False media reports turn burst pipe into viral meme with help of anti-Israel activists and “journalists”
Several media watch dog groups (see here and here) have blasted reports published in The Independent, International Business Times, Times of London, and other news outlets for falsely accusing Israel of cutting off drinking water to Palestinians in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Each of these news outlets picked up a blatantly incorrect Al Jazeera report that initially included no response from Israel. They ran their own stories with it, accompanied by headlines denunciating Israel for maliciously working to deprive Palestinians of water.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) June 15, 2016
As I describe below, it didn’t take very long for anti-Israel websites and bloggers to pounce on these stories, further spreading the lie. Within just a couple of days, thousands—perhaps even millions—of people were exposed to the nonsense via social media and reports aired on TV:
This is a classic case of how the media’s coverage of Israel and the Palestinian territories often diverges into the farcical, offering ludicrous examples of shoddy reporting more akin to “fiction writing than journalism”.
Perfect case study in how anti-Israel bias works: https://t.co/swEgi56QwE "Israel cut off water to Palestinians" is now fact for millions.
— Tom Doran (@portraitinflesh) June 16, 2016
UK Independent Publishes a Palestinian Water Libel
In a June 15 article for the British newspaper The Independent, freelance journalist Peter Yeung alleged that tens of thousands of Palestinians were being denied water resources during the hot summer weeks:
Israel has cut off the water supply to large areas of the West Bank, Palestinian authorities have claimed.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians have reportedly been left without access to safe drinking water during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a period of fasting, at a time when temperatures can exceed 35C”.
The rest of the article amounts to a risible charge that Israel deliberately withholds water from the West Bank’s Arab residents.
UK Media Watch investigated the accusations by contacting Mekorot, Israel’s national water utility, and COGAT—the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli governmental unit that works with Palestinian authorities.
In a series of emailed responses it received from these agencies within less than 24 hours of the initial requests for information, UK Media Watch learned that the so-called “water shutoff” was only a burst pipe.
The rupture affected communities in the area of Jenin, but it lasted just a couple of hours. COGAT noted that its Civil Administration team had quickly repaired the faulty water line—“water flow has been regulated and is currently up and running”.
COGAT even released video evidence of the burst pipe along with an explanation.
— COGAT (@cogatonline) June 15, 2016
So the water supply wasn’t disrupted on account of any malevolent Israeli attempt to cruelly deny the Palestinian population an adequate water supply.
Mekorot noted that its water supply policies aren’t arbitrary or discriminatory. According to the water carrier, the existing infrastructure can’t cope well with the increased demand during the summer months. So it’s compelled to lower the amount of water supplied, but both Palestinian and Israeli consumers are affected by this reduced water flow.
According to the information that Mekorot provided, work to expand the water infrastructure to fix the shortfall is underway. It’s a step made difficult by the Palestinian persistent refusal to cooperate on water management issues. As COGAT noted to UK Media Watch—and told The Independent too—water usage in the West Bank is supposed to be regulated by a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee (the JWC), as stipulated by the Oslo Accords. But the JWC hasn’t met for more than 5 years.
It’s worth reading Peter Yeung’s short Indy report.
In it, he adds a quotation from COGAT at the very end, but only after he received complaints. He never bothered to contact COGAT, Mekorot, or any other Israeli officials in the first place.
Nor did he reach out to any Israeli residents in Samaria, who would’ve been more than happy to disabuse him of the notion that Israel is discriminating against Arabs. They would’ve gladly informed him that Israeli settlements too were experiencing water shortages.
Basically Yeung didn’t bother to undertake even the most basic of investigations for his story—like fact-checking. He wasn’t interested in finding out if there was another side to the allegations that Palestinian propagandists were making.
Their emotionally-charged, unsubstantiated accusations still appear in the article. No Israeli officials are directly quoted. So the article doesn’t offer even a semblance of “balance”—no one on the Israeli side is given the opportunity to rectify the false allegations by noting Israel’s generous post-1967 water policies or the complicity of the Palestinians in their own water problems (see further below).
