I have always loved Tijuana. Even when the city's future seemed at its darkest, it still contained a raw vitality and an energy that few others seemed to possess. Los Angeles has it, Mexico City has it, Tangiers has it, a vivacious bustle and friendly hum as everyday life goes on all around. I was always surprised when others, even people who lived there, were willing to dismiss it as nothing more than a waystation, a pit of cheap bars and cheap people where sunburned tourists rubbernecked through Revolución looking for weed and donkey shows.
Paradoxically, its bad reputation has changed Tijuana for the better. After 9/11 and the much-publicized drug wars, tourism slowed to a trickle, and in the absence of the tourist industry that once sustained so much of the city, Tijuana has begun to find out what it really is: not just a place where people pause before they cross the border, not just a den of drugs, underaged prostitutes, and would-be Americans who live in the long shadow of San Diego, not just a den of trafficking, but a unique fusion of cultures. Tijuana is not a city without problems (what city is?) but one where its people are transcending them to find their footing and their identity.
Much has been made of the food and arts scene there, but not as much attention has been paid to the role Tijuana's relatively new team, the Xolos, has played in the revitalization of the city.
The team's playing style is feisty and relentless, like the dogs that give the team its name, and it has served them well. They're a young team with an unprecedented streak of success: they're currently first in the Liga MX, the Mexican football league, and people are going crazy over it. After going to a game, I can understand why. Best of all, it's bringing thousands of people in from the U.S. side, a new kind of tourist, ones who see what is happening in Tijuana and adore it.
TIJUANA, Mexico — Tijuana's vibrant tourist scene has all but disappeared. But in its absence, the city is becoming a place for a new type of culture: one forged by people who live between countries and see themselves as part of both.
Tijuana's soccer team is part of that. The enormously popular Xolos (pronounced "Cholos") boasts a dedicated fan base that stretches from Sinaloa to Las Vegas.
Dean Mitchell isn't ashamed to admit it: He's a fanatic.
“So I've been a soccer fan all my life but I've never had seen success – LA, San Diego – so I had to go to Portland, Seattle, places like that to see it. But I always knew Mexico loved it," he said.
Mitchell's having a beer with friends in the dirt parking lot at Estadio Caliente, Tijuana's soccer stadium, where the Xolos are about to play a match. He lives in San Diego, but he makes the sometimes hours-long trip across the border and back every time there's a game in Tijuana.
Mitchell says it's the most fun he's had going to soccer games in years.
“The whole city's going nuts and they haven't had anything before. So you got this city with a real bad reputation and it's showing off to the League how great an experience it is to be here," Mitchell said.
Xolos is short for Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente. Xoloitzcuintles are hairless dogs, sacred to pre-Hispanic cultures and noted for their unflagging energy, scrappy tenacity and loyalty -- kind of like the team and its rambunctious, rowdy fans.
Inside the stadium, Agustín Díaz is smoking a cigarette by a food stand. He lives in San Diego now, but he was born and raised in Tijuana. Everything he's wearing has the Xolos logo on it, right down to his cape and the big stuffed dog on his hat.
A xoloitzcuintle, the mascot of the Xolos, in its team's jersey. The jersey also serves to keep it warm, as xoloitzcuintles (also known as Mexican Hairless Dogs) have almost no fur.
“Now that we've got a team right here I'm 100 percent with them. I wear my pet Xolo, I wear my wristband, and even on my cell phone is the Xolo, the big dog and everything," Díaz said. "I am Super Xolo. Even if they go down to the Second Division I'm still gonna be a Xolo.”
Five years ago, the Xolos were a little-known Second Division team. Now they're in the lead in the Mexican League's First Division, ahead of legendary teams like Chivas and America. This means in the soccer world, they're a full-fledged meteoric phenomenon.
Wes Braddock is a principal at a San Diego County high school and holds season tickets called Xolopasses, which cost up to 3,800 pesos, or $300.
“Boy, when the Xolos advanced out of what they call the Liga de Ascenso, the Ascending League, and I was at the game that they won that put them into the American, into the Mexican Premiere League," Braddock said. "It was very similar to me, almost more emotional, than when the [San Diego] Chargers went to the Superbowl in '94. I mean, people were riding up and down the street, honking their horns, waving flags. In this city it really has been good for the image of the city and the people of the city.”
Most of all, he says, it brings residents of San Diego and Tijuana together and showcases their similarities rather than their differences.
