Gifts of water cisterns from Poland destroyed by Israeli bureaucrats

December 10, 2012
Sarah Benton

Polish NGO safeguards Palestinian water rights

The harsh actions of the Civil Administration in the West Bank have made waves in places as far afield as Poland. An NGO there is working to safeguard Palestinians’ right to collect water

By Amira Hass, Ha’aretz
December 08, 2012

Israel’s ambassador to Poland was summoned to the Polish deputy foreign minister’s office in the wake of an article published in the mass-circulation, liberal paper Gazeta Wyborcza. The ambassador was not summoned because of planned construction in E1, but because of a demolition. This happened last February, but the newspaper continues to take an interest in the reason behind the diplomatic event: the demolition of a Palestinian community’s old water cistern, which had been restored with Polish government funding through the Polish Humanitarian Action NGO.

Judging by comments on the Internet, and discussions held in Polish media outlets and social networks, the fact that Israel was destroying sources of water belonging to the population for whose welfare it is responsible was a shock to quite a few Poles.

On February 4, 2012, the women’s supplement of Gazeta Wyborcza (which takes a soft-feminist line ) published an interview with the Jerusalem director of Polish Humanitarian Action, Marta Kaszubska. She described the work of cleaning and restoring 20 old cisterns belonging to four communities in the southern Hebron Hills area. The interviewer, Piotr Pacewicz, 60, is one of the founders of the paper, which was established in 1989 as an offshoot of the roundtable talks between the Solidarity opposition movement and the Polish government.

Gazeta Wyborcza was supposed to cover the partially free elections of 1989 and then close down (its name means “Elections Gazette” ). The members of the editorial board, including Pacewicz, were veteran correspondents of the underground press with a proven past of disobedience and of carrying out actions which the communist dictatorship of the time had declared illegal. Solidarity won the elections with the maximum possible number of votes permitted under the agreement with the government, and the paper continues to exist.

With degrees in Mathematics and Psychology, Pacewicz has written three books, one of them about the mechanism of revolutions. Over the years, he began to specialize in writing about human rights issues. His subjects have included homophobia, the intolerable conditions faced by women giving birth in Polish hospitals, the right to die humanely and, more recently, reforms in the education system.

“As you know, writing in a newspaper changes nothing,” Pacewicz told Haaretz. Accordingly, he combines his writing with personal involvement in social-activism activities, aiming to heighten consciousness, get others involved and bring direct pressure to bear on the authorities. For example, the campaign to improve conditions in hospital delivery rooms succeeded beyond expectations

On February 13, a week after the publication of the interview with Kaszubska, Pacewicz received a text message from her: “Israel demolished our cistern.” She was referring to a small rainwater reservoir in a small Palestinian village, Rahwa, in the southwest part of the West Bank. On the same day, Civil Administration personnel demolished six residential shelters, seven livestock sheds, four storage areas and four mobile latrines donated by another NGO. All this was documented by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA ).

“On the day the article was published [February 14], I got a call from the Israeli embassy,” says Pacewicz, who returned to Israel and the Occupied West Bank two weeks ago to follow up on the “Polish” water-collection structures in the West Bank. In a written statement, the embassy asserted that the cistern was demolished because it is illegal to dig such structures without a permit. Then the Israeli ambassador, Zvi Rav-Ner, was summoned to a meeting with Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Jerzy Pomianowski. Rav-Ner was asked to explain why the cistern had been destroyed. Thereafter, the paper received a second statement from the embassy, recommending that requests to authorize such projects be submitted to the relevant authorities, and that signs of the Polish humanitarian organization should be placed next to the restored cisterns.

Pacewicz took this as an indication to mean that the Israeli authorities would not damage the “Polish” cisterns. However, a few months later, Civil Administration inspectors issued demolition orders for two of these “Polish” structures in the village of Khirbet Zanuta, again in the southwest part of the West Bank. And on August 28, the Civil Administration demolished yet another of these cisterns in the nearby hamlet of Tiran. According to a list drawn up by OCHA, the Israeli authorities demolished two other ones in Tiran, along with a storeroom, water tank and five animal pens on the same day.

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