JERUSALEM – Tens of thousands of Palestinians living in east Jerusalem have been without running water for more than a month, victims of a decrepit and overwhelmed infrastructure and caught in a legal no-man's land caused by the divisions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The residents of the Shuafat refugee camp are technically part of the Jerusalem municipality. But they live outside the massive West Bank separation barrier that Israel has built. So Israeli services are sparse, yet Palestinian authorities are barred from operating there or developing the water system.
The local Israeli water authority says the existing system of pipes cannot handle the rapid population growth of the area and it is scrambling to solve the problem. Last week, the Israeli Supreme Court gave officials 60 days to find a solution.
But with the scorching summer season approaching, residents are growing increasingly desperate. Basic tasks like brushing teeth are a challenge. Showers have become a luxury. Families often send their clothes to relatives elsewhere in the city to wash them.
"Sixty days — that's a lot of time for us," said Hani Taha, a local butcher. "There will be chaos here."
Israel captured then-mainly Arab east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. After the war, it redrew Jerusalem's municipal boundary, expanding it into the West Bank to encompass what were then small Palestinian communities, and annexed the lands that were made part of the city.
The annexation was never internationally recognized. Israel considers all of east Jerusalem, including Shuafat, to be part of its capital, building a ring of Jewish districts in the city. Some 200,000 Israeli Jews and 300,000 Palestinians now live in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians demand as the capital of a future nation.
Palestinians have long complained that the city neglects roads, schools and public services in Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. The situation has worsened for areas like Shuafat since Israel built its separation barrier last decade.
The barrier, which Israel says is needed to keep attackers from entering the city, has cut some neighborhoods in half, leaving thousands of people on the outside. Anyone entering or exiting Shuafat, for instance, must pass through an Israeli military checkpoint.
Residents said they first began to feel the water crunch last month, when the water cut out on March 4. Since then, service has been scarce and often non-existent. Residents buy bottles or large jerrycans of water to get by.
A lack of hydraulic pressure from the month-long shortage has forced desperate residents to lower rooftop tanks to ground level and fill them by hand.
On one block, three large black tanks sat stagnant in a pile of rotting trash and empty plastic bottles. Six pumps and a snarl of tubing had been rigged to force water upward.
But faucets in the adjacent building were running dry. Young men could be seen lugging large plastic containers up flights of stairs into a home. A young girl held a bag of water bottles for her family.
"When my kids want to go to school, there's no water to wash themselves. My husband goes to work and it's the same thing," said Umm Osama al-Najar, pointing at a pile of dirty dishes in her kitchen sink.
"Sometimes I go into the bathroom and I am disgusted, especially when so many people use the bathroom and there is no water to flush. It's very important that we get the water back here. It's breaking my heart."
Israeli officials are at a loss to explain the cause of the crisis. The neighborhood has suffered from water shortages in the past, but residents say this year is the worst they can remember. Officials speculated that an exceptionally dry winter — the only time the region experiences rainfall — may be to blame.
Much of the problem stems from Israel's construction of the separation barrier.
Arab residents of east Jerusalem, in contrast to Palestinians in the neighboring West Bank, have Israeli residency rights, giving them the ability to move freely inside Israel and qualifying them for Israeli health care and social benefits.
With residents fearful of losing these rights if they leave the city limits, Arab neighborhoods on the Israeli side of the barrier have seen real estate values skyrocket in recent years.
Outlying areas like Shuafat have experienced a wave of unregulated construction as people search for cheaper housing within municipal boundaries. Israeli work crews rarely venture into these areas, fearing confrontations with the local population.
"It's kind of the classic east Jerusalem trap," said Ronit Sela, a spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has led the legal battle on behalf of Shuafat residents.
"We're talking about an area that was cut off from the rest of the city by a wall, where the Israeli authorities don't go in, an area that was neglected even before the wall was set up, no water connection, no infrastructure. And of course the number of people continues to rise," she said.
"Now the whole water system collapses. And when it collapses, no one takes responsibility."
Hagihon, the local water carrier in Jerusalem, said there is little it can do. It said the rapid growth, lack of proper urban planning and rampant use of unauthorized "pirated" pipes have overwhelmed the infrastructure.
Eli Cohen, a deputy director at the company, said the system was built to serve about 15,000 people. He believes the population has swelled to 60,000-80,000. Few homes have water meters, meaning that some 97 percent of the population doesn't pay for its water, he said.
"Unfortunately, this whole burden falls on Hagihon," he said. "We have a national, political problem here. This is beyond our jurisdiction, but we are the only government body left to deal with it."
Israel's National Water Authority denied responsibility and said it is supervising Hagihon in finding a solution.
"I can't tell you right now what the plan will be," Cohen said. "The issue is to find a solution that is sustainable."
The nearby Jewish area of Pisgav Zeev, just a few hundred meters away inside the wall, suffers no such problems. Cohen said Pisgat Zeev has a recognized infrastructure and residents pay for their water like other Israeli customers.
The Palestinian Authority, the self-rule government in the West Bank, provides water to people in the areas it governs but is barred from operating inside Jerusalem's city limits.
In the meantime, residents are forced to buy expensive water and wait out the drought.
"Without water, can we live?" said Aida Subhi Hamoud, a mother of 11 who has lived in the camp for 40-years. "We can afford to buy water to drink, but what about the rest, the laundry, the showers? Water is the lifeblood of the home."
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