Roberto Cornejo agrees. He's the Xolos assistant general manager and a resident of both the U.S. and Mexico. Bringing together the two cities, he says, was his vision all along.
“Soccer in San Diego is very big. The majority of kids play either [recreational] or some type of club in their life as they're young," Cornejo said. "San Diego's an educated population in terms of soccer, and Tijuana has I think more links to San Diego than, say, Mexico City or farther south.”
Several of the Xolos' players are from the U.S. side, like midfielder Joe Corona, who grew up in south San Diego County and has played with the U.S. Men's Under-23 team.
In the last two years, the team has expanded northward, opening youth academies in San Diego's South Bay and in Riverside County.
“In the academies we're trying to develop players. If they make it pro with us, that's great. If they're able to get a college scholarship and get their college degree via soccer and through their training then that's just as good for us," Cornejo said.
This Sunday the Xolos play Chivas in Guadalajara. If they stay in the top four, which is likely since they're currently number one, they advance to the league playoffs.
I wrote and covered this story for Fronteras Desk over the weekend. I wasn't sure how it would turn out, but I really like it.
SAN DIEGO — San Diego's Friendship Park, or Border Field State Park, is tucked into the extreme southwest corner of the United States and the extreme northwest of Mexico, with fields on the U.S. side, the city of Tijuana on the other, and the blue Pacific Ocean to the west. The park itself is tiny, bisected neatly through the middle by the border wall.
Friendship Park used to be one of the very few places along the United States-Mexico border where people could meet face-to-face. First, there was no border marker, and then there was just a fence and a monument; for years after that, only a chain link fence separated the two sides, which allowed visitors in each country to speak together, pray, sing, or just hold hands across the border. Gardeners on the U.S. side planted flowers at the fence, and a gardener in Tijuana helped water them.
That changed after Sept. 11, 2001. In the intervening years border security became tighter, and more fences went up. Finally, in 2009, Homeland Security closed down Friendship Park entirely, saying they needed to construct a new fence to discourage drugs and weapons smugglers before it re-opened.
Whether or not it would ever be accessible to the public again was a matter of debate. While it was possible to ask Border Patrol agents to open the primary gate so people could go up to the fence, those requests were not always granted. At one point, Homeland Security agreed to re-open the park, but with a third fence keeping people several feet away from the actual border.
Now, after negotiation and public pressure from activist groups, the public can once again enter the park and talk to people directly through the fence -– although it has changed. The tattered chain link has become a thick, dense mesh that is difficult to see through. Instead of holding hands, people can just barely touch the tips of their fingers through openings in the steel wire.
A view of Tijuana through the U.S. side of the border fence at Friendship Park.
People on the Mexican side of the border, out for a morning stroll, stopped to chat with the small group of people on the San Diego side of the border. Closer to the ocean, a man in Tijuana named German Castañada, visible only as a shadowy figure, leaned into the fence, hands cupped against his face, to talk quietly to his two young children and their mother on the San Diego side.
“I haven't seen my kids in three years,” Castañada said. “I got kicked out of the country.” He said he had been in the United States since he was 4 years old.
“If I would have known, I would have tried to fix my papers. I don't have anybody over here, technically -– my whole family's out there.”
Castañada said because he was deported, he has to wait at least a decade to reapply for a visa, with no guarantee it will be granted.
Architect Jim Brown, who headed the redesign of the park to allow people to meet face-to-face without compromising border security, is a member of a group called Friends of Friendship Park, which successfully petitioned for its re-opening. Brown said the park is designed for flexibility, so that if border security is ever eased the fences can be scaled back for greater access.
Jill Marie Holslin (attheedges.com)
German Castañada, who cannot return to the United States after his deportation, meets with his family at Friendship Park.
“We make no claims that this is a beautiful park,” Brown said. “It's a horrendous park in some ways. But it's a symbol, a really important symbol, of friendship between the citizens of two countries.”
For people like German Castañada, whose children can only see him as a shadowy figure behind a fence, it's not the same as making a life with his family -– but as Castañada said, it's better than nothing.
The following is a story I wrote and produced for the California Report. The audio, along with a slideshow, can be found here.
Artist Guillermo Rosette in front of one of his murals
When you drive down Interstate 5 south toward the San Diego-Tijuana border, you go through a neighborhood called Logan Heights. It's a stretch of industrial buildings and run-down concrete walls.
