The promised land is primarily an arid land: Israel has very scarce water resources to ensure its survival. The water issue is a central part of the relationship that Israel maintains with its neighbors. The Middle East is a geographical area that is experiencing what experts have called a state of “water stress”, that is to say, a structural imbalance between a limited water capital and a consumption in strong growth given its population and pace of economic development.
One cannot validly address the water battle in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more broadly in the context of the crisis in the Middle East, without adressing the effect of a set of epiphenomena guaranteeing peace or war. The water issue has taken a clear geopolitical character in relations between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Tensions have their origin in the large disparity in consumption between the two communities that share the same sources of water.
Water is a crucial dimension in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. In this region the semi desert climate, where rainfall is absent from April to September with temperatures during the period between 30°C and 50°C. The issue of water is a critical dimension in the peace process. The water control is what makes the viability and economic power of the Hebrew state. It quickly became the cornerstone of the Zionist strategy from the early twentieth century. One may wonder then what role does water occupy in the culture and religion of the State of Israel.
How and to what extent this natural element, is an important cultural and religious symbol in the country’s politics? How could the Hebrew State accept to share more equitably an already scarce resource? From the early twentieth century, Zionist leaders were already aware of the crucial importance of water in a hypothetical state of Israel well before its inception. Chaim Weizman, who became the first president of the Jewish state, imagined in 1919 to include the Litani River, an affluent of the Jordan river within Israeli borders.
The border will eventually be established a few kilometers further south, leaving control of the strategic point to Lebanon. In 1953, the young state of Israel embarked on the construction of a huge pipeline from the north of the Sea of Galilee to the Negev desert. But Syria immediately intervenes and prevents it by using canons. The construction site will start over safely in the south. After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and the Syrian part of the Golan, two strategic objectives for the water supply.
The Golan Heights is a natural water reservoir that feeds the lake of Tiberias. Afraid that Syria would divert the rivers that descend into its own territory away from Israel, the Hebrew State has refused to cede the Golan to Syria. It is a fact that for the past 65 years, the Jewish state uses much of the groundwater flowing in its territory. Two-thirds of Israel’s water needs are provided by the groundwater of the West Bank, which are more exposed to pollution and overfishing. The depletion, combined with the arrival of new migrants, only accentuates the problem.
The water potential of the West Bank consists of the surface water of the Jordan River and a few small streamsplus its groundwater regularly regenerated by the rains. Water availability is of great concern for Israel and the Occupied Territories, as it is well below the threshold of 500 cubic meters per year per capita. Withdrawals exceed the availables resources, and there is an overexploitation of groundwaters. Indeed, the groundwaters that benefit from an easy and inexpensive access are often overused, and they may experience significant drawdowns. This causes salinization.
When they are in coastal position there is an intrusion of sea water. Operators then only pump salt or brackish water into the shallowest wells. This phenomenon is known in Gaza, Palestine, where the water table is gradually becoming unfit for human consumption. In this alarming context, Israel exploits most of the water leaving the Palestinians to settle for the bare minimum. The greater part of Israel resources was obtained after the creation of Israel in 1948, with the occupation of territories and the appropriating of all supply sources in the region.
The occupation of the different territories called “occupied” is hydro-strategic, as it was of course, a territorial extension, but no matter which one it allowed for an increase in control over water resources in the region. The hydro-strategy can be defined as the art of maneuvering forces to accomplish politics in terms of hydraulic considerations. Israel controls all the water system in the occupied territories of Palestine. It has organized a deliberate unequal sharing of water resources: Israel diverts 75% of water resources from the occupied territories, leaving only 25% to the Palestinians.
The average water consumption per capita of an Israeli is 5 times greater than that of a Palestinian. Besides water rationing, the Palestinians are victims of destruction of wells, water pipe and sanitation by the Israeli army. Israel has continued to establish Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. It is a way to be closer to the water reserves, or by diverting them to their advantage. Overexploited wells in Gaza makes water unfit for domestic consumption.
Water quotas imposed by Israel make development impossible in the occupied territories endangering the survival of the Palestinians and causes serious health problems. The 26th mission of protection of the Palestinian people, in July 2002 has revealed the destruction of wells, sanitation and water pipes in the Gaza Strip and the Rafah area. Today, two thirds of Israel’s water needs are provided by resources from outside the 1948 borders: about one third comes from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and one third comes from the Sea of Galilee and the Yarmuk. 5% of the water of the occupied territories is consumed by Israel and its colonies.
The population ratio between Israel and the Territories is 2 to 1 and the consumption of water is 11 to 1. Future discussions with the Palestinians will be difficult: they claim 80% of the resources of the West Bank. This would mean a 20% reduction of resources currently available for Israel. The issue of water is of utmost importance in an eventual peace settlement. On the other hand, Israel does not seem to concede some of the resources, and therefore Israel does not enforce many regulations despite their protest.
Ignoring the Geneva Conventions, the Israeli government applies to the Occupied Territories a law dating from 1959 making water “public property under the control of the state. ” Indeed, just after the occupation, control of water was given to the military authority which forbade any new water-related infrastructure construction. It then grabbed all water resources in Palestine declaring state ownership. In 1982, the Israeli water company, Mekorot, took control of the Palestinian water resources. Palestinian wells are destroyed and water resources are drained by drilling large-scale samples from deep wells for Israeli use only.
Military legislation is introduced and colonization means the strategic maintenance of water resources in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, without which Israel can not grow or survive. Therefore we understand how the control of water and land, inseparable pair, leads the Zionist strategy. Israeli agricultural policy is the very expression of the Zionist ideal of ” flourishing” the desert. Exports are also a way to show to the world that Israel lacks nothing in terms of quality of life, it is bound to be a great ountry, and the immigration of Jews to Israel, considered as a “safe haven”, may still continue. This is the reason why no Israeli politician can give up on the “blue gold” of the Occupied Territories. Israel sees as a casus belli any attempt to appropriate water resources by neighboring countries. This is the case for example of Syria which covets a part of Jordan. Today the Gaza Strip returned to the Palestinians is an area that has experienced excessive pumping so that its remaining water is unfit for consumption (pollution, salinization … ).
The groundwaters sources take decades to recover. The long-term prospects are alarming because the region lacks water and miss more because resources are limited and demand will only increase, given the high population growth on both sides. The World Bank predicts that by 2040 the demand for Israel, the Occupied Territories and Jordan could rise to 7 billion cubic meters. As of 1994 the Israeli water consumption was 2 billion cubic meters per year. However the local ressources can in theory only ensure 1. 5 billion cubic meters. Clearly the resources of the Jordan River Basin are inadequate.
Therefore the solution could be by regional water transfers, hence the interest in Lebanese Litany river, or the costly use of unconventional resources: desalination of sea water, wastewater recycling, etc. However, financial resources are unequal and the Palestinians will not be able to afford to take on these costs. Thus, the prospect of regional cooperation could be a difficult solution to implement, but achievable because this water so rare and valuable will also be greatly missed by Israel if the overexploitation are maintained at this rate.
Courtney from Study Moose
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