The Politics Of Water In Israel-Palestine

In mid-July, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) reached a water-sharing deal which pledged to provide the West Bank and Gaza with 32.9 billion litres annually. The deal proposed to give the Palestinian territories around a quarter of their annual water requirements at a reduced rate. This agreement was lauded as an epitome of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation following an outbreak of tension in Jerusalem earlier this year.

However, two months on, the deal and the process that led to it, have demonstrated a very different reality on the ground. The current agreement is part of a broader project that will send seawater from the Red Sea to a desalination plant, whereby fresh water will be piped to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. The remaining salty debris will go into replenishing the Dead Sea, which is slowly shrinking. The pipeline is set to begin construction in 2018.

This project has recently been the subject of thorny negotiations among Israel, Jordan and the PA. For the Palestinians, this process of negotiation has involved an ongoing struggle to ensure equitable treatment with the other two states. In recent years, Israel has exerted its force to compel Palestinians to accept ‘less than what is fair.’ In December 2013, for example, the three parties entered into a ‘Memorandum of Understanding on Regional Water Sharing’, involving a plan to construct the desalination plant at Aqaba, Jordan. This agreement also entailed a water swap between Israel and Jordan, with Israel selling water to the Palestinians. Israel’s proposed price for the water was deemed ‘unreasonably high and unfair’ by the PA, though following the recent involvement of the US envoy, the PA accepted the Israeli price. This final concession, however, can only be understood in the context of the severe difficulties Palestinians face from ongoing water deficits and an infrastructure that prevents Palestinians from obtaining their fair share of water.

In 1995, the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip established the Joint Water Committee (JWC) to manage water and other related infrastructure projects, with the intended objective to facilitate cooperation. In practice, however, Palestinians have had access to less water than was agreed upon. The JWC has been used by Israel to delay and even reject Palestinian water projects until the PA agree to sanction initiatives favouring Israel’s illegal settlements. As Shaddad Attili, Head of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) from 2008 to 2014 has detailed, this places the Palestinian water system in a position ‘hostage to Israel’s expanding settlement activity.’

Indeed, as part of Attili’s position, in 2010 he asked for certain changes in the functioning of the JWC to ensure its process was not one of Israeli domination, but collaborative cooperation. This would allow the PWA to fulfil most of its projects with Israeli advice, ‘but without the threat of Israeli veto’. He also declared that it is unfair to make Palestinian access to water, subject to their support for the expanding illegal settlements.

Israel’s response was to withdraw approval of all PWA water initiatives. A common trend is visible in the Israeli treatment of Palestinians – on 3 July 2001, the Israeli army demolished dozens of homes and water facilities in Susya and other nearby Palestinian villages. The reason given by the Israeli authorities was that the structures were built without required permits – permits which the Israeli army systemically denies to Palestinians.

It is clear that the issue of water access is being systemically exploited as part of a wider political battle, depriving Palestinians of significant infrastructure and resources. In 2009, the World Bank noted that Israel had severely impeded the Palestinians’ ability to operate a proper water system. A study by Amnesty International that year stated that the problem of Palestinian access to water ‘arises principally because of Israeli water policies and practices which discriminate against the Palestinian population of the OPT (Occupied Palestinian Territories).’

Palestinians’ access to water is well below the minimum standard set by the World Health Organisation (100 litres a day for domestic water use), with those in the West Bank limited to between 20 and 79 litres. Israeli citizens use around 240-300 litres a day. It is evident that the rules of the JWC need to be amended, to ensure that collaboration is the basis and mutual access the goal. Basic human needs cannot be politicised in this conflict, for we drastically risk the wellbeing of others in the process.

Hina Khalid