But suddenly, the gray is broken up by flashes of bright colors splashed over the freeway walls and pillars. The scenes depict the struggles and triumphs of the Chicano Pride movement and the history of Mexicans in the United States. They have become a landmark since they were first painted in 1973.
Muralist Victor Ochoa is touching up a mural he made four decades ago, of a group of Chicano activists called Brown Berets. Ochoa was part of the original movement that birthed the murals and its surroundings, Chicano Park.
"The community before the freeway came in was a very sprawling barrio; we used to call it the 'ombligo de Los barrios,' the bellybutton of the barrios," Ochoa says. "Logan and National, were like the downtown section, and then the other streets were residential."
But in the 1960s, San Diego built the interstate right through the downtown section over the protests of its residents, effectively cutting the neighborhood in half.
"So just in these few blocks, they took over 5000 families out. They went through our barrios pretty terribly. That was a death blow to this neighborhood," Ochoa says.
But Guillermo Aranda, another of the original muralists, says what really tipped people into action was when the city reneged on its promise to build a park and planned a parking lot instead. On April 22, 1970, hundreds of men, women and children came down and formed human chains around city workers.
"People said 'Hey, if we want a park we have to claim this park ourself,' explained Aranda. "And people came and they brought cactus and maguey and picks and shovels. I remember this one guy came in with a bulldozer and dug up the earth and everybody worked to make it a park. So that's how Chicano Park came to be."
It took nearly two weeks of constant occupation, but the city finally gave the people their park. A few years later, artists began painting the walls of the overpass to commemorate the struggle, and to tell the history of the Chicano rights movement in the United States.
"Once we did the murals here at Chicano Park, it exploded, and Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas...even back to the east coast, murals began to explode all over," Aranda said.
The murals began attracting tourists from all over the world. Fast forward to the early 90s, after two deadly earthquakes rocked Southern California. At the time, Marty Rosen worked for CalTrans as part of a team that was retrofitting Highway 5.
"I was just blown away. I mean, just these monumental murals on these bridge columns that vary from about two stories to maybe five stories high," recalled Rosen. "My initial thought that came out of my head was that this is the Sistine Chapel of California."
Rosen pushed to have the murals recognized as a historical resource, although they were barely twenty years old at the time. Eventually, he collaborated with the seven original artists on a CalTrans administered grant, called a T-grant, to restore and preserve their murals. It took nearly 20 more years.
"There were many years there where we just weren't sure if it was going to happen.We finally in 2011 started the actual mural restorations," says Rosen.
Restoration is continuing on what has become a symbol of the struggle against a faceless bureaucracy that tore apart a community, and how that same bureaucracy is helping preserve its voice. Artists are putting the finishing touches on the newly revitalized murals in time for a celebration this weekend.
Mexico recently held its 2012 Presidential elections, and its telegenic PRI candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, won by six points.
This win is problematic. First of all, the PRI, which stands for Partido Revolucionario Instituto, or the Institutional Revolutionary Party, has a long and storied history of corruption and massive electoral fraud. They held power by fair means and foul for decades before finally losing to the more moderate right-wing group PAN, the Partido Acción Nacional, or National Action Party, six years ago.
The 2006 election had its own issues; PAN beat out the center-left-wing candidate by a sliver of a percentage point under murky circumstances, and the candidate, former Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was characterized as a whiner and a sore loser after several fruitless demands for a full recount. However, PAN's Calderon has angered so many Mexicans now so much with his tactics against drug cartels, which have ratcheted up violence to record levels, that PAN didn't stand a chance in this election.
In light of this history, things were looking very good either for the PRI, which for all its nepotism and corruption at least brought stability and prosperity for some, or for something different: Obrador. Obrador's party is called MORENA, which stands for Movimiento Regeneracion Nacional, or National Regeneration Movement. His platform is solidly socially democratic, supporting women's rights, help for the poor, indigenous rights, the well-being of mentally and physically challenged people, and free or cheap education. He is also an ex-PRI member who split with the party years before over ideological differences.
The first rumblings of trouble came several weeks ago, when students and activists complained that the Mexican television networks favored the PRI candidate.
Students formed the #YoSoy132 movement, engineered and driven by Facebook and Twitter, demanding more transparency in politics and media. There are other movements as well: Indignados, Occupiers, and people who claim no ideological platform but are simply fed up. The Yo Soy 132 movement and AMLO supporters have compiled hundreds of examples of vote-buying and are making a further case for fraud.
