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Israel’s water war with Palestine

We had come to the Jordan River—the one from the spirituals, which our souls yearn to cross. The same one, in name at least, that forms the boundary between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the occupied West Bank. If you believe the old stories, it was across the Jordan’s waters that Joshua led the Israelites from Egyptian exile into the land of Canaan, and it was into the Jordan that John the Baptist submerged the son of God. In 1848, when Lieutenant William Francis Lynch of the United States Navy explored the length of the lower Jordan from Lake Tiberias to the Dead Sea, he described a river between twenty-five and one hundred eighty yards wide, “serpentine” and “impetuous,” its banks thick with thistle, cane, and tamarisk. Between a “desperate looking cascade” and a “fearful cataract,” the Jordan “flowed broad and deep, yet maintaining much of the character of a torrent.”

But late this March, when I stood on a hill a mile or two from its banks, I couldn’t see the river. I had hitched a ride with a group of Israeli human rights workers on a tour of the Jordan Valley, riding through lush settler-owned groves of oranges and bananas until the driver stopped on a dirt road and we all got out and climbed the hill to get a glimpse of the river. On the way we ran into four young Palestinian men who were driving their cattle along the road—Israeli soldiers, they said, had just confiscated several of their cows to punish the men for unauthorized grazing. From the top of the slope, the view was beautiful. The light was low and soft. To the right were fallow fields sprayed with yellow wildflowers and to our left small Palestinian plots of peppers and cucumbers and beyond them in the distance a chain of date plantations and nurseries behind barbed wire. Just below us, beyond the fence and the signs warning of the minefields behind it, I could make out individual houses in Jordan, on the other side of the river. But I could not spot the river itself.

To be honest, there is no Jordan River. There hasn’t been one since the mid-1960s, when Israel diverted the waters of Lake Tiberias into the National Water Carrier and thence to the coast and, famously, to the southern desert, that it might bloom. In the rush to control the region’s water resources, the Jordanians diverted the Yarmouk, which flows into the Jordan. The slender trickle that carries the name is composed largely of agricultural runoff and untreated sewage. What once was water, holy water, is now toxic sludge.

We tend to understand the persistence of violence in the region between the Mediterranean and what remains of the Jordan as the result of a dispute over land—an arcane real estate feud that extends even to the realm of names, so that once you have referred to those roughly 10,000 square miles of rock and dirt as “Palestine” or “Israel,” you have already taken sides. In mythology and propaganda, it is the terrestrial that gets the attention. Think holy land, promised land, land of milk and honey. Land is easy to see, easy to chart, easy to feel beneath your feet. It is not, of course, permanent, but it shares with old books and new myths the convincing illusion of fixity.

But the conflict there has also, since the beginning, been fought over water, a substance much harder to contain than soil. Water evaporates, shifts course, seeps invisibly underground. Like blood, it makes a poor foundation for a state, a people, or any such metaphysical entity. So let land be all that’s stable, or all that pretends to be. And let water be the ever-shifting truth of things, flowing through them and between them, sometimes hidden, sometimes not.

The early Zionists and founders of the Jewish state knew they needed water, but were confident they could coerce it into flowing where they wished. Theodor Herzl, for instance, understood as early as 1902 that the promised land would be a hard sell without a little more green in the landscape, and suggested that a canal be dug from the Nile to the Sinai. And when the Zionist Organization proposed a Jewish homeland stretching almost to Amman, Beirut, and Damascus, the motivation was not merely biblical but hydrostrategic. “The economic life of Palestine,” Chaim Weizmann told the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, “depends on the available water supply. It is, therefore, of vital importance not only to secure all water resources already feeding the country, but also to be able to conserve and control them at their sources.”

But the ideology on which the Jewish state was founded would give water a far greater value than even Weizmann imagined. Nationhood, the Zionists hoped, would not only provide Jews with a refuge from anti-Semitism. Physical contact with the land would forge a new identity—a “muscular Judaism,” in the words of Zionist leader Max Nordau—rescuing Jews from the cosmopolitan decadence of diasporic culture. Through purifying agricultural toil, Jews would at once redeem the land and be redeemed by it. Indeed, many of the largely European-born Zionists, unaccustomed to the Mediterranean climate, saw Palestine’s apparent aridity as a spiritual affront.* “The desert is a reproach to mankind,” wrote David Ben-Gurion in his memoirs. “It is criminal waste.”

