The high cost of Israel’s water policies

A Palestinian girl takes a rest on her way to collect drinking water in Gaza, where more than 90% of the water available is polluted and unfit for human consumption. (Photo: Iyad El Baba/UNICEF-oPt)

A Palestinian girl takes a rest on her way to collect drinking water in Gaza, where in 2010more than 90% of the water available was polluted and unfit for human consumption. (Photo: Iyad El Baba/UNICEF-oPt)

As Massachusetts officials and businessmen prepare to launch water industry collaborations with Israeli companies, they should be aware of certain facts about “Israel’s innate understanding of water issues” (as Boston Globe reporter Erin Ailworth put it in a November 17 front page article).

Both Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel are paying a heavy price for what Ailworth terms “the modern version of the land of milk and honey.” The Israeli government has created one integrated water system for both ‘Israel proper’ and the occupied Palestinian territory that benefits Israeli Jews, while depriving the Palestinian population in both areas of their right to access water.

The Interfaith Peace-Builders delegation that I led to the West Bank and Israel last month saw the impact of Israel’s discriminatory water policies.  These have been documented by the UN, World Bank, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the US State Department and water researchers from Tufts University, among others.

“Water is a nightmare in Palestine,” we were told by Issa Amro, a Palestinian resident of Hebron, who led us through a once vibrant part of the West Bank city that has been largely emptied of Palestinians by Israeli restrictions and Israeli settler aggression.  “There is not enough for basic needs or agriculture. Settlers get the majority of the water.  In the summer, water comes through the pipe every three or four weeks, while settlers get as much as they want.”

Wherever we went in the West Bank we encountered this stark inequality in water distribution.   For instance, while the fortress-like Israeli settlements surrounding Bethlehem have swimming pools and irrigated landscaping and lawns, Bethlehem can go for 10-15 days without flowing water, as residents are forced to pay for ‘empty pipes.’ The pipes in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp have been empty for more than two months at a time, leaving entirely depleted the rooftop tanks where potable water is stored.

The water shortages that afflict West Bank cities and towns are even more crippling in villages and rural areas.  There, Palestinian agriculture has been dealt a deadly blow by Israel’s control since 1967 of the occupied territory’s water sources, including the underground aquifers and the waters of the Jordan River.  Since 1967, half of the wells that sustained Palestinian communities have been destroyed, new wells are forbidden and settlers and soldiers routinely vandalize cisterns erected to collect rainwater.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that an estimated 313,000 Palestinians from 113 West Bank communities are not connected to any water network and depend on springs and rainwater-collecting cisterns that are vulnerable to attack, or have to pay the Israeli Water Company exorbitant sums for water that is privately trucked in.

Today, Israelis – more than half a million of them West Bank settlers – use more than 80 percent of the water from the West Bank’s three principal aquifers, leaving only 10 – 20 percent for Palestinians. Four years ago the World Bank found the per capita water consumption by an Israeli is four times that of a Palestinian in the West Bank and Gaza.  More recent studies estimate that Israeli water consumption is five or six times higher on a per capita basis.

What does this mean for daily life?  While the World Health Organization has set 100 liters per day as the ‘absolute minimum’ needed for daily consumption per person, Palestinians are forced to subsist on just 70 liters per capita per day, an amount that dips to 60 liters for one million of the West Bank’s 2.7 million residents, according to OCHA.

Israelis meanwhile enjoy the per capita equivalent of 300 liters per day.  This disparity enables West Bank Israeli settlements – that are illegal under international law – to have 13 times more land under irrigation in the agriculture-rich Jordan Valley than indigenous Palestinian communities.

Combined with home demolitions and the fragmentation of Palestinian territory by walls, military checkpoints, closed military zones and ‘settler-only’ roads that are off limits to Palestinians, water has become a weapon in Israel’s decades-long battle to dispossess Palestinians of their land and livelihoods.

