Troubling Waters

Gideon Levy

The children of the Palestinian village of Carmel spend their summer holiday swimming in the stagnant water of the local reservoir, while their mothers waste hours a day waiting to fill buckets with muddy water from the nearby spring.


HA'ARETZ

7 July 2000

   Our hearts skip a beat: The sight is hallucinatory. The children stand atop the walls, at least 10 meters high, which surround the terrifying reservoir, and leap out into space. The bottom seems to be covered with grass. Only when the children land on the green carpet does it become apparent that this is not a lawn, but water, covered with a thick layer of green scum. When they rise from the depths, black bubbles surround their ascending heads, and their bodies are covered with a layer of green slime. Seen from above, the sight of their dark heads poking through the green is very strange.

The risky jump, the stench, the filthy water - this is summer camp for the children of Carmel, an ancient Palestinian village in the Hebron hills. Carmel also has, of course, totally different connotations: Carmel, California, the picture-book town on Route No. 1, with Clint Eastwood in the role of mayor, California's first dairy and the meadows lining the River Carmel. The near-mythological summer schools in England's Carmel College, which the children of Israel's wealthy used to frequent. Haifa's Carmel neighborhood, with its panoramic view of the bay. The prophet Jeremiah's land of Carmel, full of vineyards and fruitful fields, and Carmel, the nearby settlement, with its red-roofed houses.

It is a far cry from these images to the Palestinian Carmel. Dusty dirt tracks, ancient ruins, humble dwellings, wells bolted and locked, and a scorching heat brooding over everything. When was the last time water flowed through the village pipes? Some 22 months ago. No water in the faucets for 22 months, in this desert heat. It is not surprising that the only refuge available to the children is the reservoir on the outskirts of the village, excavated by the Romans and repaired by the Turks and the British and the Palestinians.

And what choice do their mothers have, apart from waiting hopelessly, hour upon hour, by the spring in the rocks on the hillside, from which a miserly drip of water escapes to slowly fill the buckets? There are two ways of getting water in Carmel: The more affluent order containers of water pulled by tractors for NIS 100 each, and the poor send their wives and children on their donkeys to fetch water from the spring, which is now almost completely dry.

Another hot Palestinian summer is upon us, dry and burning hot. Expensive, stagnant water is carefully measured out, while at the surrounding Jewish settlements, there is no shortage, and they sometimes even sell their excess water to the thirsty, jealous Palestinians for outrageous prices.

"A journalist? Jewish? Perhaps you can ask our neighbors at Maon to give us a little water?" the head of Carmel's village council ingenuously asked this week. Carmel is linked to the water pipeline, but no water has flowed through its pipes for ages.

Apart from Carmel, there are 150 other villages, with a total of 215,000 inhabitants, which are not even connected to the water pipeline, according to a new report on the water shortage in the Palestinian territories by the human rights group B'Tselem. The cities in the West Bank have no water either: The El-Ahali Hospital in Hebron has water on tap one day a week, and the same situation exists in a combined institute for stricken children and nursing home for elderly women. We visited both this week.

The more courageous kids jump from the heights of the reservoir walls in what looks to the observer like a suicidal leap; their more cautious friends descend the long iron ladder that leads down into the green water. Whoever said that Palestinian children don't have a swimming pool? The beginning swimmers have floats - empty plastic jerrycans - fastened around their waists. The wire fence that the Yatta city council put up around the edge of the reservoir to prevent suicidal leaps has long since been destroyed. Its remnants provide hangers for the threadbare rags of the children playing in the filthy water. A glance at the row of soiled, torn pants is sufficient to assess the precise socio-economic background of the members of the Carmel village swimming club.Every few years a child dies here, either by drowning or jumping. In the village they recall that one boy from the Al-Fawwar refugee camp drowned here in 1980; a kid from Yatta met the same fate in 1978. A Jordanian child was killed here a few years ago. Only their own children have never been hurt here, they say; the kids from Carmel really know how to swim.

They have never heard of the possibility that the children might get sick from the water. Nevertheless, they say, the upper-class children of Carmel don't bathe in those waters, only kids from families whose parents are unable to stop their neglected children. Bits of garbage rise above the green scum of the surface. In winter, the waterline is much higher; in another two or three months not a single drop of the filthy liquid will remain.

When the kids come out of the water, their bodies are covered with green scum and they carry the stench of the water. The heat is overpowering and they rush to return to the water, whether by leaping into it or descending the ladder. Three women and a mule take shelter from the sun in the shade of a concrete shelter erected not far from the reservoir. A sign set up by the Yatta Council among the white rocks that surround the site announces that the United States government is financing the renovation of the Carmel springs. It is not clear whether the renovation has been completed or the announcement is an indication of things to come.