But while subsidizing farmers to grow citrus in the Negev made for handsome brochures, every orange shipped to Europe was essentially a ball of sweetened water that no Israeli or Palestinian would ever sip.By the 1970s, Israel was devoting more than three quarters of its freshwater—much of it drawn from the West Bank aquifers—to irrigation, even as agriculture accounted for around 6 percent of its GDP. Despite some reduction of water subsidies and the use of sophisticated irrigation technology, the disproportion remains undeniable: agriculture currently accounts for less than 3 percent of Israel’s GDP but reportedly half its water use. A 2002 Knesset inquiry determined that what had by then stabilized into Israel’s ongoing water crisis was “primarily man-made” and not caused only by climactic or environmental factors. But the quantity of water available for farmers, the report advised, should not be significantly restricted because “agriculture has a Zionist-­strategic-political value, which goes beyond its economic contribution.” The 1948 war left the new state of Israel uncomfortably dry, without control of Lake Tiberias, the lower Jordan, the rich aquifers beneath the West Bank, or the Litani River. You wouldn’t know it from the overwhelmingly terrestrial rhetoric, but the first two decades of Israeli statehood would be, in the words of water-policy scholar Mark Zeitoun, “a hydraulic-driven nation-building exercise.”

By 1951, Israel had drafted a Seven-Year Plan for water development. Its first phase, the draining of Lake Huleh and the diversion of its waters, led to military clashes with Syria. The second phase—the construction of what would ultimately become the National Water Carrier, which would channel water from Lake Tiberias to the coastal plain and the Negev—was delayed by years of U.S.-led international bartering. Negotiations collapsed in 1955, and in 1960 Israel’s neighbors announced plans to divert the headwaters of the Jordan before they reached Lake Tiberias. Between 1964 and 1966, repeated skirmishes at Israeli and Syrian construction sites led to artillery exchanges and air assaults by the Israelis. The symbolic import of the National Water Carrier was such that the young Yasir Arafat’s Fatah movement chose it as the target of the group’s first military action, in January 1965.

Then came the Six-Day War of 1967. Though the conflict had many causes, water was prominent among them. “In reality,” Ariel Sharon later recalled, “the Six-Day War started two and a half years earlier on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan. . . . [T]he matter of water diversion was a stark issue of life and death.” Israeli troops occupied Jerusalem, the Sinai, Gaza—and of far greater hydrological importance—the West Bank and the Golan Heights. With the West Bank, Israel won the Jordan itself and the three massive groundwater basins—Western, Eastern, and Northeastern—collectively known as the Mountain Aquifer. With the Golan Heights, it gained control over Lake Tiberias and the Jordan’s headwaters. Palestinians were immediately forbidden access to the river. Two months later, Israel issued a military order granting the army authority over all “water issues” in the West Bank. Another order three months later prohibited the construction of any new “water installation” without a permit issued by the Israel Defense Forces. For the next forty-four years, not a single new Palestinian well would be dug in the Western Aquifer, 85 percent of which lies within the boundaries of the West Bank.

Rabbi Jonathan Blass did not want to call the spring a spring. It was, he conceded, “a tiny drip, if you want.” Blass is an amiable man in his sixties with a gray beard and quick, dancing eyes, but questions about the spring just beneath the settlement of Halamish darkened his mood. Down the hill, beyond the fences and the coiled concertina wire, he explained, “there’s a cliff made out of chalk and it drips down into a sort of swampy pool.”

His wife, Shifra, the settlement’s unofficial spokesperson, leaned in from the other side of the coffee table. “And it clearly, according to the maps, belongs to no one,” she said.

The rabbi opened and closed his fingers to mimic a slow trickle of falling water. “It’s just: Drip. Drip. Drip.”

