Salim Abu al-Qi’an’s family live in Israel’s Negev desert in the “unrecognized” Bedouin village of Umm al-Hieran, 9km from the nearest source of clean water.
“There is no water in the village. We truck it in. It costs about 50 shekels [US$13.4] per cubic metre of water,” explained the 53-year-old village leader. “There is a pipe that’s about 8km long, but it’s too old, and the planning authorities don’t allow us to put a new one under the ground. We are asking for better access to water, a new pipe that should be close to the village.”
The Israeli authorities forced Umm al-Hieran residents to move to the area where the village now sits in 1956, shortly after the military had evicted them from their original homes in the Wadi Zuballa area of the Negev desert.
In 2004, the villagers faced a new threat of expulsion, as the Southern District Planning Committee unveiled a master plan which involves once again displacing Umm al-Hieran, and building the Jewish community of Hiran in its place. According to the Israeli government, the 500 residents of Umm al-Hieran are trespassers who are illegally squatting on state land.
Some 80-90,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel live in unrecognized villages in the southern Negev, according to a report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. As a result of their unrecognized status, nearly every structure in these communities can be demolished at any time, and residents do not receive basic services from the state, including electricity, paved roads, healthcare facilities, schools, and water.
In June 2011, however, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the right to water was a constitutional right, and that the state must guarantee a “minimum access to water” for the residents of the unrecognized villages. Still, the court did not specify what constituted a fair minimum.
Shortly thereafter, a Haifa court, acting as a water tribunal, rejected Umm al-Hieran’s application to be connected to the local water network. The court argued that the villagers had minimum access to water, and suggested they buy water from private citizens in towns connected to the water network, or move into nearby government-planned Bedouin townships.
According to Sawsan Zaher, an attorney at Adalah, the Legal Center from Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which has represented al-Qi’an’s family and the residents of Umm al-Hieran in their legal struggle, the water tribunal’s decision means that “a constitutional right, which is the right to water as part of the right to a minimal standard of living, [will] be provided by private actors and not by the state. This is in contradiction to constitutional law. The duty is on the state to fulfil this right and protect it even.”
Adalah has filed an appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court, asking that “minimum access to water” be explicitly defined, and challenging the constitutionality of forcing Umm al-Hieran residents to purchase water from non-state actors.
“Despite the fact that they are citizens, they are not entitled to the same level of rights as other citizens of Israel. Why? Because they are living in unrecognized villages,” Zaher told IRIN.
“We want you to move out”
“The purpose is not hidden any more. It is revealed and it’s very official: we are not connecting you to water because we want you to move out. This is the policy. It’s a kind of punishment. This is in huge contradiction with human rights and logic and humanity - to come and punish people by not giving them water for political purposes,” Zaher said.
In a 9 March report, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination raised concerns about Bedouin communities in Israel, particularly with regard to Bedouin home demolitions, and inequalities between Bedouin and Jewish citizens’ access to land, housing, education, employment and public health.
Israel’s proposed Law for the Regulation of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, which would forcibly displace 30,000-60,000 of the 80,000-90,000 Bedouins living in unrecognized villages, should be shelved, the UN Committee found, since it legalizes “the ongoing policy of home demolitions and forced displacement of the indigenous Bedouin communities”.
According to Salim Abu al-Qi'an, forcibly displacing residents of Umm al-Hieran to the nearby government-planned Bedouin township of Hura is indeed the motivation behind denying them direct access to high-quality water.
“They want to push us to leave the village and to displace us,” he told IRIN. “Even though we are an unrecognized village, this is nicer than to live in Hura. There are no services there. Sewage and garbage is in the street. There’s not enough space. It’s another refugee camp.”