Water has also been used as a weapon against the Bedouin citizens of Israel, as we found out when we traveled to the village of Al-Araqeeb, one of the 35 ‘unrecognized villages’ of the Negev that get no services or water from their government.  Al-Araqeeb, where Bedouin have lived since early last century, has been repeatedly raided since 2010, its homes demolished, its thousands of olive trees uprooted, its sheep sprayed with herbicides and its water sources seized.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) is a central actor in clearing the Negev of between 30,000 and 70,000 Bedouin who, under the controversial ‘Prawer Plan’ that has passed its first reading in the Knesset, are due to be forcibly moved off their land into poorly serviced townships.

In their place, the JNF is planting swiftly growing eucalyptus trees.  While Israel chose not to pipe water to Bedouin communities, it is now ignoring sound ecological practices by irrigating notoriously water-greedy trees in the desert.

Massachusetts officials who are planning to collaborate with Israeli water firms in a new ‘Water Innovation Network’ should travel to the West Bank and Negev desert to see for themselves what an apartheid water system looks like.

About Nancy Murray

Nancy Murray, an advocate for Palestinian rights for over 25 years, has researched and written about surveillance for the ACLU of Massachusetts and its privacysos.org website.
Posted in Israel/Palestine, Occupation

{ 16 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. pabelmont says:

    Thank you Nancy. Hope the government (or people) of Massachusetts can see the light and distance itself — even in proper BDS fashion — from Israeli industries that play any role at all in the deprivation of water to Palestinians in Greater Israel.

    Do the transit ads that appears from time to time mention this water business? I’d be glad to make a modest contribution toward ads which do.

  2. Hostage says:

    The Jewish National Fund (JNF) is a central actor in clearing the Negev

    The JNF’s policies are just another example of corporate war crimes committed since 1948. The prohibitions against apartheid and pillage govern civil war as well as interstate warfare. For a general discussion of the applicable law on corporate pillage of natural resources see:
    *James G. Stewart, Corporate War Crimes: Prosecuting the Pillage of Natural Resources link to opensocietyfoundations.org
    * Corporate War Crimes [Trials] Begin link to opiniojuris.org

    It’s way past time to hold Israeli officials and the JNF responsible for the crime of pillage and for payment of compensation.

  3. Walid says:

    A 2007 article by Mitchell (Jewish Virtual Library) Bard in the NY Sun about the water situation as it was then. He was advancing in so many other words that Israel could not surrender the occupied Golan and West Bank because these two are where 50% of Israel’s water are sourced and that the master plan for desalination that will take years to build will not suffice to meet Israel’s needs in addition to being very expensive to build and operate. Bard implied that Israel should be ready to go to war over the water because its survival depended on it. Interestingly, Bard admitted to the cause of the attack on the Golan being in good part for its waters that provide 25% of Isreal’s water consumption with another 25% being sourced from the WB mountain aquifer. In short, it’s an admission by Bard that Israel is stealing half the water it’s using:

    From the New York Sun

    “Water or War

    By MITCHELL BARD | August 1, 2007

    The supply of water is a matter of life and death, war and peace for the peoples of the Middle East.

    Israel is likely to face a shortage of water for drinking and for agriculture because of recurrent droughts, an increase in consumption, and pollution. Moreover, territorial compromise with its neighbors could put as much as half its water supply at risk. This makes securing its existing supplies and developing new ones vital for its future prosperity. Consequently, water is a key element of any peace negotiation, but it is widely neglected in the public debate.

    Syria’s foreign minister has said that “Israel has no right even to a single drop of water.” If Syria controlled the Golan Heights, it could divert water flowing into the Sea of Galilee, which supplies about 25% of Israel’s water. The effort to do so between 1965 and 1966 was one of the causes of the Six-Day War.

    Syria could severely compromise Israel’s water supply even if its intentions were not malevolent. For example, increasing the population in the area would produce sewage and other contaminants that could pollute the Sea.

    Any peace treaty would have to ensure Israel’s water rights, but can Israel afford to put one-quarter of its water supply at the mercy of a foreign power, especially one whose leaders have talked about denying Israel all “Arab water”? Ultimately, Israel may have to choose between water and peace with Syria.