I had arrived in Halamish two hours earlier. More accurately, I had arrived at the gate outside the settlement, where I spent an hour and a half at the guardhouse nagging a polite young man with an assault rifle to let me in, until another man, who introduced himself as Yogi—a round, balding fellow from St. Louis who wore a blue yarmulke and a .45 tucked into his belt—arrived in a Chevy Malibu and escorted me to the Blasses’ door. The rabbi and his wife are also American. Shifra, a small but intense woman whose floppy hat, rough skirt, and green wool jacket still bore a trace of the homespun settler aesthetic, explained that they had emigrated to Israel in the early 1970s, wishing to live, she said, “where Jews ought to live.”

On their honeymoon, the young Blasses toured the recently conquered West Bank. “One of the things that impressed us was how empty it was,” said the rabbi, gesturing out the window toward the rocky terraced hills rolling off into the haze. “It’s like you see now,” he said, “plenty of empty space.”

“There were no people there,” echoed Shifra. “It just seemed right.”

The couple joined Gush Emunim, the messianic nationalist movement founded in the wake of the 1973 war. Their goal, Shifra said, was “to settle the heart of Israel and rescue it from desolation.” The Blasses were among the founders of Ofra, the first of Gush Emunim’s successful settlement efforts.The establishment of Ofra inaugurated an era of winking cooperation between fundamentalist settlers and the state. “Shimon Peres gave us permission” to stay in Ofra, Shifra Blass recalled with a smile. “He said, ‘I’m very upset that you did this,’ and everyone’s face fell.” But Peres didn’t say another word, and the settlement remained. After twelve years, they moved to Halamish, a tidy cluster of red-roofed stucco homes perched on a hilltop about ten miles northwest of Ramallah. At the time, about 550 settlers lived there. According to Rabbi Blass, the population has since more than tripled. The streets are smoothly paved and bright with flowers. If you can ignore the barbed-wire fencing, it doesn’t look much different from any gated Southern California subdivision.

To the settlers, at least, the spring at the bottom of the hill was just another lovely spot. In the summer of 2008, a group of teens from Halamish dug out a pool beneath the spring. They lined the pool with plaster and brought goldfish to swim in it. They built a shelter with a roof of palm fronds and a wooden bench, and they posted a sign dedicating the spring to Meir Segal, one of founders of the community, who had recently passed away. “Kids like a place where they can get away from their parents,” Shifra explained.

Everything was fine, she said, until “the Arabs came and burned the bench. Why would they do that?”

“They did something else as well,” said the rabbi. “They blocked the road to Tel Aviv with burning tires. That’s a life-threatening thing.”

Every Friday for the past two years, a group of Palestinians from the neighboring village of Nabi Saleh have protested by marching toward the spring, whose water they have relied upon for generations. And every Friday, the army beats them back with tear gas, rubber bullets, and, occasionally, live ammunition. It was a shame, said Shifra Blass. “It’s just a plain bench with a little bit of shade and a little bit of water. Anybody should be able to open a bottle of Coke and sit down there.” But I should check it out myself, she told me.

So I did. On my way out of Halamish, I asked the driver I had hired to stop. He was a middle-aged Palestinian from Jerusalem who had done his best to hide his anxiety while we waited outside Halamish, but who had told me more than once that settlers kill Palestinians with impunity. He parked on the dirt road that led to the spring, got out, and gazed at the empty fields around us, at the hills above them, and at the rooftops of Halamish. “Very pretty,” he said. “Anyone can shoot you from anywhere and you wouldn’t see them.”

I walked up past the palm-frond shelter and the hand-painted sign in Hebrew dedicating the spring to Meir Segal, “lover of the Land of Israel, who fought for its well-being and clung to its soil.” Beyond was a low stone bluff. Clear water seeped from the cracks in its face and trickled down into a few shallow pools. Above the cliff was an old, crumbling stone wall: this spring had been in use for a very long time.

