Note: One of the finalists of the 2012 NatGeo / Matador NEXT GREAT STORYTELLER contest, Emily embarks on a trip of the West Bank to understand water scarcity at the root of the Palestinian conflict.

“AN AMERICAN?”

Uzi Landau, Israeli Minister of Infrastructure, shook my hand on a gravel road overlooking the West Bank settlement of Kochav Ya’akov. He switched to English when my nationality was revealed, and grasped my hand a few seconds longer than necessary, looking me square in the eye. His grin was strained, twisted with a mixture of curiosity and annoyance. Then he dropped my hand and quipped, “You should find a better tour guide.”

He was referring to my couchsurfing friend, Chaim, a correspondent for an Israeli newspaper. Chaim was already walking briskly in the direction of his bullet-proof company car, scribbling on a ruled notebook as he walked, mopping his brow in the early September heat and mumbling under his breath. He took a long drag from his water bottle.

There was something impulsive and neurotic in the way he moved. He was in his element tooling around the West Bank in a beater. He couldn’t care less what Landau had to say about him.

The press caravan followed Landau’s bus north out of Jerusalem through the Hizma checkpoint. Today he was covering the minister’s press tour of the Jewish settlements, an opportunity for the nationalist, Likud-led government to have face time with the settlers. They came out that day to share their hopes and concerns for the future of their contentious homes in the West Bank.

Israel skyline. Photo By: Alistar

Chaim refused to ride the press bus full of Landau’s followers, and we sped down the well-maintained Israeli roads in the reinforced sedan. It was peppered with dents, the windshield a spiderweb of cracks. He muttered an explanation about slingshots. “They all throw stones sometimes, Palestinian kids and the children of Jewish settlers.”

He used the drive between settlements to translate Hebrew conversations between Landau and the settlers at each stop. The settlers at Kochav had begged for wider water pipes, the only way to bring in the appropriate amount for the development of independent agriculture. Chaim spoke of Palestinian villages and refugee camps from which water had been diverted — places that now relied on government deliveries that were almost always late.

I squirmed in the passenger seat. I was sweating through the front of my shirt, my nearly empty water bottle rolling at my feet.

I was reminded of the Israeli couple in their 80’s who I’d met beside the Galilee a week before.

“You won’t understand the state of Israel or the conflict until you understand the water.” The old man spoke between bites of chocolate ice cream. “The water is everything. Everything green you see here is because of our engineers, our innovators, our irrigation system. They hate us for a lot of reasons. Land was the first reason. Water was the second.”

The sedan rolled to a stop over dust and gravel. We’d preempted Landau’s arrival at Shilo and were greeted by a settler, a woman in her early 40’s. Chaim hugged her. They were friends.

“If Chaim had his way they would bulldoze my house tomorrow,” she said playfully. Chaim shook his head for a moment, then nodded. They were smiling, but neither was joking. He walked away to take notes as Landau started to speak.

“I live in Eli, in that settlement across the valley.” She pointed to a huddle of houses on the far distant ridge. “People like Chaim say that we built it over a Palestinian olive grove. They think we’re thieves.” I could sense the tone of desperation in her voice. She knew what Chaim had been telling me. She wanted me to understand her life, the choices she had made.

Chaim emerged from the crowd before the meeting was over, as a number of settlers began raising their voices. “I have what I need,” he muttered.

“What are they saying?”

“That the Palestinians in the valley are drilling through the pipes to steal water.”

I grasped my empty water bottle, glancing through the open door to the press room where tables were set for lunch. Caterers placed bottles of water in neat rows on a folding table. I was told to help myself.

If they hadn’t offered, I’d have stolen one when no one was watching.