When COGAT reached out to provide Yeung with an accurate statement of the facts, he selectively chose what to include, leaving out the most pertinent information—like the fact that Israel recently increased the water flow at night to West Bank Palestinian communities in order to accommodate the extra usage following the Ramadan fast.
The flow of water to both the Hebron and Bethlehem area has also been increased by 5,000 cubic meters per hour, according to Mekorot—another fact that Yeung doesn’t think it worthwhile to let readers know about.
— CAMERA UK (formerly UK Media Watch and BBC Watch) (@CAMERAorgUK) June 16, 2016
For some bizarre reason, Yeung also ends his report with the statement “Mekorot could not be reached for comment”. Yet, UK Media Watch had no problem making contact with Israel’s water carrier. And now Yeung is apparently the one who isn’t being responsive. According to the media watchdog group Honest Reporting, he hasn’t responded to their online queries. The group is now demanding a correction to the article.
Bottom line: Even with the tacked-on COGAT disclaimer at the end of the article, The Independent’s report reads like an anti-Israel hatchet job. There’s no retraction of the misleading and inaccurate information that’s still contained in the report—like the distortion that “since 1967, Israel has limited the water available to the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since its forces occupied the territories” (for the truth, see further below).
As pro-Israel blogger Elder of Zion notes: “The article makes it sound like the army is simply being vindictive and petty, when in fact the COGAT unit tries to help Arab civilians as much as it can—that is its entire purpose”.
The False Reporting Snowballs
The Independent’s coverage of this news item is bad enough. But other media outlets did an even worse job.
The International Business Times reported that Israel’s actions in cutting the water supply were tantamount to “water apartheid”. It attributes that inflammatory phrase to vague and unnamed “critics of Israel” and also implies that it’s a common—and accurate—way of viewing the situation. The article goes on to make the ludicrous claim that Israel has “sanctioned” the water available to Palestinians ever since 1967.
Among the most egregious is a post (“Israel Just Cut Off Water to Palestine During Ramadan Leaving Tens of Thousands Thirsty”) by Matt Agorist for the blog Activist Post—a website I have never heard of and hope to never have the reason to frequent again.
Agorist, the co-founder of TheFreeThoughtProject.com claims to be an honorably discharged veteran of the USMC, a former intelligence operator with the NSA, and currently an independent journalist. In his post, he uses the false charge that Israel had cut the West Bank’s water supply as a lead-in for a full throttled Israel-bash. Accusing Israel of “never-ending mistreatment”, he likens the country to Nazi Germany and closes with the following words of wisdom:
Until humanity realizes that acts of aggression will always be met with more acts of aggression—this madness will continue”.
It’s madness, to be sure. But only because all these bogus news reports, blogs and commentaries received thousands of ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ on social media.
Then, virulently anti-Israel media pundits with large followings online made sure to pass along the lie.
Marc Lamont Hill, a Morehouse College Professor and CNN commentator whose anti-Israel crusading we’ve featured in several prior posts (see here and here), tweeted the Indy story to his 235K followers.
Israel ‘cuts off water supply to West Bank’ during Ramadan https://t.co/ua58rUBbB3
— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) June 16, 2016
Other anti-Israel activist “journalists” pushed it out as well:
"Israel has cut off the water supply to large areas of the West Bank, Palestinian authorities have claimed." https://t.co/KrRenIddqZ
— Ben White (@benabyad) June 15, 2016
A great number of people fell for the lie hook, line, and sinker and shared their righteous indignation. Here’s a sample of the Israel-hate generated as the fictitious pieces of journalism ricocheted across the internet. There are many more:
Israels cruelty & inhumanity to Palestinians knows no bounds as they cut water supply to West Bank during Ramadan https://t.co/6DiH3LnTpi
— Celestine (@CelestineBee) June 15, 2016
So it's been reported that water supply to Gaza has been cut by Israel during the month of Ramadan. And yet it's not making headlines ?
— D boy (@Dillz786) June 16, 2016
— Lord Sarcastico (@lordsarcastico) June 16, 2016
.@HillaryClinton Israel has cut off the water supply to Palestine during the holy month of Ramadan. Do you support this?
