by Mitchell Plitnick
There was a real diplomatic blowup in the Knesset last week, when Naftali Bennett led a walkout of the chamber by his HaBayit HaYehudi party during a speech by European Union Parliamentary President Martin Schulz. The comment Schulz made that elicited his response was this: “A Palestinian youth asked me why an Israeli can use 70 cubic liters of water and a Palestinian just 17. I haven’t checked the data. I’m asking you if this is correct.”
Is this just another example of Israeli hyper-sensitivity and over-reaction? In fact, it is not. At first glance, this seems like a foreign leader framing a question, one that seems to be regarding an issue that makes Israel look no worse than frequent statements about settlements and foot-dragging on the peace process. It actually touches on an issue that is at the very heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but that is too often overlooked. That issue is water.
When one mentions water in conjunction with the Middle East, there is always this “oh, yeah” reaction as people remember that this is probably the single most important issue in the region. But it is too rarely considered in political analyses. It isn’t discussed often enough in the context of the roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it is absolutely fundamental to Israeli policy and Palestinian dispossession.
People are usually puzzled as to why Israel risks international isolation and opprobrium in order to maintain its occupation. Is it religious zeal? Nationalistic fervor? An obsession with security considerations that Israel’s military might has transcended and that are based in military thinking that is a half-century out of date? All of these are very real factors. But somehow, water is never mentioned as more than an afterthought (and I confess, I am as much at fault as my fellows in this regard).
But anyone who has ever been to Israel and also to other countries in the region knows that Israel, although it certainly needs to be more water-conscious than most Western countries, lives a more water-rich lifestyle than any of its neighbors. Talk to older Israelis who remember things before 1967; that was a different Israel in many ways, and water was a big issue. The difference between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is even more starkly visible; the contrast between homes with lush lawns and, in some cases, swimming pools in the settlements, and the arid homes of Palestinians with water cisterns on the roofs that are not always filled on schedule and often hold less than what is required between fillings is quite striking.
Today, and for more than four decades now, many of Israel’s major cities get a huge portion of their water from the mountain aquifer in the West Bank. Other water sources in Israel are dependent on this aquifer, and a few other smaller ones in the West Bank as well (see the map here). So not only would abandoning the West Bank mean that Israel loses a major portion of its water supply, the Palestinians would actually have the ability to control the sources of some water that is drawn within Israel’s internationally recognized boundaries.
That’s why water is always a sensitive issue. It’s made more so, of course, because, while the Palestinians and Israel “share” this major water resources, consumption is not at all equal. According to the Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, daily per capita water consumption among Palestinians connected to the water grid in the West Bank for domestic, urban, and industrial use is some 73 liters. In areas in the northern West Bank, consumption is much lower. In 2008, per capita daily consumption was 44 liters in the Jenin area and 37 liters in the Tubas area, according to B’Tselem’s statistics. Today it’s about 38 liter per day in Jenin, but 169 in Jericho, which is very close to Israeli usage. About 113,000 Palestinians are not connected to the water grid, however, and their daily consumption is a mere 20-50 liters.
Most Palestinian water consumption is thus considerably lower than the WHO’s and USAID’s recommended bare minimum of 100 liters per day, and considerably less than the Israeli average of about 183 liters per day. So, yes, Schulz overstated it when he said Israelis consume four times as much per capita as Palestinians. They “only” consume between 2.4 and 3.5 times as much, with the gap between the average Israeli and the worst off Palestinian being about 7.5 times as much. And, let’s remember, that this is a resource that Israel took from the Palestinians when they occupied the West Bank. Before that, under Jordanian rule, and for the most part under the British Mandate, West Bank Palestinians enjoyed full access to the water resources in their area.
The conditions described above apply only in the West Bank. In Gaza, the situation is much worse. Gaza depends almost entirely on the coastal aquifer, which is also used by Israel and Egypt. The Palestinian Water Authority pumps more than three times the aquifer’s replenishment rate per year, and even that, due to unreliable supplies of electricity, water supply is erratic on a daily basis.
Over-pumping of that aquifer is a long-term problem, one that pre-dates Israel’s occupation of the Strip in 1967, but is now reaching crisis proportions. According to WHO findings, the Strip is expected to exhaust its supply of usable drinking water in 2016. UNICEF says that at present, 90% of the water from the coastal aquifer is unfit for human consumption. The majority of Gaza’s citizens have to buy water from vendors, with some paying as much as one-third of their income on water.
The pollution of the aquifer will, of course, also have a significant effect on Israelis and Egyptians, even beyond the fact that they will have to find alternative water sources. The World Bank funded the construction of a water treatment plant to alleviate part of this problem, but although the plant has been completed, it stands idle, caught in the middle of a dispute between Israel and Hamas over Israel providing increased electricity to the Strip in order to run the plant (Gaza still depends on Israel for most of its energy needs).
One can expect that Israel will eventually address this issue. The siege has, from the beginning, been carefully managed by Israel to ensure the deprivation of Gaza’s population while avoiding the sort of massive death and illness that might create international outrage and force Israel to act. But the water issue, as it involves both Gaza and the West Bank, threatens to turn into something much greater.
Although some groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, had warned years before the outbreak of violence in Syria of the extent of destabilization that the water crisis there could cause, such warnings were not loud enough and went unheeded by all those world leaders (including the Obama administration) who are currently wringing their hands about their “inability” to take action to stop the ongoing civil war there. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a similar dynamic is currently underway, and it is complicated by the occupation, the concomitant restrictions on movement and on Palestinian access to water (while Israeli needs have not yet been impacted significantly) and by the continuing and increasingly petty bickering between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
The subject of water is therefore a touchy one for Israel on many levels. Not only is it an issue of unequal access to this most crucial of resources, but it also illustrates the difficulties of truly separating Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, when it comes to water, it will be impossible for Israel to end the occupation and maintain its current standard of living with regard to water. It will also be impossible for any Palestinian entity to survive without significant external investment in irrigation, water treatment, desalinization, and other methods of conserving and treating water. In other words, when it comes to water, it is highly unlikely that Israel and the Palestinians can separate from each other as the Oslo formulation of a two-state solution envisions.
It has often been said that in the 21st century, water will become one of, if not the leading cause of war. That is nowhere more evident than in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The warning signs are all there now, before things spiral even farther than they already have. But water can also become the basis for a pressing need on which Israelis and Palestinians can cooperate. That can lead to a practical solution and, while that can be a single state as some advocate, it can also be a two-state vision, albeit one that is very different from the Oslo formulation. Two states existing in cooperation and mutual dependence is the key to avoiding more conflict and opening the door to healing. That, rather than the obsessive separation of the two peoples, can exist in two states and can lead to peace. Water can either be the spark for increased conflict or the key to a better future for both peoples. This is the choice facing Israelis, Palestinians and, yes, the United States.
Addendum: The Israeli journalist Amira Hass, writing in Ha’aretz, lists some very pertinent and basic facts about the use of water and the massive inequality therein between Israel and the Palestinians. She makes it quite clear that the situation is much more dire than even Schulz realizes and that Israel is going to great pains to ensure that people (including most Israelis) don’t know how bad it is. In any case, the article is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand this crucial issue. It should be accessible, but if people have any trouble, please contact me through my web site and I will gladly send you a summary of the facts Hass relays.
Photo: Rooftop water cisterns in Jenin, a Palestinian city in the West Bank.