UP EXPERT OPINION: International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women: Breathe Palestine Breathe. We will bring you water.

Posted on November 27, 2023

Did you know that Palestinians are prohibited from collecting rainwater? Rainwater is the ‘property’ of Israel. Let me repeat. Palestinians are forbidden from collecting rainwater for domestic use or agricultural needs. This is according to a UN report published in 2011.

This is systemic violence on an occupied people. And it did not start on 7 October 2023. Water has been used as a weapon to subdue Palestinian resistance during many stages of their struggle. The people of Gaza have witnessed various instances where water is employed as a weapon of war.

Direct impact involves the deliberate use of water and attacks on water infrastructure as tools of warfare. Indirect impact refers to military operations that harm the environment, such as poisoning water sources or contaminating soil. Gaza stands as the most egregious illustration of water-related collective punishment to date. In addition to the deliberate targeting of the water supply during conflicts, aerial attacks often destroy electric generators essential for water purification. The ongoing siege presents a significant obstacle to the permanent repair of these critical infrastructure components, leaving little hope for improvement in the foreseeable future.

On this 25th day of November 2023, we observe the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. It is fitting that we reflect on the various forms in which violence manifests against women and children. In the first seven days of the Gaza genocide, approximately one million Gazans had been displaced. United Nations officials issued a dire warning as Israel’s withholding of essential supplies from Gazans put millions at risk of dehydration and waterborne diseases in an intensifying water crisis.

The right to water, recognised as derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, is severely compromised in occupied Palestine. According to Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, the UN's special rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, deliberately withholding the essential conditions for sustaining life from the civilian population with the intent of causing their destruction is considered an act of extermination and a crime against humanity under international law. Arrojo-Agudo emphasised that the ongoing water and sanitation emergency is disproportionately affecting children, particularly those under the age of five, and women, intensifying their suffering.

Systematic destruction of wells, storage tanks and irrigation systems

Military Order 158, passed in 1967 by the Israeli government, restricts water-related activities for Palestinians. Palestinians require permits that are nearly impossible to obtain. Despite the UN’s formal recognition of the human right to water in 2010 and international humanitarian laws prohibiting the use of water as a weapon of war, Israeli authorities have wielded complete control over water resources and infrastructure, systematically destroying wells, storage tanks and irrigation systems in Occupied Palestine. Gazans have been reliant on contaminated groundwater, posing severe health risks. Rainwater harvesting, a crucial alternative, is prohibited and thwarted when attempted, as Israeli forces frequently destroy cisterns owned by Palestinian communities. Approximately 180 Palestinian villages in rural Occupied Palestine have no access to running water, exacerbating gender disparities and contributing to educational setbacks, economic decline, and increased conflict.

Women and girls disproportionately bear the brunt of water-related tasks and suffer the adverse effects on nutrition and health. Additionally, the water consumption gap between Israelis and Palestinians is staggering, with Israelis using at least four times more water per capita. Palestinians struggle with daily consumption below the World Health Organisation’s recommended minimum, while the average Israeli consumes approximately 300 liters per day. Villages in Palestinian rural areas report decreasing water supply due to nearby Israeli settlements' wells depleting aquifers, exacerbating the burden on rural Palestinian women.

Citizens the world over have demonstrated disbelief at the weaponising of water in this genocide. Women, children, and newborns in Gaza bear a disproportionate burden in the ongoing conflict, facing both casualties and reduced access to essential healthcare services with little access to water. With an estimated 50 000 pregnant women in Gaza, over 180 women a day are forced to give birth in inhumane, degrading and dangerous conditions. The widespread bombardment, mass displacement, crumbling water and electricity supplies, and restricted access to food and medicines severely disrupt maternal, newborn and child healthcare.

The role of water in fostering peace

Furthermore, the persistent assault by Israel on the reproductive rights of Palestinian women and their newborns is a deeply concerning and relentless aspect of the crisis. According to Reem Alsalem, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, this reproductive violence could be considered a violation of the human right to life and acts of genocide, warranting prevention and punishment by states in accordance with international conventions. Israeli forces allegedly killed  Abdul Rahman Maher Herzallah in November 2023 when he tried to get water for his family. He was only 20 years old.  His cousin Tala said they were too scared to get his body because they didn’t want to be shot.

The critical importance of fresh water for human life, health, economies, and ecosystems is well-established. Water can be a powerful tool for peace. Water plays a pivotal role in fostering peace, as it facilitates trust-building across various levels and scales. It acts as a conduit for dialogue even amid conflict, dissolving tensions and paving the way for prosperity. Across cultures, water is often symbolised as a source of healing and energy. In cultural, religious, and spiritual contexts, water signifies a connection with creation, community, and self. In natural settings, water embodies notions of peace, harmony, and preservation.  In the search for peace and life, I am reminded of Arundathi Roy’s words. Water is life. But life for who? Roy reminds us, “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it… We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Breathe Palestine, breathe. We will bring you water.

Dr Quraysha Ismail Sooliman is a National Institute of the Humanities and Social Sciences postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria.

This article first appeared in news24 on 25 November 2023.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Pretoria.

- Author Dr Quraysha Ismail Sooliman

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