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JERUSALEM – Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank rarely mix, but authorities are hoping their sewage will.
The Jewish settlement of Ofra and neighboring Palestinian villages currently dump their sewage into valleys, threatening to contaminate a critical underground water aquifer. So Israeli authorities are advancing plans to solve the environmental mess with a new treatment plant serving both communities.
But in the contentious West Bank, politics can be just as dirty as the sewage.
The treatment plant was originally intended to serve the Jewish settlement only, but Israel's supreme court halted its construction three years ago after determining that it was being built on private Palestinian land.
According to Israeli rulings and international law, private land in occupied territory cannot be confiscated for a public works project unless it benefits the local Palestinian population as well. So Israeli authorities are now trying to legalize the land grab by retrofitting the plant to serve area Palestinian villages, not just Ofra, located about 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of Jerusalem.
But Palestinian officials refuse to cooperate, so as not to lend a hand to Israel's settlement enterprise.
"The Palestinian villages were asked to join in this project with the settlement, but all the villages around rejected the offer following the instructions of the Palestinian leadership," said Abed Rahman Saleh, mayor of the village of Silwad.
Saleh said Israeli officials, for their part, refused to approve a German-funded wastewater facility for the area villages because it would not serve the Israeli settlement. Maj. Guy Inbar, a spokesman for Israel's civil administration in the West Bank, said he was unfamiliar with the claim.
In the meantime, the sewage keeps flowing.
"Over the last 40 years, no one really cared about the Palestinian villages surrounding Ofra," said Shlomy Zachary, an Israeli attorney representing Palestinian owners of the land where the Israeli plant stands half-completed. "Now, in order to shed some quasi-legality on this purification plant, there are attempts to show or to present that this purification plant will serve the Palestinian villages."
The tug of war over the sewage treatment plant reflects the greater fight for control in the West Bank.
For Palestinians, the West Bank is the heart of a future state, but for Israel the land is significant to Jewish heritage and security. Since Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, it has built more than 100 settlements there, complicating any future withdrawal. U.S.-mediated peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis ended last week with no progress on the fate of the West Bank.
Israel has exclusive control of some 60 percent of the West Bank, including the area of Ofra and its surrounding villages. Planning and construction for Palestinian villages in these areas must receive Israeli approval, but Palestinians say they rarely receive such approvals.
Joint efforts on environmental matters like wastewater treatment are also complicated by the need for such projects to receive the approval of a joint Palestinian-Israeli water committee.
Israel began building the treatment plant in 2008 in a verdant, untilled valley near Ofra. In 2009, Palestinian landowners petitioned Israel's supreme court to stop construction, and the court put a temporary stop to the building. In 2011, the court ordered the state not to continue building the plant until it could be done legally.
After three years of planning, Israel's civil administration in the West Bank said that the project is now in advanced planning stages and would be presented for government approval in the coming days.
"When the construction is completed, the facility will be available also for the use of surrounding Palestinian villages," it said in a statement.
The plan is to build an additional facility, alongside the plant already half-built for Ofra, to serve those villages. It is unclear if the court will allow Ofra's sewage to be treated at the plant if Palestinian villages refuse to hook up to it.
The area is in desperate need of a sewage solution.
When the Israeli settlers of Ofra flush their toilets, their waste dumps into a valley of olive trees nearby. When Palestinians in the neighboring villages flush their toilets, their waste drops into underground cesspits until tankers pump it out and dump it into a valley. All of this threatens a main aquifer that is a critical source of drinking water for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Yitzhak Meyer, head of the Environmental Protection Association, a settler environmental group, said the environment should not suffer at the expense of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"There is no way other than to separate politics from the environment," Meyer said. "I don't know what the final deal will be. I don't know if there will be a final deal in our lifetime, in our generation. In the meantime we need to do things together."