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Italian-Israeli water conference is showcase for international law violations

October 2, 2016
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A broad coalition of groups recently mobilized against Watec, the Israeli water technology conference and exhibition, which was held last week for the first time in Europe, in Venice, Italy. 

Watec Italy 2016 is a creation of the Israeli company Kenes Exhibitions and is held biennially in Tel Aviv, though over the last few years it has expanded to other countries, including India in 2013 and Perú in 2014.

Dozens of European trade unions and water movements called on the European Commission (EC) to withdraw patronage from Watec due to participation of companies operating in illegal Israeli settlements. The letter (pdf) noted the EC patronage came “at a time when Israel is cutting off water to Palestinian communities, leaving tens of thousands without access to water during the hottest time of the year.”

The signatories, which included Right2Water in Ireland and the Italian Forum of Water Movements, expressed their disappointment in learning this wasn’t the first time the EC had granted patronage to Watec. Past editions in Tel Aviv also carried EC patronage even though they included as sponsors or participants the settlement-based Ariel University and companies providing services to settlements such as Mekorot, Netafim, Tahal Group International, Hagihon, KKL/JNF and weapons producer Elbit Systems.

The letter emphasized the EC was “at odds with the European Union’s own official position on settlements” and was legitimizing and encouraging illegal activities “thereby reinforcing Israel’s impunity.”

Mekorot, Israel’s national water company and the main sponsor of the Tel Aviv editions of Watec, was curiously missing from the Italian event schedule. However, shortly before it was to take place, Mekorot suddenly appeared on the conference program, with a “company presentation” during the session on “Rural and Urban Water Management.” Mekorot has long been an object of protests due to its key role in implementing Israeli policies of water apartheid for Palestinians. Mekorot steals water from Palestinian aquifers, supplies water to illegal settlements and sells Palestinians their own water, often at exorbitant prices.

The letter to the EC called on European institutions to follow the lead of what has become an impressive list of European companies that have withdrawn from projects and terminated collaboration agreements with Israeli companies violating Palestinian rights.

Fourteen leading Palestinian agricultural and environment organizations also wrote to their colleagues of the Italian farmers network Coldiretti calling for withdrawal of sponsorship from the event, laying out in great detail Israel’s policies of water apartheid, developed and implemented by the country’s water technology sector.

From denying access to water sources via military occupation, to the impossible permit system preventing development of Palestinian water infrastructure and the grossly unequal distribution of water resources under Oslo, to the siege and attacks on Gaza and the Apartheid Wall that separates Palestinians from water wells, the organizations noted that Israeli control of water is “one of the main tools of the colonization project and the expulsion of the Palestinian population.”

H2Occupation: Israeli control and commodification of Palestinian water resources. Italian Forum of Water Movement's presentation with Amira Hass (photo: Cinzia Di Napoli)

Packed house at “H2Occupation: Israeli control and commodification of Palestinian water resources”. Italian Forum of Water Movement’s presentation with Amira Hass (photo: Cinzia Di Napoli)

Just days before Watec kicked off, local groups together with the Italian Forum of Water Movements organized a talk with Amira Hass, “H2Occupation: Israeli control and commodification of Palestinian water resources.”

Speaking to a large crowd gathered in a city government hall, Hass talked about the main pillars of Israel’s control of water sources. The fragmentation of the West Bank into Bantustans makes it impossible to treat the territory as a whole and pipe water from one area to another order to serve the entire population. The development of settlement agriculture as a means for occupying Palestinian land has also increased the demand for water.

Another important component is separating Gaza from the rest of the West Bank. Gaza is treated as a separate entity under the Oslo Accords and its access to water is limited to that of the Coastal Aquifer, which contains far from the amount needed for Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants. Years of over-pumping has led to contamination, and today 95% of water in Gaza is not potable.