A frog splashed into the water, frightened by my approach. I didn’t hear the settlers coming up behind me. There were two of them. A couple. A young man in a tight black T-shirt and wraparound shades. A striking young woman in baggy overalls over a skimpy tank top, a scarf wrapped loosely around her head. The boy adjusted the pistol in the waistband of his jeans. He asked who I was and what I was doing. I told him that the rabbi’s wife had sent me there. He paused a moment, perhaps deciding if he should believe me, or if he should continue playing tough. They stepped around me and on down the path, stopping at each pool as if inspecting for evidence of sabotage.

Out of pride, I lingered longer than I would have, longer than consideration for my driver should have allowed. I watched the wind bend the high grass in the field beside the spring and listened to the thrum of insects and the soft gurgling of the water. The young settlers walked off, hand in hand now, around a bend and out of sight.

I met Bassem Tamimi, who was among the main organizers of the protest movement in Nabi Saleh, one evening in Ramallah’s al-Manara Square. Building on the momentum that had gathered in Tunisia and Egypt, a group of young Palestinians had put together simultaneous demonstrations around the West Bank and in Gaza, demanding an end to the violent rift between Hamas and Fatah that had emerged after the 2006 elections. Before the night ended, I saw seven protesters carried off in ambulances after being beaten by plainclothes policemen and Fatah thugs.

Tamimi had a strange, stiff sort of calmness about him, as if his long face and blue eyes were directed at some other, less tumultuous world. He had not been home for days. “I am wanted,” he explained, and smiled sadly. Late one night the previous week, Israeli soldiers had arrested his cousin Nabi and then came looking for him.

When I met Tamimi again a few days later in a coffee shop not far from the square, he told me about Gush Emunim’s arrival on the hilltop that was not yet called Halamish in 1976—he was nine years old—and about the settlers’ expropriation of the village’s land. Forty percent of what was once Nabi Saleh is now under the settlers’ control, he said, despite years of fighting in Israeli courts: “We can’t use it, we can’t farm it. They keep it empty for the settlement to expand.” (According to the Israeli NGO Peace Now, at least one third of Halamish was built on private land registered to Palestinians. The group filed a lawsuit against the settlement in 2009, and all construction there has been temporarily stopped.)

Tamimi talked about the olive groves the settlers had destroyed, the irrigation pipes they had torn up, the generators they had stolen that Palestinian farmers had used to pump water from the springs. There had been other springs too, he said, four or five of them, upon which Nabi Saleh and the neighboring village of Deir Nizam had depended for drinking water and irrigation. Now, he said, the springs could no longer be approached for fear of attacks by settlers.

The spring the Palestinians call Ein al-Qous—the one the settlers call Meir’s Spring—is smaller than the others, Tamimi said, but the farmers who worked the adjacent field relied on its water for years. When the youth of the settlement remade the spring as a sort of rustic spa in the summer of 2008, they began threatening the farmers, Tamimi said, “hitting them, beating them, scaring them,” and ultimately driving them away.

In December 2009, accompanied by Israeli and international activists, the residents of Nabi Saleh and other nearby villages first attempted to march down the hill to the spring. They were confronted, Tamimi said, by masked settlers with guns and by Israeli soldiers, who dispersed the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. Twenty-five marchers were injured.

The settlers responded to that first demonstration, Tamimi said, by burning a grove of olive trees. After the second demonstration, the army began sealing off the village and firing on the demonstrators as soon as they began to march. After the fourth, the soldiers began to enter the village, closing the roads and firing tear gas into homes. Almost all the houses in Nabi Saleh had broken windows, Tamimi said, and seven had been partially burned. The demonstrations continued. The army began to raid the village late at night, entering and searching homes, conducting interrogations, making arrests. Over fifteen months, sixty-three of the village’s 500 residents had been arrested: “The oldest is sixty years old, the youngest is eleven,” Tamimi said. Another 155 had been injured, sixty of them children. The worst of those was Ihab Barghouti, a twelve-year-old boy shot above the eye with a rubber bullet. He spent a week in a coma.

