By Charlie Hoyle

MASAFER YATTA (Ma’an) — “Life is hard, but I won’t leave the village,” Zahira al-Jundi says.

Despite winter rainfall which has painted green patches on the rolling south Hebron hills, the 145 residents of Tuba face a daily struggle to access the most basic levels of water needed to survive.

Like 70 percent of Palestinian communities in Area C, Tuba is not connected to the water network.

The weekly sight of a water tanker negotiating the rocky sand-colored terrain to reach the village is a welcome relief for residents, but only a temporary measure to ease the humanitarian impact of an acute water shortage.

Located in 30,000 dunams of land designated by Israel as a closed military area, or Firing Zone 918, Israel’s Civil Administration forbids all construction in Tuba. Villagers live in caves and tents and depend entirely on cisterns and tankered water to meet their daily needs.

“These communities live in conditions similar to that of a post-disaster situation, such as an earthquake or tsunami,” Advocacy Task Force Officer for EWASH, Alex Abu Ata, tells Ma’an.

“People affected by natural disasters are forced to live in tents and have little access to water or food. They basically only have what is provided to them through aid.”

International NGOs implement humanitarian projects in the south Hebron hills but cannot obtain authorization from Israel to build long-term water infrastructure.

“They can only really delay the problem, without ever solving it,” Abu Ata says

Between 2009 and 2011, Israel’s military destroyed 173 water, sanitation and hygiene structures in the West Bank including 40 wells, 57 rainwater collection cisterns and at least 20 toilets and sinks, OCHA says.

In 2012, dozens of international aid agencies issued a collective call for Israel to halt the “continuous targeted destruction” of cisterns in Area C, labeling the demolitions a “clear breach” of international humanitarian law.

“If communities in Area C were allowed to develop real infrastructure they would have water by now, like all nearby Israeli settlements,” Abu Ata says.

The Israeli water company Mekorot has built pipelines in the south Hebron hills to service settlements, outposts and agricultural industries but Palestinian villages, with the exception of al-Tuwani, have not been allowed to connect to the network.

“Israel’s policy in the West Bank is to exercise pressure on communities in Area C to force them to leave. Demolishing water infrastructure is one of the means, as is harassment, and Israel pressures vulnerable communities, the poorest communities, in an effort to displace them,” Abu Ata says.

The discrepancy in water consumption between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank is vast. EWASH estimates that around 9,400 Israeli settlers in the Jordan Valley enjoy water allocation equal to almost a third of the consumption of the entire population of 2.5 million Palestinians.

Israelis, including settlers, have access to 300 liters of water per day, according to EWASH, while the West Bank average is around 70 liters, below the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum of 100 liters per day for basic sanitation, hygiene and drinking.

In the south Hebron hills, average water consumption varies between 10-60 liters per day, similar to consumption levels in sub-Saharan Africa or Haiti.

Around 10 kilometers southwest of Tuba, the village of Imneizil faces similar challenges accessing enough water to survive.

Several of the 14 water cisterns built by international NGOs have received demolition orders, and the village school received a stop-work order in January 2012.

Solar panels which provide electricity to run the pumps of the water cisterns have demolition orders pending and a sanitation unit for boys received a stop-work order in 2012, placing pressure on the 500-member community.

“Our work is very limited, and we do it in low visibility because otherwise we won’t get permission from Israel,” Palestinian water engineer Fadi Shamisti tells Ma’an.

The nearest filling point for water in Imneizil is over 12 kilometers away, Shamisti says, meaning that if the village’s water cisterns were demolished, residents would face a huge physical and financial burden to access enough water for their community and livestock.

“Water is an essential commodity for people, and water therefore becomes a pressure tool to evacuate the area of people, as high prices create economic difficulties,” Shamisti says.

With tankered water costing from between $8 to $12 per cubic meter, and rainwater collected over winter rarely lasting more than a few months, the community would have little choice but to relocate if demolition orders on water infrastructure were carried out.

“The solution is simple,” Shamisti says. “An Israeli settlement lies only one kilometer from both the communities of Tuba and Imneizil, yet they are unable to connect to the water network.”

Fadwa Baroud, an information officer with the European Commission, told Ma’an that Area C communities were at risk of “forced displacement” due to the difficulty of obtaining permits from Israel for the development of water facilities.

But with international aid projects facing demolition and Israel’s water policy in Area C clearly designed to exclude Palestinian communities, villagers are well aware of their vulnerability.

“Whatever they try to do, we will stay here. This is our land,” Tuba resident Ibrahim al-Jundi says. “This is the place we were raised, we have no other place to go.”