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Debunking some myths about Israel's water politics

Ending the occupation is a crucial first step if Israel wants real peace with its neighbours.

Last updated: 10 Mar 2014 08:30
Miriam R Lowi

Miriam R Lowi is Professor of Comparative & Middle East Politics, The College of New Jersey and author of Water and Power: the Politics of a Scarce Resource in the Jordan River Basin. (Cambridge University Press)
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A graphic representation of the unfair restrictions is that while many Jewish settlements have swimming pools, Palestinians in "Area C" of the West Bank are not allowed cisterns for collecting rainwater, writes Lowi [AFP]

In his speech to Israel's Parliament on February 12, Martin Schultz, president of the European Parliament, spoke of our shared responsibility to stand up for freedom and dignity at all times. He acknowledged Israel's success at realising a dream shared by many people: To live "in freedom and dignity" in "a homeland of their own", noting that Palestinians also have the right to "self-determination and justice".


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He then addressed Palestinian suffering and in doing so, highlighted the glaring discrepancy in access to water between the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza on the one hand, and Israelis - inside the "Green Line" and on settlements in the West Bank - on the other. 

AIPAC did not remain silent. In a New York Times article AIPAC's Seth Siegel suggests that the Arabs should stop viewing Israel as "the problem". Without any mention of Israel's occupation of Palestinian land, he calls upon Arabs to reach out to Israel and benefit from its superior know-how.

Israel could save them from water scarcity and reconciliation could ensue. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke likewise in his address to AIPAC on March 4: The Arabs need to recognise Israel as a Jewish state; then there would be peace and the deserts would bloom.

The core issues

On the eve of the Oslo Accords, I wrote a book on the potential for cooperation in water use among adversarial states in dry climate zones. I argued that "functional cooperation" in protracted conflict settings was exceedingly difficult to achieve. If, however, negotiated arrangements were reached, they would be piecemeal and narrowly-focused - arrived at because there was no viable alternative.

Such arrangement, nonetheless, should not be construed as reflecting cooperation, and they would not spill over into peace. I referred to this strategy as conflict-resolution by "nibbling at the edges", and insisted that it reflected the preferences of the more powerful protagonist and its refusal to address the core issue of conflict. 

If Israel genuinely wants peace with its neighbours, it will end its occupation of Palestinian land and control over the people, their resources, and livelihood. That is the crucial first step.

By failing to acknowledge the occupation, would-be conflict-solvers ignore what almost 50 years of Israel's domination and control over Palestinian land has meant for Palestinian water resources and access to water.

Since Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Palestinians have consumed only as much water as the Israeli government allows them.

Not surprisingly, the per capita consumption of a Palestinian household is about one-third that of an Israeli household. Moreover, Palestinians cannot dig wells for water on their land without permission from the Israel Water Authority, and in some parts of the West Bank (above the "Mountain" aquifer), drilling wells is strictly forbidden; further, they can pump from wells only as much water as the Authority allows.

A graphic representation of the unfair restrictions is that while many Jewish settlements have swimming pools, Palestinians in "Area C" of the West Bank are not allowed cisterns for collecting rainwater.

While it has been said that West Bank Palestinians receive much of their water from Israel's national water utility, this is misleading for Israel does not give Palestinians water; it sells them water. To be more exact, Palestinians are forced to purchase water from Israel to satisfy demand; and some of the water they purchase comes from their own aquifers.

This is the case because the Oslo II Accords (1995) - which, according to some, were supposed to lead to peace - gave Israel control over the water resources of the West Bank, stipulating that Palestinians will receive only 20 percent, while Israelis, inside the "Green Line" and on West Bank settlements, make off with 80 percent. As the iniquitous distribution of water reveals, Oslo became the continuation of control by other means.

As for Gaza, Israeli government advocates claim that under a Hamas government, its water supply has become polluted. The water situation in Gaza is dire, but not because of Hamas. Rather, at Israel's insistence, Oslo II stipulated that Gaza should be sovereign in water use and rely for its supply solely on the aquifer underlying its territory.

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End the occupation

However, population growth and development have made local water needs greater than the local aquifer can provide. With no other source, Palestinians have been over-pumping from the single aquifer, causing the intrusion of seawater and sewage, rendering the water supply unusable. If Gaza's residents were allowed to access other sources, they would not be over-pumping.

Having said this, the condition of water scarcity is indeed real and requires careful attention, including the adoption of water-saving technologies and practices.

For the Palestinian territories, however, resource constraints that derive from nature have been intensified by Israel's punitive policies and unfair distributive practices as the occupying power. 

Having imposed debilitating conditions on the Palestinian people, Israel now offers its services as the saviour of the Palestinians - if only they would cooperate! There is a profoundly disingenuous logic to this approach. 

If Israel genuinely wants peace with its neighbours, it will end its occupation of Palestinian land and control over the people, their resources, and livelihood. That is the crucial first step.

Miriam R Lowi is Professor of Comparative & Middle East Politics, The College of New Jersey  and author of Water and Power: the Politics of a Scarce Resource in the Jordan River Basin (Cambridge University Press)

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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