Despite its small size, Nabi Saleh would become an important node in what is known as the “popular struggle”—the nonviolent, village-based grassroots movement against the occupation that has been spreading around the West Bank since 2004. The violence of the Second Intifada, Tamimi said, was too costly. But Nabi Saleh would model a form of resistance that would be more difficult for Israel to combat. In other villages, protesters have converged on Israel’s so-called security barrier. In Nabi Saleh, the focus has remained on the spring. But its waters, Tamimi cautioned, were just a conduit, a fluid expression of less tractable truths. “The spring,” he said, “is the face of the occupation.”

Five days after we talked in March, Tamimi risked a visit to Nabi Saleh. He had been back home for ten minutes when the soldiers arrived at his door. He has been in prison ever since.

West Bank Palestinians consume an average of fifty liters of water per day. Fill your bathtub about a third full and try using that water to drink, cook, and flush your toilet, and to wash yourself, your clothes, your dishes, and (if there’s any to spare) your floors. That’s precisely half the amount the World Health Organization has determined as necessary to guarantee basic health and sanitation, and a quarter the quantity used by the average Israeli.Because water data is so highly politicized—Israel guards its raw data as a matter of national security—­consumption figures vary wildly. The numbers above are from the World Bank, but other sources place Palestinian use as high as 83 liters per day and Israeli consumption as high as 350 liters per day. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem determined that settlements use three times as much water as households inside Israel, and that in 2008 the 9,354 settlers in the Jordan Valley alone consumed one third as much water as was allotted to all 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank. For comparison, Americans consume about 600 liters each day; Germans, 126. In the poorest and driest parts of the West Bank, the figure drops to ten liters per day, an amount comparable, according to a 2009 World Bank report, “to that of refugee camps in Congo or Sudan.”

Of all the varieties of humiliation that the occupation offers Palestinians, its misery is most routinely experienced through water. The chore of obtaining it—borrowing from more fortunate neighbors, appealing to local officials, traveling to the nearest functioning filling point, paying private vendors for a tankful of water of questionable quality—can require hours each day. About a third of the communities in the West Bank are not connected to the water network, forcing some Palestinians to spend more than a quarter of their income on water. Even in larger cities like Bethlehem, the pipes go dry for days at a time. “In the summer, it’s all people talk about,” Jane Hilal, a researcher with a Palestinian NGO based in Bethlehem, told me. “The kids, the old people, in the cities, in the villages, in the refugee camps, everywhere.”

The Palestinian town of Bruqin, with a population of 4,000, is unfortunate enough to be located just downstream from the West Bank settlement of Ariel—a miniature city with supermarkets, nightclubs, a university, and lush green parks. Just beyond Ariel is the Barkan industrial park, a ridgetop sprawl of Israeli-owned factories, where even the freon plant is fronted with a patch of well-watered grass.

In the valley below, Bruqin is dry and dusty, the color of concrete. The air smells rank. The town lost much of its agricultural land to Ariel in the 1980s, and more still when the Israelis looped a wall around the settlement. More than half the residents are out of work. Said Samara was standing outside his brother-in-law’s grocery when I met him. The smell, he told me, was untreated sewage from Ariel, which flowed into the stream that ran through the center of town. Another open channel carried industrial wastewater down from Barkan. It had killed the olive trees, Samara said, and some of the livestock. It had fouled the local springs. Cancer rates are high.For their part, Israeli officials have consistently complained of Palestinians’ failure to treat their own wastewater, “polluting the environment and the common aquifer,” in the words of a 2009 Israel Water Authority report. The Palestinian Water Authority planned to build a sewage treatment plant near Bruqin in the town of Salfit but abandoned the project when Israel mandated that the proposed plant also treat wastewater from Ariel.

Samara took me up the road to show me. There wasn’t much to see. A filthy brownish stream, about three feet deep—mightier, though, than the River Jordan. The smell was stronger near its banks, but Samara said he didn’t notice it anymore, that it was just the flies that bothered him, especially in the summer, and at night. I asked him where the channel ended and he waved his hand downstream. “It goes,” he said. “It just goes and goes.”