Furthermore, while there are still many supporters of neoliberalism, many more in Mexico are weary and wary of neoliberalist policies and their effects. PRI, with its embrace of neoliberalism, is no longer the direction they want to go. However, people all over the place said that while they didn't like the PRI's ascendancy, they would accept it so long as they felt that their votes had counted. As it stands right now, many do not.
Stories have been emerging about intimidation tactics and pressures that PRI members and supporters have used against anti-Peña activists -- filming them, smashing or taking their cameras, threatening violence. There are also widespread, documented charges of vote-buying, where PRI members offered people with little money debit cards in exchange for their votes (which, according to some anecdotes coming out, are now being rejected or cancelled.)
So PRI, the party that ruled Mexico via force and well-documented fraud for eighty years, left it socially stratified to the point that Mexico, one of the most resource-rich countries in the world, now has an enormous underclass, which is borne out in massive amounts of poverty, illiteracy, and racism; that affects the United States in obvious ways, as many people flee north for the promise of a better life and more money.
But the PRI's candidate beat Obrador by six points. Mexicans, particularly young and fiery ones, have already been in the streets in the hundreds of thousands demanding more transparency in government and media, as major television networks has been transparently and -- by admission! -- slanted in favor of PRI. They demanded a recount of all the votes. Nope, said the government, PRI is the winner, and anyway a full recount will take until September.
Yesterday, marchers took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction and frustration. The marches were peaceful, well-organized, and unprecedentedly large; they trended in Twitter under the hashtag #MegaMarcha.
In Tijuana, estimates of the crowd size ranged from 6,000 to 20,000, and ten times that turned out in Mexico City.
A collection of video from across the country (via El5antuario.org)
I was in Tijuana, where by my estimation at least 20,000 participated, young and old, bright-faced upper-middle class kids yelling, "Fuera Peña!" (Out, Peña!) and toothless old men smiling and nodding to passersby and politely saying, "Democracia. Democracia, por favor. No tenemos democracia, y la necesitamos." (Democracy, democracy please. We don't have it and we need it.) The police had guns at their belt and held white carnations in their hands, given to them by the protestors.
Nobody knows what will happen next. Many of the people I spoke to confided that they are terrified of what PRI will do; if they do take power, they said, the next demonstration will involve bullets, not flowers. They are most afraid of the political tide turning Mexico into a police state.
But if the sheer numbers and engagement of Mexicans, especially young ones, is anything to go by, there is hope that no matter what happens in the short-term, the country will end up with the democracy and transparency it demands. Many people yesterday carried signs that read "México ha despertado" -- Mexico has risen.
The water discourse
Water, like air, is a basic human need, and is nearly universally accepted as a basic human right. However, what is accepted as a human right in theory does not always translate to its availability in practice. Nowhere is the division between the concept of human rights and how they are applied in practice more clear than in the Middle East, and nowhere in the Middle East as much as the contested, occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, because of the location, history, and strategic importance. In the current dialogue, water control is incorrectly framed as a zero-sum game, where if one party wins the other loses, and each side of the water debate has their own version of the facts. Israel and Palestine, locked into the relationship they are in by mutual antagonism, appear to be at a stalemate. However, it is possible that this stalemate can be broken from within Israel's legal system.
Water has been part of the regional discourse since before Israel became a state, and there has long been conflict over water and the possession of natural resources there. In 2001, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan ominously warned that competition for fresh water “may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future."
This sentiment is not new; in 1985, Dr. Boutros Ghali, then the U.N. Secretary-General, famously said that the next war fought in the Middle East would not be about politics but about water. But water is politics. The politics of land, especially in the arid desert regions of Israel and the Palestinian territories, is always the politics of water, as well; the disparity in quality of life is starkly illustrated in photos taken at the lands' ever-changing borders, where the neat green terraces of unauthorized Israeli settlements give way to the dusty, disheveled roads of Palestine. The difference between the two territories are due to various mechanisms of conflict and hegemony, but water and lack thereof illuminate them and make them visible. The story of water in the West Bank and Gaza is a microcosm of water politics, and as such it is incredibly complex, a shifting spiral of conflict and counter-conflict that stretches back to the creation of Israel. While it is very rare that actual full-blown wars erupt with water as a trigger, shortages or enforced scarcity does have a major role in many conflicts; the reason that these conflicts do not bloom into actual war is that water is so integral to human survival and so inextricably tied up in power structures that a full-scale war would mean a loss for both sides. Because of water's relationship to power, the stronger state inevitably acts as water's gatekeepers, and the weaker state takes what it is given because it has no alternative, in what water conflict theorists call “water hegemony."