    Israel’s water security is further threatened by the fact that the mountain aquifer, which supplies another 25% of Israel’s water, including most of the drinking water for the major cities, is partially located in the West Bank. Even if a future Palestinian state had peaceful intentions, it could significantly reduce the water available to Israel because of the desire to satisfy the needs of its own population.

    Today, unauthorized Palestinian drilling of wells in the West Bank affects the quality of the aquifer. Without any other water source, the Palestinians will be tempted to pump more out of the aquifer to meet their needs and thereby inundate it with seawater.

    The poor quality of Palestinian Authority water treatment facilities, mismanagement, neglect, and the low priority placed on environmental issues increase the likelihood that the aquifer will be polluted and its quality reduced perhaps to the point of being undrinkable. This has already occurred in the Gaza Strip where the sole aquifer is unusable because of contamination and salinity.

    To secure its water future, Israel would need to maintain control over three West Bank regions comprising 20% of the land. In return, Israel has said it is prepared to give up control of the mountain aquifer. This would make Israel dependent on the goodwill of the Palestinians to protect the quality of the water and to ensure that Israel continues to receive sufficient water to meet its needs.

    One reason for optimism is that Israelis and Palestinians have made efforts to protect the water supply. In 2001, the two parties issued a joint call to refrain from harming the water infrastructure and water supply to both Israelis and Palestinians. Israel has also resisted the temptation to use water as a weapon and continued to supply water promised to the PA.

    If Israel sees its water supply or quality endangered, it will have to decide whether to take military action to stop the drilling of wells, divert the water, or to seize the water source. What level of provocation would the United Nations or America find sufficient to justify Israeli action? What, if anything, would those parties be prepared to do to prevent the interdiction of Israeli water supplies?

    The historical answer to that question is not encouraging.

    The most popular idea for alleviating Israel’s water shortage is desalination. In 2000, Israel launched the Desalination Master Plan that envisioned the construction of a series of plants along the Mediterranean coast. The first of these was built in Ashkelon in 2005. The plant is expected to provide approximately between 5% and 6% of Israel’s total water needs.

    Desalination is not a panacea. It can ameliorate Israel’s water problems, but not solve them. The plants are expensive, take a long time to build, use a lot of energy, and will not supply as much water as Israel will need. They also make tempting targets for terrorists…”

    link to nysun.com

  4. Citizen says:

    Always informative to know how the 98% US goy taxpayers $ is used to benefit Israel,

  5. ToivoS says:

    Good report Nancy. The Israelis have been abusing their water and also using it as a weapon against the Palestinians since 1948. It is hard for us who live in Western Europe or the US (except for the western desert states) to imagine the problem. It is pretty clear that one of Israel’s tools to convince the Palestinians to leave is their clear policy of selective drought. This is a story the needs to be told.

    Two or three generations of Americans have been fed the story of the Israel miracle where they made the desert bloom. Always omitted from this story is that the water was stolen from the Palestinians and that on top of that they used the stolen water in ways that were not sustainable.

    • ritzl says:

      Great comment, ToivoS.

      At the risk of being redundant, here’s a link to a satellite photo of Israel/Palestine. It shows the clear discrepancy between Israeli water usage and Palestinian/Lebanese/Jordanian water usage in terms of blooming deserts.

      Israel is green. Everyone else is brown. “Borders” sans map lines are explicit and clear. It ain’t just because Israel is more “efficient.”

      link to i1012.photobucket.com

      This goes to the arrogance of what Walid cited above. This militarily-enforced disparity, like the Occupation, is simply ignored by even modestly “reflective” Israeli writers. The traditional first principle is the Israeli status quo as a given. War (cassus belli) is threatened (and undertaken; Syria ’67, Lebanon ’06) if some asserted and legitimate water usage balance threatens Israel’s ability to maintain its transplanted, unbalanced, exploitive, and unsustainable lifestyle.

  6. ritzl says:

    Great article. Thanks.

    It seems like there’s two main issues bracketed by the Israel-backgrounded Ailworth article. One technological and the other, moral.

    On technology, Israel probably is the most assertive developer of water saving tech in the world. They have to be to support their northern European lifestyle/vision in an arid climate. So on that point the advertising basis for the article is correct in a context-free sort of way, and MA (and elsewhere) could benefit from this tech.