The Carmel springs are three crevices in the hillside, surrounded by mud and an overpowering stench. The water flows - or rather drips with difficulty - from the crevices. A plastic pipe, apparently financed by the U.S., is supposed to lead the water to the shaded collection point, where the women and their mule are waiting. A small bucket takes an hour to an hour and a half, to fill. They pour the water in using a funnel so as not to lose a single drop. The women, Mahmara and Abu Aram, are from the Debabasa family; they say that they come here every day. If you come at night, you can avoid the long queue of the early morning. Sometimes there are fights over places in the queue. There is no better way to understand the overwhelming thirst for water in the territories than to watch these women spending all their days under the burning sun for a bucket of water.

Jaber Debabasa arrives on his donkey. He is a pleasant 13 year-old, with 13 brothers and sisters at home; his school report card gave him an average grade of 75. His mother sends him here whenever there is no more water at home, which is roughly every one or two days. Now he is the third in line, and he will wait until evening to fill his four colorful containers harnessed to his donkey. When he grows up, he says, he wants to be a policeman and protect the motherland.

Ali Debabasa is the village elder and Muhammed Jaber, the mayor. They sit on the floor of the house owned by the brothers Muhammed and Ibrahim Debabasa and complain about the water shortage. Carmel has 3,500 inhabitants - shepherds, farmers and laborers who work in Israel. The springs were what led people to come together in the ancient village in the first place, hundreds of years ago, and now there is no water. Instead of water, they offer orange-colored Miranda, without ice.The residents buy water from Kiryat Arba and the Etzion Bloc. Or rather, those who can afford it do so. If you order today, you will receive the water in 10 days' time. Large tankers cannot navigate the alleys in the village, so the water is brought in by tractor. Last year the Debabasa family bought 65 containers of water at NIS 100-160 per container, depending upon the season and the level of demand. Almost NIS 10,000 per annum. For one family. In poverty-stricken Carmel. Mayor Jaber also has a flock of 100 head of sheep and goats, so his expenditure on water is even greater.

Ali, an old man dressed in a woolen galabiya, kaffiyeh and a well-kept beard, longingly recalls how once the shepherds from all the villages in the area used to come to the reservoir and quench the thirst of their flocks. Even from Jordan. Those were the years of snow and rains, and water was plentiful. Ali recalls a shepherd from Karak in Jordan, at the time of the British mandate. The shepherd drowned in the reservoir, and the divers from Yatta lifted his body from the bottom and brought it to lie in the house of Ali until the English would come and approve the funeral. The English came, the shepherd was buried on Ali's land, and he remembers the family that came from Karak to lament over the grave. To this day, the grave is known as the "grave of drowned Hamad."

The water in the bucket used to wash the floors in the El-Ahali Hospital in Hebron is as black as that in the reservoir. This is one of the cleanest and most modern hospitals on the West Bank, with 320 employees, 39 doctors, 120 beds and not a few operating theaters and wards - which have been completed but lack money for equipment. The cleaners are instructed to save as much water as possible. But Dr. Jihad Badr, director of the hospital, claims that the patients do not notice the water scarcity in his hospital, although only once a week - once every seven days - do they have running water. For the rest of the week, they use water delivered by tanker - four tankers a day to meet a daily consumption of 30 cubic meters. This costs the hospital money, a lot of money; it cannot open the only burns unit in the West Bank, whose construction was completed over a year ago, because of lack of funds to purchase essential equipment.

The water for the hospital arrives in tankers, is channeled into temporary reservoirs in the yard, raised by an electric pump to the roof, and from there to the hospital faucets. Every so often, they check the quality of the water and Badr, who has worked for 40 years as a doctor in Jordan and Great Britain, says that the quality is reasonable.

The ladder leading down to the bottom of one of the reservoirs is rusty. The hospital's chief of maintenance, Omar Farouk, checks the amount of water according to the number of rusty rungs covered. On Sunday there were only two rungs under water, and the old tankers edged up the hill to bring more and more water. Just recently they set up a system of drip irrigation to bring moisture to the few plants decorating the hospital entrance, but now they have stopped operating it.

The children with cerebral palsy in the El-Ichsun Charitable Trust Rehabilitation Center, located in a private house in a prosperous quarter of Hebron, used to be washed twice a day. Some 110 unfortunates are hospitalized in this institution, children who are paralyzed, mentally handicapped, epileptic. There are also bedridden elderly women. The water doesn't reach here any more, either, and the young team that runs the well-equipped institution has to order at least two tankers every day. They also try not to affect the welfare of their patients, but their options are limited. So it goes, every year from April through December. Eight long months of water discipline for paralyzed children. The institute's PR expert recently completed her master's thesis at a Swedish research institute. Her subject was "Ways of solving the water problem between Israelis and Palestinians.
 
 

 

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