The West Bank
The West Bank sits atop an enormous supply of underground fresh water known as the Mountain Aquifer, which supplies about a quarter of Israel's water and nearly all of Palestine's. Currently, Israel controls all the water in the West Bank. The daily per-capita use by Israeli settlers is far greater than Palestinians in the same area. However, it is difficult to measure exactly how much more water is used as Israel, citing security concerns, does not release many statistics on water usage in the occupied territories – estimates are anywhere from three to ten times higher. According to the humanitarian group B'Tselem, Israel's per-capita water consumption ranges between 200 and 250 liters per day, but Palestine's is about 102, dropping down to 20 liters per day in some parts of the West Bank. The recommended minimum daily use for drinking, cooking, and sanitation is 100 liters per day, or about ten flushes of an American toilet. According to a report from Amnesty International, the half-million Israelis who occupy the West Bank use as much or more water than the Palestinian population of more than two million. Israel could not exist the way it does today without the water supplied by the Mountain Aquifer.
Tiny, heavily populated Gaza consists mostly of Palestinian Arabs – only a small part of its population are Jewish settlers. It is much drier than the West Bank, and its only source of fresh water is an aquifer known as the Coastal Aquifer or the Gaza Aquifer. Palestinians extract far more than they replace every year. As a result of this overextraction, the water tables are dropping and seawater rushes in to replace the fresh water; in many places, the water is saline, which damages crops and soil. Additionally, many of the people in Gaza live in refugee camps, which adds another dimension to the groundwater: contamination. Water experts from the United Nations and within Gaza say that complete environmental disaster is pending, and without more mitigating measures, it will quickly become uninhabitable. While much of the problem is certainly the population density in Gaza, another aspect of it is the Israeli government's subsidization of water use among settlers there, which naturally causes overuse and misuse.
Water, water everywhere?
The justification for settling British Palestine may have come from a very different mindset about water than the one that prevails today. From the time Palestine was under British rule until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the reigning discourse was one of water abundance. Water rights closely followed land rights; a person owned the water on their land and only that much. The idea that the arid land concealed vast aquifers was integral to the discourse of Israel's“absorptive capacity." “Absorptive capacity” meant the land's ability to accept Jewish immigrants, which was projected as high as 15 million – a discourse from which Palestinians themselves were conspicuously absent. Wells could be drilled, said water scientists; the geology of British Palestine indicated great hidden aquifers. This discourse quickly dried up after 1950, when the newly-created state of Israel repealed the Ottoman-era water rights laws and declared all surface water, such as rivers and lakes, public property.
At the same time, the ideas of water abundance and water potential were replaced by those of the current dialogue, water scarcity. Although it is rarely mentioned in the context of Palestinians, it appears that Palestinians shaped the narrative and discourse of water scarcity even as they were absent from it just as they did abundance: Israel used scarcity as one of its justifications for transferring water from the River Jordan out of its basin to irrigate other lands, which went against customary water laws. As Israel's government grew stronger and more centralized, it distanced itself more and more from the once-vaunted discourse of
There is no doubt that today, given the agricultural lifestyle and growing population of Israel and Palestine, water is indeed scarce.
However, there are rich resources beneath the arid land. The West Bank contains the Mountain Aquifer, which is the largest source of replenishable underground freshwater in Israel-Palestine. That this aquifer stretches beneath the West Bank throws the disparity in water usage between Israelis and Palestinians into even sharper relief.
In 1995, the Oslo II agreements established a Joint Water Committee and produced an agreement on a fixed amount of aquifer water for both Israeli and Palestinian use. But as it turns out, the agreements did not quite reflect the reality. While the language of Oslo II appears to entitle Palestinians in the West Bank to a certain amount of water from the Mountain Aquifer via springs and wells, the reality of the situation is somewhat different. Palestinians do get water, but only if they pay for it. Israel's national water company, Mekorot, collects water from the aquifers to sell to Palestinians, but Palestinians are not permitted to collect water without permits. Their requests for permits to drill wells or build cisterns are routinely denied. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers are still seizing lands and springs in the West Bank, which further separates Palestinian families from sources of their drinking water and keeps farmers from irrigating and cultivating their crops.
