Water Is the Root of Israeli-Palestinian Evil

JERUSALEM, March 30, 2002 (ENS) - The Israelis and the Palestinians each blame the other for the violence that is consuming the region with renewed ferocity. Each side sees itself as the victim. The convoluted conflict which has its origin in Biblical times is created in part by the arid nature of the disputed lands.

Dwindling water resources increasingly affected by pollution, agricultural and industrial use and population growth, have elevated the strategic importance of water in the region. The water issue is at the root of the struggle over territory.

Israel is made up of five million Jews and one million Palestinians. The West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are inhabited by 2.5 million Palestinians.

The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) complains that Israel controls the sources of water and one third of West Bank inhabitants have only intermittent water supplies. Israel has complete control over water resources in the West Bank and uses 82 percent of the underground water, the PNA says.

Palestinians in the West Bank are charged three times as much per unit of water as Israeli settlers.


The West Bank town of Hebron where 400 Jewish settlers live in a zone, shown here, guarded by 2,500 Israeli military in the city of 119,000 Palestinians. (Photo courtesy Strategic Pastoral Action Network)
The Israeli newspaper, "Ha'aretz," reported that more than half a million of the Palestinian inhabitants in the West Bank have not consistently received water for more than two months.

The yearly Israeli consumption of water is 12 million cubic meters. The Palestinian National Authority says "this 12 million cubic meters is the percentage of deficiency that cities in Gaza lack."

The Palestinian daily consumption of water is 35 to 50 liters per capita, while the daily consumption of the Jewish settlers is 280 to 350 liters per capita.

Both sides rely for water on the West Bank Mountain Aquifer, which straddles the demarcating border of the disputed West Bank territory. It currently provides a third of Israel’s water supply and 80 percent of Palestinian consumption.

Despite being the most important source of long term water for Israel, use of the Aquifer has not been implemented to the fullest extent possible. "Israeli officials, while cognizant of the growing water crisis, fear Israeli dependency on potentially Palestinian controlled water sources," said Ilan Berman and Paul Michael Wihbey of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, a Jerusalem based think tank.

Due to the shortage of water in the Israeli-Palestinian common resources, the local authorities, the municipality, and the Palestinian Water Authority have been obliged to periodically transfer massive water pipes from certain areas in order to supply others.

Tahir Nasir Eldin, director general of the Palestinian Water Authority in the West Bank, told the "Ha'aretz," newspaper that in the summer months Macarot Israeli Water Company reduces the supply of water to the Palestinian areas and the settlements.

For instance, the 300,000 inhabitants who live in Hebron need 25,000 cubic meters of water daily. However, Macarot supplies this area with 5,500 cubic meters only.


Pharmacy in Bethlehem destroyed by Israeli military forces today. (Photo courtesy The Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between People)
The 180,000 inhabitants of Bethlehem need 18,000 cubic meters of water daily during the summer, but they get only 8,000 cubic meters.

Bethlehem residents must buy water from the citizens who are connected to the Israeli lines. These citizens fill their tanks in the few days when they have water, and conserve it for the days when they will not have any water.

The 1993 Oslo Accord requires the Israeli government to continue its control over the Palestinian water resources, and that they decide the amount of water that can be used.

According to the agreement, the Palestinian National Authority can supply water tanks separate from the ones they currently share with the settlements. However, the PNA says, "the Americans are funding most of the expense of these water tanks, and as a result have delayed this project for many long years."

On July 23, 2001, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) West Bank & Gaza Mission transferred legal title for water infrastructure in the West Bank valued at $75 million to the Palestinian Water Authority. USAID's West Bank Water Resources Program, which began in June 1996, has enhanced the availability and quality of water for more than 300,000 Palestinians.

Phase I of the program financed four major production wells and a water transmission system in the Bethlehem-Hebron area, as well as a water transmission system for 11 villages in Jenin. These structures, all of which had been in operation for more than a year, were the subject of the legal transfer.

Still, the PNA says, Jenin residents do not have the water they need, and were grateful to accept 150,000 liters of water given to them by Jewish peace activists.

Nasir Eldin asserts that the Jewish settlements obtain their full water needs from the common Israeli-Palestinian water lines.

But an Israeli expert who prefers not to be named said that the reduced supply of water to the Palestinian areas takes place when most or all of the water pipes that lead to them are closed.

On the contrary, another expert in the Israeli Water Authority said that they don't close the water pipes, and that the shortage of water which the Palestinians face results from high consumption.

He claimed, "We are responsible for the drinking water supply and the current amount of water is enough. We have no intention of reducing the water which the Palestinians get in order to transfer it to the settlements."


Israeli water rights demonstration, July 4, 2001 (Photo courtesy Middle East Online)
Environmental experts say Israel has only itself to blame if its taps run dry. All three of Israel's main water sources — the Sea of Galilee, a coastal aquifer and the West Bank Mountain Aquifer shared with the Palestinians — are dangerously depleted.

Israeli water experts fear that those three sources have gotten to the red lines past which there is a danger they will be irremediably contaminated by salt deposits.

An Israeli Water Commission spokesperson said Israel itself suffers from a water shortage because of low rainfall. “Israel and the Palestinians both have a problem of water,” she told the "Jordan Times" December 7, 2000. "As for consumption," she said. “It's a way of life. If you take the numbers, it's true they are not using the same amount. “But it's not that they are asking and we are not giving.”

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said 215,000 Palestinians in more than 150 villages are not connected to running water, and that Israel has discriminatory allocation. “At a time when the Israeli public debates whether to water the lawn or wash their car, Palestinians suffer from a shortage of water to meet their most basic needs,” B'Tselem said in a statement.

Nasir Eldin said that the reasons for the fatal water crisis which the Palestinians are enduring are overpopulation, the high standard of living of the settlements, the illegal waste of water for agricultural use, and Israeli negligence in maintaining the water tanks in the West Bank for more than 40 years, which has led to the loss of 11 percent of the total amount of water.

Even the Multilateral Water Resources Group, created in 1992 as part of the peace process negotiations, has failed to get the parties to move toward agreement on water sharing.

The Oslo Accord allows the Palestinians to dig a number of wells. However, not all of them are working. Nasir Eldin says, "What is left for the Palestinians is an observant conservation of the drinking water, and proper organization for the distribution of water. I don't have any good news for the Palestinian people, and we don't expect to have a solution for the current situations this summer."

“We are in a very bad situation,” then Palestinian Water Authority Chairman Nabil Sharif told a water conference in September 2000. “Unless the United States will do everything possible to convince the Israelis, at the end there will be no real peace if there is no water. If there will be no water, I don't think any agreement of peace will live more than two or three years.”