It was impressive at first: Long stretches of seemingly barren, beige hills punctuated by abundantly fertile farms growing oranges, dates and watermelons, first appearing in southern Israel in the middle of the 20th century. Unlike the gaudy, fake lakes and gushing fountains of Las Vegas plopped in the middle of the Mojave desert, this prodigious agricultural production was not meant to signal decadence; rather, it was a testament to Israel’s prudent husbandry of the land, an intelligence and expertise that not only enriched the region but legitimised the presence of Israel and the expulsion of Palestinians.
Israel credits its use of desalination plants and drip-irrigation with enabling the desert to bloom – the iconic image reinforcing the still-lingering notion that the land of historic Palestine was a dry one, while further impressing Israel’s world audience with the young country’s wizardry with water.
Less attention is given to the Knesset report commissioned in 2002, nearly four decades after Israel’s national water carrier began diverting the Jordan river to Israeli citrus orchards in the Negev region. The report concluded that the region’s ongoing water crisis – a desiccated Jordan river and shrinking Dead Sea – was “primarily man-made“.
Less attention is given to the Knesset report commissioned in 2002, nearly four decades after Israel’s national water carrier began diverting the Jordan river to Israeli citrus orchards in the Negev. The report concluded that the region’s ongoing water crisis – a desiccated Jordan river and shrinking Dead Sea – was ‘primarily man-made’.
In December 2011, Ben Ehrenreich reported the unrecuperated cost of such agricultural opulence: It required half of Israel’s water while providing only three percent of the country’s GDP. Nevertheless, the extravagance was deemed necessary by the commission, which determined it held a “Zionist-strategic-political value, which goes beyond its economic contribution”.
But there is another motive behind peddling the myth of eternal water scarcity in Palestine: If you argue that you’re creating potable water out of what was nothing, you’ve already successfully obscured your theft of something.
In fact, Palestinians have not historically wanted for water. But the characterisation of Palestine as a desperately arid land has, as Clemens Messerschmid wrote in 2011, “naturalised” the water crisis that Palestinians experience every day. Gaza, which is currently subsisting off of a water source that is 95 percent non-potable, long served as an oasis for travellers crossing from Cairo to Damascus. This history – and more – is important to consider amid the recent enthusiastic clamour over Israel’s miraculous water surplus that promises to provide a glimmer of hope for peace and cooperation, but is, in truth, a helpful cover-up for its ongoing theft and exploitation.
The mythology is currently in a renaissance.
At the beginning of this month, Netanyahu paid a visit to California – which has experienced record-low rainfall this year – to create a pact with Governor Jerry Brown that vaguely promised a collaboration on future projects, especially those concerning water conservation and production. To nervous Californians, Netanyahu crowed, “Israel doesn’t have a water problem!” – no doubt expecting to dazzle his audience with this miracle before trotting out the virtues of his country’s innovation and industry.
The statement was a stunning show of hubris and mendacity in light of the fact that Netanyahu’s country has long deprived Palestinians of their own water.
The visit – and the message it carried – are just the latest in the PR ploys aptly called “bluewashing”. Israel doesn’t have a “water problem” because it steals water from Palestinians.
The Israeli military has governed all sources of water in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 and 1974, respectively. Originally gained by military conquest, its control has subsequently been affirmed through the Oslo Accords and, increasingly, the work of the Palestinian Authority and international NGOs.
A brief review of the state’s dominion over water resources shows that Israel diverts the Jordan river into Lake Tiberias, as do Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon to their respective territories, leaving the Dead Sea with a declining sea-level. Flaunting international laws against the pillage of occupied lands, Israel controls the mountain aquifer – 80 percent of which lies beneath the West Bank – and over-extracts it for agriculture, as well as settlers’ pools and verdant lawns. In 2009, the Mountain Aquifer supplied 40 percent of Israel’s agricultural needs and 50 percent of its population’s drinking water.
Israel also takes more than its share from the coastal aquifer that lies beneath Gaza, and diverts the Wadi Gaza into Israel’s Negev desert, just before it reaches Gaza. Lastly, Israel’s wall conveniently envelops wells and springs that lie east of the Green Line.
With all these sources of water, it’s no miracle that Israelis can comfortably consume about five times as much water as Palestinians.
In 1982, the Ministry of Defence – then led by Ariel Sharon – sold the entirety of the West Bank’s water infrastructure to semi-private Mekorot for one symbolic shekel. What was once a military acquisition became the property of a state-owned company; today the Palestinians in the West Bank buy over half of their water from Mekorot, often at a higher price than nearby settlers.
Founded in 1937, Israel’s water company, Mekorot, has been crucial to the Zionist state-building project, and to that end has aided in Israel’s erasure of its original boundaries. Israeli occupation watchdog group, Who Profits, notes that on Mekorot’s map of its National Water System, there is no Green Line.
Mekorot’s governance of water ensures Palestinians remain on their knees of dependence on Israel – prohibited from using the water flowing beneath their feet or develop their own water infrastructure.
Mekorot’s governance of water ensures Palestinians remain on their knees of dependence on Israel – prohibited from using the water flowing beneath their feet or develop their own water infrastructure. The years immediately following Israel’s usurpation of Palestine’s water resources saw a sharp 20 percent decline in Palestine’s agricultural production. Nearly 200,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have no access to running water, nor do Palestinians have the ability to collect water themselves without explicit permission, which is rarely granted.
Mekorot executes this crime of theft all the while Israel maintains that it has the solutions to scant rainfall and scarcity of water, and that Mekorot provides humanitarian assistance to parched and needy Palestinians.
March 22 marked World Water Day, a day commemorated globally every year since 1993. This year, the day was intentionally chosen to kick off a week-long protest against Mekorot – dubbed International Week Against Mekorot – that will end on March 30, Palestine’s Land Day. The campaign is crucial amid the current amplification of Israel’s trumpeting its water tech prowess.
Mekorot began expanding internationally in 2005; a year that also saw the launch of Brand Israel Group, a multimillion-dollar initiative to improve the country’s image abroad, in which the exporting of commodities plays a useful role. Israel is presented as the country that provides an answer to one of the globe’s most ominous threats – global warming, drought, and water scarcity.
“Israel has taken the challenge of water scarcity and built an export industry in water tech,” Will Sarni of Deloitte Consulting, recently wrote, noting that the industry saw a 170 percent increase in exports in six years. McKinsey has estimated that the global water market is the third or fourth largest commodity market in the world.
And, while the Palestinian Authority long resisted desalination projects as a substitute for restoring water rights to Palestinians, today it has embraced these technical solutions – yet another indication of its impotence as a political entity.
Yet in spite of all this, not everyone is buying Israel’s campaign of bluster and braggadocio. Proponents of BDS, a movement calling for boycotts and sanctions against Israel, have already scored significant victories against Mekorot: The Netherlands and Argentina recently cancelled contracts with Mekorot, citing Mekorot’s violation of international law.
The significance of these successes cannot be overstated: A clear indication that the call for BDS is reaching the ears of government leaders and, perhaps more important, that Zionists are failing in their ceaseless quest to make the world forget their crimes against Palestinians.
Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist in San Francisco. She was formerly based in the Occupied West Bank, Palestine.