Israel presently controls the aquifer and its basins in the West Bank, which supplies a quarter of the country's water and nearly all the water for Palestinians there. Palestinians in the West Bank have to apply for permits in order to drill for water, which are rarely issued and often revoked without notice. In fact, in the Western Aquifer, which is one of the Mountain Aquifer's basins, there have been no new well permits issued since 1967.
Furthermore, a complicated network of security checkpoints stagger the landscape of the West Bank, often separating Palestinians from their farmland as well as sources of water and making the trip from home to water an all-day affair. Israel also demolishes rainwater-collecting cisterns as a matter of course, which is tremendous blow to farmers in the West Bank as the extra water is crucial to grow their crops and feed their animals. Palestinian people must make money to pay for their water, but they must pay for their water in order to make a living. By controlling the water collection and forcing Palestinians to buy back water harvested from Palestinian property, Israel is doing far more than simply making people thirsty. Chronic water shortages also mean chronic disease – some estimates show that up to 60 percent of Palestinians living in the West Banks suffer from diarrhea, and in Gaza, the high saline content is blamed for chronic kidney problems and hypertension. Further, limiting water supply controls, and in some cases destroys, entire enterprises and economies in what the United Nations has condemned as “denial of the Palestinians' right to self-determination” and a violation of international human rights laws.
Israel argues that while it is bound by international law, the Palestinian Territories are not yet a sovereign state and therefore cannot be treated as such. For this reason, Israel says, international human rights laws do not apply to Palestinians as they are stateless. Furthermore, say researchers, many of the arguments and assertions used by human-rights organizations and non-governmental organizations are flawed from the start. In a recent paper written by a member of Israel's Water Authority Council, Haim Gvirtzim, the gap in water consumption between Israelis and Palestinians simply does not exist – it is the result of poor census records and ongoing discrepancies in the official population counts, there there has not been an imbalance in water usage since 1967, and Palestinian demands for more water are unjustified. Furthermore, he says, Israel has held up its end of the Oslo II Agreements, but Palestinians' refusal to built sewage treatment plants along with ongoing drilling of unauthorized and unlicensed wells in the West Bank to get even more water signifies clear breaches of that agreement. It is time, Gvirtzim argues, to put aside past hostilities and begin working on water projects together for the sake of the entire region, and part of that, he says, involves letting go of a call for nebulous and undefined “water rights” and beginning to work with the facts as they stand. This, he says, begins with a signed, binding agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, as with Oslo II.
So, where would the legal process to create a new binding agreement between Israel and Palestine begin? The key may lie, improbably, with a completely different group of people about a hundred miles to the south, in the middle of the Negev desert. Negev is a harsh and dusty land, and its story from a legal and political standpoint is a complicated one; while it is not exactly the same as Palestine's, it has distinct parallels. Bedouins, seminomadic desert-dwelling people who fall under the umbrella term of “Israeli Arabs,” claim that the land of the Negev belongs to them. Israel's assertion is that the land is Israel's and does not belong to the Bedouins, because they did not register it under the British Mandate or the Ottoman Empire before the state of Israel's creation (Murthy et al 5-6). Because of this, Israel has been “encouraging” Bedouins through a combination of expropriation, force, and neglect to move to permanent cities and townships since the 1950s, calling the temporary dwellings of their peripatetic lifestyle “illegal settlements” and treating Bedouins as they do Palestinians: razing their homes, cutting off supplies, and attempting to develop the land that Bedouins claim are theirs by rights.
One of the tactics Israel has used for years to push Bedouins out of their settlements and into townships is the policy of not connecting water to villages deemed unauthorized, which eventually propels Bedouins into townships and municipalities created for them by the Israeli government. This parallels the case of Palestinians in the West Bank in that Israel has long used a combination of force, development, and lack of resources – including water – to push Palestinians out of lands that they consider their own. Bedouins, like Palestinians in the West Bank, are cut off from pipelines or cisterns in the desert, prevented from drilling wells deep enough to find water, or are “resettled” in areas away from aquifer springs.
In 2011, Israel's Supreme Court heard a case brought by residents of unrecognized Bedouin villages in Negev. The plaintiffs in Abdallah Abu Massad et al. v. Water Commissioner and Israel Lands Administration contended that access to water was a basic human right (Murthy et al). Because of the ongoing resettlement campaign and Israel's denial of cisterns and refusal to pipe water out to the nomads' settlements, the Bedouins of Negev accused Israel of denying them this right. However, while Israel's Basic Law and Water Law both say that access to clean, fresh water is a basic human right, Israel's reigning water discourse is “needs, not rights,” at least in the settlements it considers illegitimate. Israel also says it does not deny water to anybody willing to pay for it; this is absolutely true, but Bedouins – once again, like Palestinians – are among the poorest people of the region.