In September 1993, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat clasped hands on the White House lawn. In the agreement they reached—the culmination of months of negotiations held in Oslo—the fractious issue of water, like Jerusalem and the status of refugees, was left unresolved. Uri Savir, Israel’s chief negotiator, later wrote that Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister during the Oslo talks, assured Arafat, “We won’t take a drop of water from you. I suggest that all the water you now have will remain at your disposal . . . But under no circumstances will we jeopardize the water under our control.” Israel would keep the second half of that promise.

In 1995 Arafat and Rabin signed a second agreement, known as Oslo II. During the talks leading up to the deal, Savir recalled, Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei made a habit of gently mocking his Israeli counterpart, Noah Kinarti, by asking permission each time he took a sip of water. “Just a few drops,” Kinarti would supposedly reply. Oslo II set fixed quantities of water that Israel agreed to provide to the Palestinians and established what, on paper at least, resembled a mechanism for cooperative control over shared resources: a Joint Water Committee with equal Israeli and Palestinian representation.

The Israeli right was alarmed by this apparent concession. In 1999, the political scientist Martin Sherman, then at Tel Aviv University, wrote that Israel has “placed severely onerous limitations on her already over-extended water supplies.” Sitting in the lounge of the Tel Aviv Hilton this spring, Sherman was still concerned that any real loss of control over the Mountain Aquifer “could push Israel back in some respects to Third-World status.”

The deal outlined in Oslo II was meant to be temporary, an interim arrangement leading up to the permanent-status negotiations scheduled to conclude within five years. (Those talks collapsed in Taba, Egypt, in 2001.) The Palestinian leadership appears not to have sweated the details. By most accounts, Arafat consented to the agreement over the objections of his own water experts.

But it would have taken little expertise in hydrology to foresee that joint management by such unequal partners was unlikely to be “cooperative.” The newly created Palestinian Water Authority would bear responsibility for what did or didn’t flow from Palestinian taps. But it would have no access to the vast bulk of the water beneath the West Bank: Oslo II allocated 80 percent of all water drawn from the Mountain Aquifer to Israel. And the Joint Water Committee would have no say at all over Israel’s extraction of shared resources from wells west of the Green Line. Israel, meanwhile, maintained de facto veto power. The Israel Water Authority can reject and delay Palestinian projects at will, and can use the threat of rejection to leverage approval for projects the Palestinians would otherwise find politically unpalatable, such as the extension of pipelines to illegal settlements.According to one 2009 Israel Water Authority policy paper, the Joint Water Committee “approved nearly all the projects that were submitted for its approval.” A World Bank report released a month later, however, found that “106 water projects and 12 large scale wastewater projects [were] awaiting JWC approval, some of them since 1999. . . . By contrast, records suggest that all Israeli-proposed projects for development in the West Bank except one have been approved by the JWC.”

“It’s absolutely, absolutely Kafka,” said Clemens Messerschmid, a gruff German expatriate who works as a hydrogeologist and water consultant in the West Bank. Permits can take anywhere from six months to ten years, and can be denied at any point along the way. As of early this year, about 200 water and wastewater projects were stranded at one phase or another of the permitting process. Most foreign donors and NGOs have all but stopped funding water projects in some parts of the West Bank, because they know, as one Israeli UN worker told me, “they will not get the permits.”

Then there’s the wall, which in its meanderings, effectively annexes about 10 percent of the West Bank. Its zigzaggings have been determined primarily by the location of Israeli settlements, but it is impossible not to notice the dozens of wells and springs isolated in the so-called seam zone between the high concrete wall and the Green Line, which has cut off Palestinians from between 30 and 50 percent of the water they were allowed to pump from the Western Aquifer under the Oslo agreement. “For Israel, it’s not a measurable gain,” said Messerschmid, “but it is a very, very heavy loss to Palestinians.” And, Messerschmid pointed out, the territory sacrificed to the wall includes the only part of the West Bank from which a future Palestinian state could productively drill into the Western Aquifer.

