In February this year, the new Palestinian town of Rawabi at last managed to secure a water supply, after several years of acrimonious negotiations with the Israeli and Palestinian authorities. With the greatest obstacle to populating Rawabi overcome, the first 200 families of this planned "shining city on a hill" have now finally started moving in.
Rawabi's water woes have received extensive coverage in the Israeli, Palestinian and international media, not least owing to a campaign instigated by the town's owners, the Bayti Real Estate Investment Company. But why did Rawabi encounter such problems? And how did they eventually get resolved? For all the media coverage, the reasons are not well known.
When I meet Amir Dajani, Deputy Manager Director of Bayti in his Rawabi office, he reserves most of his anger for the Palestinian Authority. "No one did anything to support Rawabi," he says of the PA. He recognises, of course, that Israel's occupation poses huge challenges to a billion-dollar investment project, but about these he is pragmatic. The contrast between his visceral anger at the PA and his cool realism about the occupation is striking.
For all that, it is Israeli demands and an Israeli-drafted document which were the ultimate reasons for the hold-up. Under Article 40 of the 1995 Oslo II Agreement – which Palestinian negotiators were simply handed and accepted when they should have known better – all new water facilities in the West Bank require prior approval from a Joint Water Committee, meaning that Israel has complete veto rights over Palestinian water developments in the occupied West Bank.
Worse still, while Article 40 did not directly mention water projects for Israeli settlements, it did not preclude them from being brought to the Committee either. Israel exploited this ambiguity by making its approval of Palestinian water projects conditional on Palestinian approval of settlement water infrastructures. For fifteen years, the PA's pragmatic policy response – pursued with the full knowledge of Presidents Abbas and Arafat – was to consent, however unhappily, to this blackmail and approve every single water facility proposed by Israel for its settlements.
This changed only in 2010, when the Palestinian Water Authority and later the PLO Executive Committee decided that they would no longer approve settlement water infrastructures. The result has been five years of deadlock within the Committee; the PA refuses to approve settlement water projects, and Israel in turn refuses to approve new wells and pipelines for Palestinian communities.
Until February, this included Rawabi. But then, following a media campaign plus a series of high-profile interventions – including from Israeli President Rivlin – and a very public disagreement between the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) head, Major-General Yoav Mordechai and Infrastructure Minister Silvan Shalom, the issue was finally decided by Benjamin Netanyahu. Rawabi became an exception, the site of the only new West Bank Palestinian water infrastructure to have been formally approved by Israel since August 2010.
Contrary to reports, however, this was neither a "goodwill gesture" nor a function of a new era of Israeli "water generosity"; simultaneous to approving Rawabi's connection, Mordechai and Netanyahu also unilaterally approved a handful of settlement water projects (one source has told me "four or five", another says "six or seven"). These projects included, for instance, a new water supply line for Tekoa in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, supposedly needed because of declining groundwater levels in the Herodian area from which Tekoa is currently supplied.
Rather than an act of generosity, approval for Rawabi's water was an internal Israeli quid pro quo. The Israeli government bowed to domestic and international pressure to provide the new Palestinian town with water, but could only square this with itself by simultaneously accommodating – nay, supporting – the country's illegal settlements, by providing them with even more.
When I discuss this with Baruch Nagar of Israel's Water Authority, he offers two justifications: that these settlement projects were "emergencies"; and that the Palestinian Water Authority, by refusing to approve settlement facilities, is acting unreasonably and is disrespecting Article 40. "We can't understand why they stopped," he says, as if the PA was just behaving irrationally. "We respect the water agreement," he claims, "the Palestinians do not."
This, though, is specious. Israel's unilateral approval of settlement water facilities is a clear violation of Article 40, and invoking the false label of "emergency" does not alter this. There are scores of Palestinian communities across the West Bank which have no water in their pipes for days, weeks, even months on end each summer, and plenty of others which are not connected at all or whose small water collection systems are routinely demolished by the Israel Defence Forces. If "emergency" is the standard, then the PA would have every right – but not of course the power – to implement water projects unilaterally across the West Bank.
Moreover, no amount of deadlock within the Water Committee gives Israel the right to decide which new water facilities should be allowed to go ahead, and which not. However, this typifies Israel's approach to the vestiges of the Oslo agreements, which can be summed up as bilateral "cooperation" when possible (i.e. when the Palestinians are compliant), unilateral violations whenever deemed necessary.
At least, though, Rawabi got its water supply, at least for now. For the other far-from-minor detail about this case is that Rawabi's new water connection is only temporary; it will only supply 300 cubic metres of water per day, sufficient for the town's first 5,000 residents and the next eighteen months. Thereafter, Rawabi will need another source, which is still being negotiated with Israel and the PA. Expect another raft of headlines about Rawabi's water problems in a year or so.
Jan Selby is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, UK
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.