By Nabil Sahli
Recent reports have highlighted the acute water shortage facing Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank and Bethlehem in particular – and noted that the average Israeli settler consumes six times more water than the average Palestinian. This is despite the latter’s rights to the sources as the original owner of the land, albeit an owner who is denied access by the Israeli military occupation. Water use by colonial settlers includes filling and topping-up their swimming pools as well as garden sprinklers for immaculate lawns.
Close observers of the settlement process will realise that confiscation of water sources has always been a priority for the Israeli colonisers. It was in this context that in a document written in 1941 David Ben Gurion, the Zionist leader and Israel’s first Prime Minister, said that the waters of the Jordan River and the Litani River [in present-day Lebanon] must be included in the borders of the future Jewish state for it to survive.
Following the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948 the authorities sought to take control of the water resources in Palestine. Engineers started immediately to implement water projects, the largest and most important of which was the so called ‘national water carrier of Israel’, to transfer water from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev desert, which constitutes 50% of the area historic Palestine.
Prior to 1948, the discourse of the Zionist movement laid special emphasis on the importance of water for the survival of a future Zionist state. This was made clear in the documents released following the first Zionist Congress chaired in August 1897 by the father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, in Basle, Switzerland. Since 1948, Israeli leaders have delivered numerous statements stressing the necessity of water to the Zionist project.
Planners and decision-makers in Israel have developed constantly new plans and policies allowing Israel to maintain control over water resources, both in Palestine and in neighbouring countries. Accordingly, water has been a decisive factor in determining the geography of Israel and its expansionist policies from 1948 to the Six-Day-War of June 5-10 1967, up to the present day. This in part explains the building of the separation wall, the ‘water wall’ as some have called it, which in its twists and turns across the occupied West bank incorporates most of the major water sources in the area. Water from these sources – prime Palestinian agricultural land – is diverted for colonial-settlers’ domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes. The result is that the Palestinians, with a population growth of more than 3.5% a year, face severe water shortages, leading to a total lack of drinking water and insufficient water for agriculture, turning once fertile land into a desert. Thus deprived of their traditional livelihood, there is a real possibility of this causing the indirect expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank. Such expulsion – “silent transfer” in Zionist terminology – is ethnic cleansing by any other name.
The water resources of the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 are vitally important for Israel, which is why the authorities have issued dozens of illegal and unreasonable orders to allow their hegemony over water resources in the West Bank. A major Israeli military order was issued on 7 June, during the Six-Day War, granting Israel total control of all the water resources in the soon to be occupied West Bank, transferring ownership to Israel and its state bodies.
Israeli control has been strengthened by the consistent refusal to issue permits for Palestinians to drill new wells or deepen and repair existing dried-up wells. Hence, Israel, the illegal occupier of the land, controls the water while the land-owners, the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, are forbidden to access their own natural resources. Already, around 60% of Palestinians in the West Bank live in extreme poverty, a figure that is likely to get worse as the impact of the “water wall” bites deeper. In the absence of any real Palestinian and Arab plans to the contrary, Israel’s strategy remains one of settlements aiming to take control of ever more land and water, with the least possible number of Palestinians to share it with.
As part of this process, Israel says that the digging by the Palestinians of 300 wells in the past few years has a negative effect on settlements’ irrigation projects, increasing, they claim, salinity levels. The knock-on effect on agricultural productivity has repercussions on the whole Israeli economy. Yet another reason to maintain Israeli control over water supplies, regardless of the consequences for the Palestinians.
Post-1967 the area affected by the water crisis has widened, with Israel having control over the water resources of the Jordan River basin and the Hasbani River in Jordan, and the Banias stream on Jabal Al-Sheikh (Mount Hermon) in Syria. This has to be added to the Israelis control of over 81% of Palestinian water between 1967 and 2009. Studies point out that there is nearly 750 million cubic metres of water to which Palestinians have full legal rights, in Gaza and the West Bank. Although Israel is committed by treaty to divert 80 million cubic metres a year to the Palestinians, it continues to deny them this right. Israel takes the water which by right belongs to the Palestinians, then agrees a treaty by which it agrees to give 80m cubic metres of water a year to the Palestinians – who own this in the first place, remember – but denies them even that fraction of what is rightfully theirs. This alone makes a mockery of any peace process.
The Palestinians in the West Bank need 150 million cubic metres of water every year, but only have access to half this amount, despite an increasing demand due to population growth. It is clear that the water crisis will be more catastrophic in the Gaza Strip given the high population growth in a smaller area. The people of Gaza need 120 million cubic metres of water per year but only consume 45 million cubic metres, that being largely collected rain water and not from underground water sources. The water policies adopted by the Israeli authorities have led to the pollution of water sources because of heavy extraction levels creating a situation in which sewage has mixed with rain water.
Israel will continue to maintain control of water in the region. It already consumes 90% of the renewable water resources every year and with the increasing number of Jewish immigrants to Israel and the corresponding increase in demand for water, it is estimated that the state will face an increase in its water deficit expected to reach 1 billion cubic metres a year. This, in turn, means it will have to consider more options for control of water resources legally but nominally controlled by the Arab population in Palestine and beyond.
As a result of Israel’s policies, therefore, hunger and thirst for the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza is becoming a real possibility. This comes at a time when Israel continues to flout international laws and conventions with apparent impunity. It is worth remembering that unless the Palestinians are able to have full control over their natural resources it is wrong to speak about a truly independent and sovereign Palestinian state. Nor can there ever be real peace as long as the Israelis continue with their colonial settlement plans. The water dimension has to be given a priority place in the negotiations for peace in the area. Without it, no state of Palestine worthy of the name will ever exist.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.