    But as American has pointed out, this tech is absolutely not original nor unique to Israel. So back to advertising via an Israeli sponsored trip to gather info to support the lengthy advertisement. The criticism of the Ailworth article, on this front, is that it did not include domestic/other sources of this same tech. It was simply an advert for Israel. So typical. So blatant. Glad it’s getting called out more often and more strenuously. Glad you called it out, perchance, eventually, that the tech gets appropriately contextualized with the moral.

    The second, moral, issue is as you present here. Israel does NOT develop its tech in a morally ambiguous environment. This development is part and parcel of its overall water/lifestyle strategy. A strategy of deprivation of others. Does the state of MA want to implement tech, beneficial or not, that is developed within a context of armed exploitation, maybe even human experimentation (how little water can people live on)? None of that was even hinted at in the original article.

    To connect the moral with the tech, it’s pretty clear that Israel would not have the capacity, in time and funding terms, to develop water saving tech if they weren’t stealing water from the Palestinians. Their economy/lifestyle which supports such development is existentially based on Palestinian water. Total water usage (i.e. available water) is so critical in driving/enabling economic development that it is pretty clear: No stolen Palestinian water, little or no exportable Israeli water saving tech.

    No mention of that in the article either.

    Thanks, again.

  7. Obsidian says:

    Funny how the article never mention the PA.

    Walid’s linked article does mention the PA, “Israel has also resisted the temptation to use water as a weapon and continued to supply water promised to the PA.”

    So, apparently, the PA is mismanaging the infrastructure that distributes the water that Israel supplies to the Palestinians.

    BTW. I also like the author’s gratuitous use of the apartheid-speak term ‘township’, to describe the towns and cities Israel had already built for the Bedouin.

    BTW. Isn’t Israel slated to spend close to half a billion dollars to resettle the Bedouin? That ain’t hay.

    • Walid says:

      “Walid’s linked article does mention the PA”

      No doubt at all about the PA’s mismanagement of its wastes and the very little water alloted to it, but Israel is equally guilty of polluting its owns streams and those on the West Bank with its domestic garbage and industrial wastes.

      As to spending half a billion relocating the Bedouins. Israel is not spending this money out of charity but to get these people out of their face as they want to populate the area with those water guzzling trees mentioned in the article and with fire-breathing Zionists like those on the West Bank. First Israel steals these people’s lands, then it kicks them off what’s left of it and now you want them to say thank you because Israel is having to spend money doing it. Absurd.

    • ritzl says:

      Seriously?

      Israel has always used water as a weapon. It does NOT supply water promised to the PA. Water, Palestinian water, it does supply is supplied at 3x the cost to Palestinians as opposed to their next door settlements, and indirectly via trucks and donkeys. It has to go back to Mekerot and then is allocated via Israeli CA rules to the people under which it directly resides in the ground.

      Israel destroys even cisterns for rain collection.

      Truth will out…

      BTW, if Israel is spending half a $B to relocate its Bedu citizens, why isn’t that money going directly to the “lucky” recipients of that largesse? A: Because the vast majority of that money is going to the recipients of the Beduoin’s former land and the process of cleansing the land.

    • Hostage says:

      Walid’s linked article does mention the PA

      Walid simply pointed out that a notable source of pro-Israel propaganda, Mitchell Baird, admitted several years ago that half of Israel’s water was being stolen from the occupied territories.

      So, apparently, the PA is mismanaging the infrastructure that distributes the water that Israel supplies to the Palestinians.

      “Apparently” you can’t find a source that assigns primary responsibility or blame to the Palestinians eh? Even Baird admits that Israel is stealing water from the Palestinians. We’ve cited UN and press reports about deliberate Israeli destruction of public infrastructure, Palestinian wells, and private cisterns, plus expropriation of springs in both the West Bank and Gaza.

