some districts, children bring plastic bottles to free drinking water stations run by charities, while wealthier residents pay private companies who deliver water by truck.

Gidon Bromberg of EcoPeace says it is 'madness' that the water issue is still tied to a broader Israeli-Palestinian peace deal

The EU-funded plants now serve some 40 percent of the domestic needs of Gaza's people, according to the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, but Abadeen said their expansion is urgently needed.

Access to safe water is a basic human right and the issue must be decoupled from politics, campaigners argue.

Nada Majdalani, Palestine director of the group EcoPeace, said that, three decades after the Oslo Accords, "there needs to be a holistic mechanism of managing water resources that would meet all needs."

Her Israeli counterpart Gidon Bromberg said it is "madness" that the water issue is still tied to a broader peace deal.

"We need the political will from both governments, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, to recognise that the underlying rationale no longer holds water," he said.



Egypt... An ‘Alternative Sudan’ for those Fleeing War

A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)
A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Egypt... An ‘Alternative Sudan’ for those Fleeing War

A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)
A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)

With the influx of hundreds of thousands of displaced Sudanese into Egypt over the past months due to the ongoing war in their country, Egypt has turned into an “alternative Sudan” that embraces more than 5.5 million regular and irregular refugees.

“We live in an integrated Sudanese society in Egypt,” Musaab Hamdan, 33, told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Hamdan, a cleaning worker at a private company in the Mohandiseen neighborhood, said that the country was a haven for thousands of displaced people fleeing the war.

The Egyptian government estimates the number of Sudanese at about 5 million out of 9 million refugees on its territory, while President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi describes them as “guests of Egypt.”

The large inflow of Sudanese since the outbreak of the war in their country in 2023 has put pressure on the International Commission for Refugees in Cairo and Alexandria, where about 3,000 refugee applications are received daily. This has increased the number of Sudanese registered with the Commission to 300,000 persons, which represents 52 percent of the total number of refugees registered in Egypt with UNHCR until April.

The Sudanese features and traditional attire are distinctive on the streets of Cairo and Giza, where Sudanese vendors and citizens are now seen practicing business activities that were limited to Egyptians for decades, including driving taxis and small buses in popular neighborhoods. Hamdan said that this reflects the rapid integration of newcomers into everyday life in Egypt.

Mohamed Abdel Majeed, a taxi driver in Giza, speaks the Egyptian dialect so fluently that many locals do not realize he is from Sudan.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat that he has adapted to driving on Cairo’s streets and now knows the names and locations of stations by heart.

Alternative haven

Social networking sites are monitoring this heavy Sudanese presence in Egypt, as some videos have focused on the idea of an “alternative Sudan in the country.”

Among them was a comment made by a Sudanese influencer who joked about the heavy presence of his countrymen in the Faisal neighborhood in Giza, saying: “If you are Sudanese living abroad and want to see your family and your country. All you have to do is go to Giza, Egypt.”

Tens of thousands of Sudanese fleeing the war in Sudan consider Egypt the “best haven.” Fatima Hassan feared that her daughters would be “raped by armed militias in Sudan,” and decided to enter Egypt irregularly, she told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Extreme heat and thirst exhausted Fatima and her three daughters during a long trip, before she succeeded in reaching Giza to join her sister who had preceded her there several months ago.

Last month, the authorities announced that they have prevented the illegal entry of buses carrying displaced Sudanese. However, Abdullah Qouni - who has lived in the Maadi neighborhood in Cairo for 15 years and helps many newly displaced to find housing or a job opportunity - told Asharq Al-Awsat that around 11 buses from Aswan enter Egypt daily. He added that each irregular migrant pays about $500 to smugglers in exchange for the trip.

Education

One of the most important features of “Alternative Sudan” is the sight of dark-skinned students on their way to dedicated schools. Their number has increased steadily in recent months, forcing the Egyptian authorities to close some of them in order to “legalize the situation.”

Sami Al-Baqir, spokesman for the Sudanese Teachers Syndicate, estimates the number of Sudanese schools in Egypt at about 300 basic and intermediate schools.

The Sudanese embassy in Cairo, which moved its headquarters years ago from Garden City to the Dokki neighborhood, thanked the Egyptian government for its cooperation in making the Sudanese primary certificate exams a success in June, through six educational centers affiliated with the embassy. ​​

On the academic level, Ayman Ashour, the Egyptian Minister of Higher Education, estimated the number of Sudanese students who enrolled in Egyptian universities last year at more than 10,000.

Egyptian sensitivities

With the Sudanese “jilbab” dominating Egyptian streets and neighborhoods, and videos of large Sudanese gatherings in Cairo being circulated on social media, in addition to reports about the expulsion of Egyptian tenants to house displaced Sudanese, concerns have mounted over their presence in the country.

Moreover, news have emerged about some Sudanese families performing circumcision on their daughters in Egypt, prompting activists to call on Egyptian authorities to enforce the law that criminalizes female circumcision.

Egyptian media professionals joined in criticizing the Sudanese presence. Qaswa Al-Khalali expressed “concern” about the presence of refugee clusters in popular areas, considering this matter “extremely dangerous.” Meanwhile, journalist Azza Mostafa warned of “some refugees taking control of entire areas in Cairo,” pointing to bad consequences on Egypt.

Egyptian parliamentarians responded to calls to legalize the status of refugees, including Siham Mostafa, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee in the House of Representatives. In television statements, she said: “Egypt hosts millions of foreigners and provides them with services at the same prices provided to citizens without any increase, despite the current economic crisis.”

Reducing burdens

Due to the economic crisis, Egypt has called on the international community to support it in “bearing the burdens of refugees.”

Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said, after his meeting with the Director-General of the International Organization for Migration, Amy Pope, that the support Egypt receives from the international community was not commensurate with the burdens it bears, especially as the Egyptian economy suffers from the consequences of global crises.

The Egyptian government recently launched a process to count the numbers of refugees residing on its territory, with the aim of calculating the cost of hosting them and determining the financial burdens.

In a statement issued in April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Egypt requested $175.1 million to meet the most urgent needs of Sudanese refugees who have fled to Egypt since mid-April 2023.