By restricting Palestinians’ access to existing infrastructure and preventing them from constructing an independent water network, Israel has pushed more and more Palestinian communities into purchasing water from its national water company, a semiprivatized entity called Mekorot. In 1982, Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s defense minister, transferred all the West Bank’s water infrastructure to Mekorot for the symbolic price of one shekel. Israeli officials cast this trend in a positive light. The Israeli Water Authority, in a response to a harshly critical 2009 Amnesty International report, issued a statement asserting that “in places where the Palestinian system is insufficient . . . Mekorot assists the Palestinian Water Authority by directly providing additional water, thereby fully meeting the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians.” Mekorot has in fact become the single largest supplier of water in the West Bank, which places Palestinians in the position of paying their occupier for water pumped from beneath their feet.

It can be easy to imagine that the conflict here is immutable, carved somehow into the rocky hills themselves. But in Susya, in the far south of the West Bank, certainties disintegrate on all sides, and that illusion becomes harder to sustain. Ezra Nawi pointed into the valley below us. “That’s a synagogue,” he said. I could make out the stone wall, the arches above it, a few figures scurrying about in the ruins. Nawi, an Israeli Jew of Iraqi descent, worked as a plumber until about ten years ago, when he began volunteering for the anti-occupation group Ta’ayush and spending most of his days in the arid hills south of Hebron. He walked a few paces ahead of me, striding from stone to stone, past slumping tents and barking dogs and here and there a sad, unlikely plot of wheat wedged between the rocks.

The owners of the tents around us had lived in the valley until the mid-1980s. But settlers arrived in 1983, and two years later the Israeli Civil Administration declared what had been Palestinian land a closed archaeological zone—ostensibly to protect the ruins of the synagogue, beside which the villagers had lived for generations. In the years since, they have been repeatedly evicted from Susya and have repeatedly returned. According to the foundational mythology of Zionism, with its paired narratives of exile and return, the synagogue should not be here at all. The diaspora is said to have begun when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 a.d. and crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt sixty-five years later; any Jews who remained in Palestine after the second century are simply not part of the story.

Susya’s synagogue, however, was in continuous use from the fourth until the late seventh century a.d., after which it was converted into a mosque, and most historians agree that rural communities of observant Jews remained intact for centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple. Some of these communities were around long enough for their inhabitants to become Muslims and Christians and, eventually, to form some portion of the people now identified as Palestinians. In parts of modern Palestine, syncretic traces of Jewish and even Canaanite practices survived alongside traditional Islamic rites. Some Muslim Palestinians in Yatta, the nearest town of any size, marked the sabbath until quite recently by lighting candles. (They were, I was told, pressured by other Muslims to abandon such heterodox practices: the hostile presence of Israeli Jews among them had rendered crypto-Jewish practices untenable.) But no one here—except perhaps Nawi, who likes to laugh—would appreciate this line of thinking.

At the far edge of the ridge overlooking the synagogue, Nawi introduced me to Muhammad Hussein al-Jbour, a thin man with a scruffy beard and a high, reedy voice. Al-Jbour stood beside another ruin: a rough concavity in the earth filled with loose red dirt. It was all that remained of his cistern. We were miles from even the shriveled Jordan: the people who have lived in this region have relied for millennia on the rainwater collected in tear-shaped underground cisterns to get them through the dry summer months. Recently, though, the cisterns have been targeted by the Israel Defense Forces. In 2010, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs documented the destruction of twenty cisterns in the area around Hebron—fourteen on a single day in December. In February, the army destroyed six more in the West Bank.

That month the IDF visited Susya, bulldozing eight tents, a grove of olive trees, and two cisterns, including Al-Jbour’s. Susya and all the surrounding villages fall within the 62 percent of the West Bank assigned under Oslo to exclusive Israeli military control, which means that nearly any structure can be summarily demolished. Later that day, I would visit the nearby Bedouin village of Umm al-Khair, where a young man named Eid Suleiman Hadelin told me that demolition orders were pending on houses, tents, a communal oven, a goat pen, and a toilet.