      BTW. I also like the author’s gratuitous use of the apartheid-speak term ‘township’

      It’s the term employed by your own Israeli government, universities, and the Israeli press, including JPost, Ynet, and Haaretz:
      * “Most moved to Bedouin townships, built houses and established businesses.” link to mfa.gov.il
      * “Concentrating the Bedouin in townships”
      link to geog.bgu.ac.il
      * “The bill offers Bedouins limited compensation on the condition that they move to one of seven officially recognized urban Bedouin townships the Israeli government has created.”
      link to ynetnews.com
      * “If this bill is passed, dozens of villages are likely to be demolished. Bedouin will be dispossessed of most of their remaining land. Up to 40,000 Israeli citizens will be transferred from their homes to townships that are magnets for crime and poverty because the Bedouin living in them have been torn from their agricultural sources of income and their culture.”
      link to haaretz.com
      * “Viewed through that lens, the solution proffered by the Begin Plan makes perfect sense. Concentrate the Beduin into as few townships and villages, and on as little land as possible. . . . While Jews are being encouraged to engage in agriculture, Beduin are being stripped of that privilege, forced to move into townships and abandon their agrarian way of life.”
      link to jpost.com

      • Walid says:

        “Up to 40,000 Israeli (Bedouin) citizens will be transferred from their homes to townships that are magnets for crime and poverty …(Hostage)

        Sounds like a repeat of Ajami when the Zionists ethnically cleansed Jaffa in 1949..

        • Hostage says:

          @Hostage link to jpost.com

          LoL! You are citing an article that says “The PA considers water and waste as weapons against Israel, not as areas of cooperation.”

          This from an occupying power that has destroyed 149 Palestinian wells since 1967 along with destruction of cisterns, and expropriation of springs. Israel has systematically committed the war crimes of pillage and excessive destruction and expropriation of the natural resources of Palestine in violation of the laws contained in Hague IV (1907) and the 4th Geneva Convention of 1949.

          The rest of the world adopts UN resolutions every year spelling out those illegal acts and reaffirming and recognizing the Palestinians right to restitution for their water and other stolen resources, e.g. link to unispal.un.org

          If all you can do is link to propaganda articles which disparage Palestinians for not cooperating in the war crimes Israel commits against them and in the flagrant pillage of their natural resources, then you need to be banned from commenting here in the future. All you do is troll the threads and engage in Nakba denial and hate speech which condones war crimes committed on Palestinian victims.

  8. Walid says:

    From the very start of the Zionist enterprise, it has always been about water, water, and water.

    It wss never about the holocaust
    It was never about any existential threat
    It was never about being pushed to the sea
    It was never about 5 Arab armies invading them. It has always been about the water and it will continue being about the water. Anything else being discussed or negotiated is simply of no consequence. It’s all theatrics. From the very start, the Zionist had a master plan to gain control over every drop of water in the area and sure enough, after a series of events masterminded by the Zionists, they have effectively taken over the total control of all the water, except one: Lebanon’s Litani River.

    The past 6 or 7 Israeli wars on Lebanon were never really about stopping the Palestinians incursions into Israel from Lebanon, or about Hizbullah katyushas landing on Israel’s northern towns, or because of a couple of abducted soldiers, it was to grab that last source of water that was in the master plan, the Litani River, that travels southward from Lebanon’s highlands at the center of the country and veers west to empty into the Med, 10 miles from the Israeli border. There are other Lebanese rivers and streams that travel south and into Israel but international laws prevent Lebanon from altering or stopping their flow into Israel. But there is no law that gives any rights to Israel over the Litani and this is what keeps breaking its black heart and making it try to take over south Lebanon every few years. It succeeded for about 20 years when it occupied south Lebanon (and the Litani) and was actually siphoning water from it by pipelines to Israel until Hizbullah liberated the area in 2000.

    From an essay by Harad Frederiksen in Middle East Policy asking for the return of the Palestinians’ water rights if not the land, he wrote:

    “The early Zionists recognized the essential role of water and sought to expand the supply for the proposed state from the outset. In 1919, two years after the Balfour Declaration, Chaim Weizmann wrote to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George:

    . . . The whole economic future of Palestine is dependent upon its water supply for irrigation and for electric power, and the water supply must mainly be derived from the slopes of Mount Hermon, from the headwaters of the Jordan and from the Litani river.
    . . . [We] consider it essential that the northern frontier of Palestine should include the valley of the Litani, for a distance of about 25 miles above the bend, and the western and southern slopes of Mount Hermon . . .

