Water Scarcity and Resources in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process has stalled, and arguably, there is no end in sight. Almost a decade after the initial Oslo Accords, there is no Palestinian state, the status of refugees remains an elusive concept, and Israel remains in a state of belligerency with the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. There are an incalculable number of reasons why the region’s most caustic conflict remains festering in the stages of failed negotiation. I want to focus on a factor that is perhaps less imbued with the sheer emotional resonance of issues like the final status of Jerusalem to the peace negotiations, and yet one which is no less existentially important for the future of both the people and the land in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Therefore, I will focus on the status of water.

Image courtesy of Mark87, public domain.

Israel and Palestine are amongst the most arid regions on Earth, and as such, water has assumed both a strategic and social importance for the governments and populations dependent on its availability. But why is there a problem? Surely a mutual appreciation of the basic need for water has harnessed a cooperative spirit that could be developed as a larger metaphor for the viability of Israeli and Palestinian cohabitation of their contested land? That would assume a system of equality for both parties.

Israeli Water Strategy

Israeli strategic planning has from the outset realised the existential importance of securing all the available water resources available to it. Security perceptions justified at least five of the seven wars that the Israeli state has fought since its independence in 1948 to seize or secure water sources. Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion clarified this position in 1973 stating ‘It is necessary that the water sources upon which the future of the Land depends should not be outside the borders of the future Jewish homeland’.  The state must also continue to reinforce its legitimacy and to provide the means of supporting a modern economy and providing its citizens with the means to live a life of relative comfort. This has been reflected in the changing demands put on the Israeli water economy over the past 50 years; today 80 percent of Israel’s National Water Carrier (NWC) is used by domestic sources compared to 20 percent in 1964. The government relaxed permit laws on the building of private swimming pools in 2007 under the assumption that such usage of water resources was no longer considered a luxury.

So what is the problem here? Israel is a hot country; Tel Aviv averages 302 days of sunshine a year and if there is water for domestic use such as pools then why should it not be used for family swimming pools?

Because the water is not Israel’s.

Water inequality

Currently 40 percent of the water used by Israel comes from sources beyond the borders of the 1948 state. A full quarter of Israeli water is taken from the underground Mountain Aquifer of the occupied West Bank. Following the 1967 invasion of the West Bank, all Palestinian water pumping stations on the Jordan river were destroyed and from 1967 to 1990 the Israeli government permitted the drilling of 20 wells for the domestic use of Palestinians in the West Bank, roughly one well a year for a population that increased by about 250,000 in the same period.

The Oslo process was supposed to provide a framework to improve this intolerable situation and to this end, both parties formed the Joint Water Committee (JWC) in 1995. Staffed by an equal number of Israeli and Palestinians, the organisation was intended to work towards a harmonious cooperation of resource management.  The Committee, however, facilitated the increased Israeli settlement of the West Bank, as it now had the veneer of legitimacy to continue supplying water resources to the settlement projects that were rapidly mobilising. This was facilitated by the details of the agreement that permitted no Palestinian coordination towards the location of settlements or their water allocation. Settlements received their water at a discounted rate three times less than the Palestinians, despite the fact that the water was pumped from the West Bank. As the Israeli authorities remain in control of wells and the headwaters of the Jordan River, all Palestinian access to resources are under the strict relationship of ‘purchaser’ to ‘supplier’, diluting legitimacy from the Palestinian Authority and municipal organisations.  The PA was essentially contracted to cooperate in its own colonisation. Today Israeli per capita water use is three times that of the average Palestinian.

It seems clear that the Oslo process has failed in achieving a mutual satisfaction between both parties. Israel’s irredentist settlements have continued to expand since the signing of the first accords in 1993, with the settler population in the West Bank growing by about 200,000. Palestinian frustration with this situation has been well documented. It would be naïve and insensitive to suggest that the day-to-day violence and personal humiliation faced by the occupied inhabitants of the West Bank has not tremendously exacerbated the general sense of frustration at the sclerosis of the peace process. This article has intended to show that even under the auspices of a supposedly cooperative peace negotiation there were structural inequalities built into the division of an essential resource that would fundamentally disrupt any reconciliation between the two parties. The deadlock we see today is a result of 60 years of conflict, mismanagement, and disappointment, and one of the significant contributing factors to these issues has been an inability to cooperate over water resources.

2 Replies to “Water Scarcity and Resources in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”

  1. A minor point and in no way meant to detract from the validity of this argument and the need for cooperation across the board, but the ‘1967 invasion of the West Bank’ was in fact within the context of the defensive war Israel fought against Egypt, Syria and Jordan with wide support from the Arab world. It’s important not to let prejudices lead in skewed generalisations.

    1. The article states that ‘Security perceptions justified at least five of the seven wars that the Israeli state has fought since its independence in 1948 to seize or secure water sources’ – i.e. defensive wars. The fact that self-defence formed the context and justification doesn’t detract from the fact that Israel invaded and seized foreign sovereign territory; I don’t see how qualifying the 1967 invasion as defensive really makes much difference to the point of the argument.

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