“The logical thing to do would be to erect a huge pipe from Israel to Gaza, to compensate for the water stolen from the West Bank, and to pump in tens of millions of cubic meters of water per year to Gaza to prevent the impending disaster,” Hass said. Instead Israel proposes unfeasible, expensive and energ- intensive desalination plants because connecting Gaza to West Bank water means recognizing Gaza as part of the West Bank.

“Israel’s control of Palestinian water resources is part and parcel of the general Israeli control of Palestinian life, present and future, which aims to keep them as a weak entity, forced to bargain, plead and beg for a few drops of water,” concluded Hass.

Renato Di Nicola of the Italian Forum of Water Movements also spoke at the event, reminding the audience of the ongoing international process of not only privatization of water but also its commodification. “Technology transforms water from a resource into a product” and this is something in which Israel excels.

“Israel coming here to Venice for a conference means they’ve already put things in motion.” In fact, the president of Di Nicola’s home region, Abruzzo, recently led a delegation to Israel and met with Mekorot. The water utilities in Rome and Milan signed cooperation agreements with Mekorot, despite its involvement in clear violations of international law, the same violations that led the Dutch water company to interrupt a similar agreement.

Considering that Mekorot is a state company, Di Nicola noted that public management of water resources isn’t enough. “We need a participatory approach.”

That participatory approach was sorely missing at Watec. This was strictly a business-to-business affair. Visitors to Venice would have been hard pressed to find a single poster announcing the event in the city, and entrance to the conference itself was priced at € 100 ($112).

Interestingly, Israel itself was largely downplayed at Watec Italy, with barely a mention of the country’s name on the web site. This is a sharp contrast to the Tel Aviv editions of Watec which boast Israeli government support, including numerous ministries and Matimop, the government’s R&D center, and to Watec Peru and India, which featured Watec Israel and Israel as a water success story.  

Though dressed up as an international conference, a closer look at the companies and speakers involved, show that Watec Italy was more a bilateral meeting aimed at strengthening ties between Israeli and Italian businesses, and keeping Israel’s foot in the European door.

Watec press conference, Venice Italy

Watec Italy 2016 press conference Photo: Stephanie Westbrook

During the press conference, I asked Prema Zilberman, General Director of Watec, whether the participation of companies operating in illegal settlements didn’t risk turning the conference into a showcase for companies violating international law. Zilberman replied:

“I don’t want to get into a discussion, we are a multicultural company, we are working for the good of everyone. We don’t want to bring politics into this.”

When I pointed out that she hadn’t answered my question and the companies themselves had brought politics into the conference, she continued to offer non-responses.

Empty convention halls at Watec Italy 2016

Lots of empty exposition space at Watec Italy 2016 Photo: Stephanie Westbrook

Initially planned for mid-May, last spring the dates for Watec were moved to September after its local partner, Expo Venice, went bankrupt. Trouble for Expo Venice started with the flop of Aquae Venice, a side event of the universal exhibition in Milan Expo 2015. Israel was on the scientific committee for Aquae Venice and planned to showcase its water technology. After touting an expected 1 million visitors over a six-month period, the actual number was only 90,000 and exhibitors accused the organizers of inflating even these much lower figures.

Watec Italy, too, appears to have inflated its numbers. While claiming 40 countriesinvolved, the exhibitors list and conference program show less than ten, with the vast majority being Italian and Israeli. The exhibition space itself was practically empty, with participating companies lamenting “limited participation.” The networking system used to arrange face-to-face meetings during the conference, which organizers claim were 800 in three days, was full of apparently false names, such as Aaron Aaron, Tina Tina, Jeffy Jeffy and Yaw Yaw.

Israel's Watec Italy 2016 exhibition plagued by empty booths and corridors. Photo: Stephanie Westbrook

Israel’s Watec Italy 2016 exhibition plagued by empty booths and corridors. Photo: Stephanie Westbrook

What Israel is counting on in terms of payback from the conference is the strengthening of business and political ties with Italy.

As Di Nicola noted, civil society will need to mobilize to defend both Palestinian rights as well as the vital common good that is water.


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