    In 1922, the British unilaterally adjusted portions of the existing boundaries within the British Mandate in partial response to this request. It set the eastern boundary of what became Israel under U.N. Resolution 181, thirty feet to the east of Lake Tiberias and 150 to 1,200 feet to the east of the upper Jordan River rather than in the more common location – the center of the water course. Though later rescinded by the British Government, U.N. Resolution 181 adopted the realignment, giving Israel physical control of this key resource together with the groundwater and lands of the Coastal Plain. At the end of the 1948-49 war, 750,000 Arabs were driven from the urban areas and the lands within Israel that they owned, a majority of the land comprising Israel.

    The associated domestic and industrial water, together with huge quantities of irrigation water expropriated by this expulsion, was thereby freed for use by Israel’s new immigrants. However, Syria still held onto an access to Tiberias and a short stretch of the Jordan River.

    The 1967 War consolidated Israel’s control of all water resources. Israel
    regained the Tiberias and Jordan River boundary and added the extensive water resources of the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West Bank. An additional 200,000 Arabs were driven from their lands within Israel, losing their water. Was this war part of Israel’s water strategy? Years later, Menachem Begin said,

    “… In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”

    Earlier, Israeli air strikes had destroyed Syria’s attempt to develop part of an interior tributary to the Jordan River and Tiberias. Israel subsequently declared all data on the water resources of the Occupied Territories a state secret and halted further development of water by the Arab residents. Israel connected Palestinian urban supplies in the territories to the central conveyance system within Israel, to physically control the water, and raised the price of water to Palestinians far above that in Israel and the rates assessed the Israeli settlements that were later established in the Occupied Territories). Israel now exports 80 percent of the water extracted from the aquifers underlying the West Bank. Deep wells to serve the Israeli settlements have dried up many existing Palestinian rural and agricultural wells and springs. Today, Israel uses over 95 percent of the water available to greater Palestine; the Palestinians receive the remainder. These quantities do not include the very substantial Negev Aquifer.

    link to geo.uzh.ch

    The ending lines mention the “substantial” Negev aquifer, which may have something to do with the relocation of the Bedouins since it’s always about water.

  9. Sumud says:

    In their place, the JNF is planting swiftly growing eucalyptus trees. While Israel chose not to pipe water to Bedouin communities, it is now ignoring sound ecological practices by irrigating notoriously water-greedy trees in the desert.

    This is interesting. Being Australian I have always thought of eucalyptus as a tree that is fairly miserly with water as overall it’s a dry country.

    Where I grew up the rainfall is 250mm/annum (10″), the area is classified as semi-arid desert. No forests there, just scrub, but there will be large ancient gums (eucalyptus) along creek beds that are dry probably 98% of the year. The trees can only survive on groundwater.

    Looking into the Negev the annual rainfall is between 50 and 400mm/annum. No surprise that the eucalyptus plantations have to be irrigated as they won’t survive in much of the Negev, as is. Mature eucalyptus don’t use a lot of water but new growth trees use a LOT.

    I live in Melbourne where annual rainfall is around 650mm, with the Dandenong and Yarra Ranges within 100km where rainfall is between 1000 and 1500mm, the upper end of the scale is rainforest. Also the scenes of the 2009 bushfires that claimed almost 200 lives after 4 days in a week with temperatures above 45 degrees centigrade, about 115F.

    I see the Negev gets fairly hot in summer also. It’s lunacy to plant eucalyptus in an environment where they can only survive with irrigation. They burn particularly well as the leaves contain eucalyptus oil, and in a bushfire scenario fire spreads rapidly as trees that aren’t alight emit the oil as a gas, and unlit trees within tens of metres of burning trees end up effectively spontaneously combusting The hotter and the drier the climate, the easier this will occur.

    Madness I say.

    Will be worse than the incompetently-handled fires in northern Israel a few years ago. And all because some idiot wants to turn hasbara – Israel made the deserts bloom – into reality.