Published on Wednesday, October 23, 2002 by the Guardian/UK
Israeli Retaliation Targets Olive Harvest and Waterholes
by Chris McGreal in Jerusalem
Israel signaled yesterday that in deference to Washington's campaign against Iraq it will hold back from its usual tough response following Monday's suicide bombing which killed 14 bus passengers.
But it swiftly made life harder for many Palestinians with a ban on drilling for water because it said the Palestinian Authority leader is conducting a "water intifada". It also barred olive picking at the height of the harvest.
The ban on bore holes is particularly tough as it means many Palestinians are unable to irrigate crops. Some villages will be deprived of drinking water.
After the last major suicide bombing a month ago, Israeli tanks again laid siege to Mr Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, reducing much of it to rubble until the Palestinian leader was trapped in one isolated building with about 200 followers. The Israelis would have been content to leave him there, but the White House pressed prime minister Ariel Sharon to lift the siege because it was undermining the US campaign to win Arab backing for an attack on Iraq.
After Monday's bus bombing, in which some of the victims were burned alive in the inferno that engulfed the vehicle when its fuel tank blew up, the Israelis apparently did not need to be asked to consider an alternative reaction.
The interior minister, Eli Yishai, said Israel is taking American interests into account in deciding its response.
"There are those who say that we need to react now and immediately, with all power and all force," Mr Yishai told Israeli army radio. "On the other hand, we could cause difficulties for the Americans. If the Americans attack Iraq, it's in our interest as well as that of the Americans."
But the government apparently found other ways to make the Palestinians pay, even though it denied any linkage, when the infrastructure minister and leader of the extreme rightwing National Religious party, Effie Eitam, ordered a ban on Palestinians drilling for water in the West Bank.
A member of the Palestinian Hydrology Group, Abdel Rahman Tamimi, said the move prevents many in the occupied territories from irrigating fields and will deprive some villages of their only access to water.
"If they apply this thing, that means most of the Palestinian farmers in the north of the West Bank and the Jordan valley will not be able to pump water for their fields. Some of those wells are also used for drinking," he said. "If it is allowed to go on, most of the land in the north will be under threat of desertification and then people will have to leave. That's what the Israelis want, of course."
Mr Eitam said he issued the order because the Palestinians are conducting a water intifada. He said the authority had failed to build purifying facilities in the hope of "polluting Israel's ground water", and he accused it of "stealing water" from Israel and Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.
Mr Tamimi sees it differently. "The Palestinians have been reluctant to expand the water treatment plants for a reason: the Israelis want to force the Palestinian water authority to connect the Jewish settlements on the West Bank to those treatment plants. It's a way of trying to force the Palestinians to recognize the settlements as legal and legitimate."
Mr Eitam said the ban was imposed in consultation with the defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who imposed his own restrictions yesterday by barring the picking of olives mid-way through an already difficult harvest.
Technically, the ban has been put in place because the army says it lacks resources to protect Palestinians from Jewish settlers who have been attacking pickers across the West Bank. But the Palestinians say that there is a lack of political will to protect them, and that the bar on olive picking will have a devastating impact on a key source of food and cash for many communities.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002