In one sense, the case was a failure. Resettlement of the Bedouins continues apace and on the surface, very little has changed. However, the Supreme Court's ruling – that water is a basic human right – provides an important legal precedent that may be applied to future rulings. Justice Ayala Procaccio wrote in the ruling,
....the State is responsible for ensuring the basic access of a person to water sources in Israel, even if he resides on land that is not his, has built a house that is defiant of the laws of planning and construction, has trespassed on another person's property, violated that person’s proprietary rights, and even if he has violated the foundations of the rule of law by all these. One must find the balance between the demand for keeping the law and its appropriate enforcement and the concern for a person's basic and existential need for water, even if he does not abide by the law. The solution to this dilemma must be found in the balance between contradicting values, as required by a law abiding state that acts in the spirit of human rights (Abdallah abu Massad v. The Water Commissioner and The Israel Lands Administration, ¶53)
As Murthy et al note in their analysis, this is a subtle yet important change:
Because the Court invokes the right to water, it finds that despite the “illegality” of the unrecognized villages, the IWA still had an obligation to provide “reasonable accessibility to minimal quality water” (¶54). In doing so, the Court establishes a precedential framework to ensure the Bedouins’ basic right to water is upheld.
This framework, which invokes international laws as well as Israeli water and human rights laws, could be used as a precedent and applied to future situations, including the land that Israel occupies in the West Bank.
The situation of Bedouins in Israel diverges from that of Palestinians in one important, basic aspect: Bedouins are considered Israeli citizens, whereas Palestinians are “permanent residents” at best and illegal interlopers at worst, especially in the areas that are supposedly governed by the Palestinian Authority but are being settled by Israelis. However, as those parts of the West Bank is considered occupied territory by Israel's courts, it means Palestinians are either “permanent residents” of Israel or its subjects and thus, by definition, Israel's own human rights ruling as written would apply to Palestinian non-citizens as well as Bedouins.
This ruling has also provided an important place for international law to gain a toehold, at least in the realm of water rights; it is now up to the international community to follow the precedents and encourage Israel to implement measures to ensure that basic right. The Abu Massad case, as recently as March 2012, has been used by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel as a precedent. The Palestinian town of al-Aqaba, which is in a part of the West Bank under Israeli control, suffers the same lack of water infrastructure as the Bedouins of Negev. Lawyers from the ACRI are using the decision and statements in Abu Massad as a legal argument to provide water to villages in the West Bank's occupied Area C, noting that to deny Palestinians of water violates not only international law but Israel's own ruling. That case is currently under review.
A change in the tone
Does this ruling signify a sea change in the way Israel defines public resources? In the past, Israel has stopped short of defining water as a basic human right. Article 1 of Israel's Water Law states, “The water resources of the State are public property; they are subject to the control of the State and are destined for the requirements of its inhabitants and for the development of the country.” That leaves the interpretation of what furthers the development of the country or what, indeed is required by its inhabitants wide open. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly voted on an historic resolution recognizing access to clean water and sanitation as a human right. The vote passed with 122 in favor and 41 abstentions; Israel was one of the countries that abstained from voting on the resolution. Israel did not specify why it abstained.
The 2011 Israeli Supreme Court ruling on the Bedouins' water issues is important for the West Bank and beyond, in part because of its neat avoidance of the tangled mess of land rights issues therein. By ruling that water is recognized as a basic human right deserving protection under the 1959 Water Law, it has potentially changed the discourse on water from one of “needs” to one of “rights.” As water scientist Mark Zeitoun points out, water does not necessarily have to be a zero-sum game. By including all people in the region in a dialogue instead of continuing
down a policy of animosity, the discourse can be changed from “one wins, one loses” to a dialogue of co-operation for the greater good, which in this case is the purity and relative abundance of the water supplied by the Mountain Aquifer. There are ways that Israelis and Palestinians can work together to benefit one another without draining each others' water resources, and a legal framework is already there, waiting to be used. In light of dropping water tables, increasing salinity, and pollution while fresh water drains from severed pipes and smashed cisterns against a backdrop of accelerating climate change, now is the time to do so.