— Janelle Belgrave L.Ac (@JSoAbove) June 16, 2016
Even when some people were confronted with the hoax, it didn’t seem to make a difference:
lDifferential access to water is not a lie. It's a documentable fact. If you have evidence to the contrary, show it. https://t.co/1z98oYdZfi
— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) June 16, 2016
Burst pipe or not, does anybody dispute that Israel allows Palestinians only a fraction of water resources?
— Jareer Kassis (@JareerKassis) June 16, 2016
Exposed: the “Water Apartheid” Myth
Water libels have long been a staple of Palestinian propaganda. Several years ago, a slander that Israel was poisoning Gaza’s wells evoked similar medieval accusations:
Last year, the claim that Israel opened nonexistent dams into Gaza supposedly to intentionally cause flooding circulated like wild fire. The flooding was due to rain. Then too Al Jazeera was the media outlet that initially disseminated the false information. It eventually published a retraction, but by then the damage was done.
These hoaxes are a piece of the longstanding campaign to hold Israel responsible for water problems in Palestinian-governed areas. This Thursday, Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah echoed the typical accusation:
Israel wants to prevent Palestinians from leading a dignified life, and uses its control over our water resources to this end”.
These kinds of defamatory statements have been a dime a dozen over the years.
But the reality is that while water management in the West Bank is a complex issue, the problems that have arisen there are not Israel’s fault.
Since 1967, Palestinians have enjoyed better access to water than their Arab neighbors who suffer from terrible water shortages. They’re also much better off than they were under Jordanian rule. Within five years of Israel’s takeover of the territories in 1967, a new pumping system brought water directly to city centers, increasing the water supply by 50%.
In 1967 per capita consumption was 93,000 liters per year—by 2006 it stood at 129,000 liters per year, very close to the average in the rest of Israel. Prof. Haim Gvirtzman, a hydrologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, points out that Israel has connected over 700 Palestinian villages to running water. Today, 97% of Palestinian households receive a regular supply of water (before the Six Day War, it was only roughly 10%).
Palestinians living in the West Bank today do experience water shortages. These problems though are a result of poor governance and the PA’s unwillingness to work with Israeli authorities to coordinate water management activities.
It’s refused to:
- capitalize on its own underground water resources;
- build a desalinization plant;
- upkeep the urban water infrastructure;
- plan for a sufficient number of sewage treatment plants;
- irrigate land with treated sewage effluents or use modern water-saving devices, like drip irrigation technology; or
- bill citizens for water usage.
The result of this suboptimal use of water resources is widespread waste and a shortage of water.
Israel has met its obligations under the Oslo Accords to provide Palestinians with fresh water—and in fact has gone above and beyond what is required of it. According to the Accords, Israel must supply 31 million cubic meters per year to the Palestinians, an amount that’s been exceeded—by some margin—every year since 2001.
Indeed, it’s the PA that’s acting illegally here: drilling unauthorized wells into Israel’s aquifers and sending sewage flowing into the streams, rivers, and valleys of central Israel.
Reports document that of 52 million cubic meters per year of Palestinian wastewater, only 4 million is purified in Palestinian sewage treatment plants. Israel treats about 14 million in its own facilities. But the rest is discharged into the environment causing very serious pollution and major damage to Israel’s water supplies and various river environments.
Bottom line: Palestinians have chosen to blame Israel for their water problems. The reality is that Israel has never used “water as a weapon” against innocent Palestinians. In the case of the West Bank, the PA’s water mismanagement and poor policy choices have stymied efforts to ensure that the Palestinian population there has an adequate supply. Water shortages in the West Bank are due to Palestinian policies that waste water and destroy the regional water ecology.
In its coverage of how a burst water pipe became a vehicle for an anti-Israel smear, the media watchdog group Honest Reporting aptly begins with a line from Mark Twain:
A lie can travel halfway around the word while the truth is putting on its shoes”.
That is precisely what happened in this case.
The fact of the matter is that the Palestinians are not willing to address their poor management of water and waste-water, and are uninterested in practical solutions to solve their water shortages. They’d rather perpetuate these shortages, happily posing as the innocent victims of made-up Israeli water crimes for so-called journalists in search of yet another accusation with which to discredit and besmirch the Jewish state.
Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElmanDONATE
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