Here's the (slightly altered) opening section of my article on water and the Israeli occupation of Palestine in the December issue of Harper's. The full text is online here.
“And the nations’ roads to the same old springs are endless!”
Water flows through everything, until it doesn’t anymore. Take the Jordan River—the one from the spirituals, which our souls yearn to cross. The same one, in name at least, that forms the boundary between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the occupied West Bank. If you believe the old stories, it was across the Jordan’s waters that Joshua led the Israelites from Egyptian exile into the land of Canaan and it was on the Jordan’s shores that John the Baptist ritually dunked the son of God. In 1848, when Lieutenant William Francis Lynch of the United States Navy explored the length of the lower Jordan from Lake Tiberias to the Dead Sea, he described a river between 35 and 80 yards wide, “serpentine” and “impetuous,” its banks thick with thistle, cane and tamarisk. Between “desperate-looking cascades” and “fearful cataracts,” the Jordan “flowed broad and deep, yet maintaining much of the character of a torrent.”
But late this March, when I stood on a hill a mile or two above its banks, I couldn’t see the river. I had left Ramallah early that morning and driven east and then north in one shared taxi and then another, past barking Israeli police and soldiers at roadblocks and checkpoints, down out of the rocky hills around the erstwhile capital of the Palestinian Authority and into the Jordan Valley. I spent most of the day on a treeless hillside about the tiny Palestinian hamlet of Ein al-Hilwe, where armed Israeli settlers had erected a tent beside the one occupied by Nabil Daraghemeh and his family and had told Daraghemeh that they would leave when he did. (Two days later the army declared the hillside a "closed military area" and demolished Daraghemeh's tent. The settlers' tent was left standing.)
I hitched a ride home with a group of Israeli human rights workers on a tour of the Jordan Valley and we drove through lush settler-owned groves of oranges and bananas until the driver stopped on a dirt road and we all got out and climbed the hill, hoping to get a view of the river. On the way we ran into four young Palestinian men who were driving their cattle along the road—Israeli soldiers, they said, had just confiscated several of their cows to punish them for grazing where they weren’t allowed to graze. The view from the top of the slope was beautiful. The light was low and soft. To the right were fallow fields sprayed with yellow wildflowers and to our left small Palestinian plots of peppers and cucumbers and beyond them in the distance chains of white, settlement nurseries and date plantations behind barbed wire. And just below, beyond the fence and the signs warning of the mine fields behind the fence, I could make out individual houses in Jordan, but I could not spot the river. I could see a concrete watchtower on the Israeli side of the international border, but I could not see the water that formed the border itself.
To be honest about it, there is no Jordan River. There hasn’t been one since the mid-1960s, when Israel diverted the waters of Lake Tiberias into the National Water Carrier and thence to the coast and, famously, to the southern desert, that it might bloom. The slender trickle that continues to bear the Jordan’s name is now composed largely of agricultural runoff and untreated sewage from as far away as Jerusalem. What once was water, holy water, now flows with toxic shit.