The settlers and the soldiers don’t want the water that collects in the cisterns. They don’t care if a goat or a human drinks it or if it dribbles freely through the limestone to replenish the aquifer beneath. Water here is a language, and a weapon. If ethnicity were a less slippery concept, we could confidently call the tactics employed in Susya “ethnic cleansing.” But for clarity’s sake, let’s use the term of art preferred by Israel’s founders: let’s call these and all related tactics, hydrological and otherwise, an ongoing effort at “population transfer.” Sometimes the effort is casual and sometimes it is concerted, but its message is unambiguous.

Al-Jbour invited us in for tea. His rebuilt home was a crude circle of stones mortared with mud, above which a plastic tarp had been tied to a frame of branches and splintered two-by-fours. The tarp snapped in the wind. Others arrived: an old woman in a black gown, white headscarf, and dusty Crocs, a little boy in an Adidas baseball cap, two men, another woman. They sat with legs crossed on the carpet. Conversation turned to the old woman’s son. He died two years ago, it emerged, and suddenly she was weeping and everyone went silent, but Nawi had her and everyone laughing again before another minute passed. He finished his tea and handed the glass to Al-Jbour’s wife, who poured a little water into it, rubbed the rim clean with the palm of her hand, emptied the water onto a metal tray and poured it off into the bucket at her side so that it might be used again.

Before we left I asked Al-Jbour how he would make it through the summer. He looked around, as if the dry hills might have an answer for him. He didn’t know, he said. But he had no plans to leave.

In early May, the army returned and drove the Al-Jbours from Susya again.

I went to Nabi Saleh on a Friday. The demonstration began just after the midday prayer. The idea, as always, was to march to the spring. There were about fifty protesters: men, women, and boys from the village, and perhaps an equal number of solidarity activists, most of them Israelis and Europeans. Soldiers had already sealed the roads. We could see their jeeps parked at the bottom of the hill when we set out along the main road and then down across a steeply sloped field of thistles and wildflowers, with Halamish visible across the valley. One of the older boys shouted chants into a megaphone. “We are not afraid,” he yelled in Arabic, and everyone clapped as they marched and echoed his words back to him. Three donkeys wandered over, but apparently thought better of it and trotted off.

We were barely halfway down the hill, the spring still a few hundred yards away, when, eight minutes after the march began, the first tear-gas canisters fell from the sky. The next volleys were lower—one whizzed a foot or two above my head. Soldiers advanced up the hill from both sides. The chants gave way to shouts and we were all running, ducking, and scattering. I watched three soldiers on the road below fire canister after canister, not lobbing them up but aiming at the level of our heads and chests. Suddenly there were soldiers above us too, shooting down from inside the village.

Eventually—after a few hours of running and waiting, of taking refuge in one house and then another, after the soldiers arrested a teenage boy and his mother ran off wailing, after they blindfolded a Palestinian journalist and handcuffed two Israeli activists and the rest of the Israelis and foreigners sat down in front of their jeep to block it, after an Israeli officer in the gray camouflage uniform of the Border Police began tugging up the seated protesters’ chins so he could pepper-spray them in the eyes, after the soldiers cleared the square again with stun grenades and more tear gas—a strange calm prevailed. The square was empty but for the soldiers with their body armor and Tavor assault rifles and a half dozen little boys running and giggling, kicking spent tear-gas grenades like soccer balls. The boys linked arms and danced a few feet in front of the soldiers, kicking their legs high in the air to mock them. They talked a kid with Down syndrome into tossing a rock. It banged against a fence fifteen feet from anyone, but three soldiers chased him anyway.

I sat down on the edge of the square beside Shai, a quiet young anarchist from Tel Aviv. Shai had served in the IDF during Operation Cast Lead, the assault on Gaza that killed as many as 1,400 Palestinians. He had been coming to Nabi Saleh every Friday for almost a year.

“It’s funny,” he said. He smiled, but he didn’t laugh. “I don’t think they’ve reached the spring even once.”

 is the author of two novels, Ether and The Suitors. His last essay for Harper’s Magazine, “Cambodia’s Wandering Dead,” appeared in the April 2009 issue.

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April 2009

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