In its hegemonic control of water in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel breaks UN Resolutions 242 and 338, Customary International Law, as well as Jewish Law. In this way it shows its lack of commitment to being a true democratic state that exists peacefully within a globalized context, as well as living up to its claim of being a Jewish State. In this study, I intend to show how Israel has intentionally used water as a tool of warfare and Occupation. However, even Israel knows that the water resources in its territories, on both sides of the Green Line, are scarce, and requires cooperative operations for supplying the demand. In this way, I believe that the water crises in the Middle East can be turned on itself to be a tool of peace.
Currently, there are 359 abstraction wells in the West Bank under Palestinian control, most of which are privately owned. Combined, they yield 62 million cubic meters per year (mcm/yr). Israel controls an additional 36 abstraction wells in the West Bank, which yield 42 mcm/yr (Jayoussi, 60). Considering Israel also has access to the 600 mcm/yr from the Jordan River (a source which Palestinians are prohibited from using), and the use of five aquifers within its 1948 borders (Lake Tabariyya, the Western Galilee, the Coastal, the Naqab/Negev, and the Carmel), and considering the populations of Israelis and Palestinians are comparable, it seems unnecessary that Israel should need almost half of the West Bank groundwater resources (Daibes, 10). Aside from the groundwater, Palestinians do control all 300 springs in the West Bank, which yield a total of about 103 mcm/yr, but half of that water is brackish and unusable for anything other than agricultural use. In Gaza, 53 mcm/yr is allotted to the Palestinian Municipal and Industrial sector, of which approximately 2% is bought from Mekerot, the Israeli water company. Because most of the water in Gaza is undrinkable, and desalination plants are expensive and require land that the Gaza Strip cannot afford to industrialize, 85% of the groundwater is used purely for agricultural purposes, with small percentage of water, supplemented by Mekerot, going to public consumption.
Domestic public consumption varies from 30 liters per capita per day (l/c/d) to 110 l/c/d, according to geographic area and time of year. This is an average of 60 l/c/d, which fall far below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) minimum of 100 l/c/d. Israelis within the 1948 borders consume approximate 300 l/c/d (Jayyousi, 67). Settlers in the West Bank (despite their very existence being illegal by International Law) consume on average six times more water per capita than their Palestinian neighbors.
Even though settlers are a different symptom of the Occupation, I think I’d like to just touch on them, and on the Wall here, and how they both also affect this environmental warfare. Settlements are often built on top of hills, where the water extraction points are, and even though they have the money and infrastructure from Israel, they often have just as few or ineffectual wastewater treatment facilities as the Palestinians. As a result, the sewage runoff often falls into the Palestinian towns in the valleys below the settlements, and it effectively poisons the Palestinian water sources. The Wall has been rerouted in some areas to separate the settlements from the Palestinian side, to keep the water extraction points on the Israeli side, or in the name of “nature preservation,” keeping land with rare plants or animals on the Israeli side, the implication being that Palestinians do not know how to conserve, while the reality is it’s just a part of this land grab. All of this also violates Customary International Law, parts of the 1907 Hague Convention, the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and UN Resolutions on Israel. I need some more time to collect my thoughts on this, and decide if this is the right place to put that paragraph or two. I have read Hollow Land, which is pretty detailed on this matter.
This is the situation as it currently stands. But how did the Israeli Occupation over water become so extreme? The general conflict over water is rooted back in pre-State of Israel colonialism and has been further complicated over the course of nearly one hundred years by the ever changing of colonial power of the Palestinians. First, under the Ottoman Empire, water was considered public property by Shari’a Law, a “gift of G-d” (Daibes, 22), administered by the municipality to the citizens as needed. Then, the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement occurred, in which France and Britain divided the zones of their mandates without ensuring water rights, would be consistent with land rights, or without really mentioning water rights at all. In 1917, the Zionists were promised a national home by the Balfour Declaration (again, an act of colonialism, since the land the declaration afforded the Zionists was not the creators’ own to give), but the plans that were drawn up for this Zionist homeland in 1919 did not include adequate water resources for the Zionists’ standards. Overall, the British Mandate generally adhered to the Ottoman standards of water distribution, but also stipulated that any water extraction would require a permit by the High Commissioner of Palestine. These British Mandate laws pertaining to water access were maintained in the West and East Banks of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan up until the 1967 acquisition of the West Bank by Israel, and are presumably still in place in the East Bank in Jordan.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1948 War, with the control of water being handed from the British to the newly constructed Israel, the number of Jews living in this land increased by 53%, most of whom came from Eastern Europe and were used to a certain level of comfort in their limitless water supply, not to mention considerable more greenery (fed by water resources) than is found in the deserts of the Middle East. Plans were drawn up as early as 1948 for a National Water Carrier (NWC), although its operations did not officially commence until 1964, to divert water from the Jordan River basin to the Northern Negev, in order to “make the desert bloom,” as is the Zionist mission. Even before the 1967 Occupation, Israel was already tapping into the Western Mountain Aquifer, which rests within the West Bank. From 1967 on, the utilization of groundwater in the Occupied Territories was governed by Israel alone and was subject to Israel’s 1959 Water Laws, allowing Palestinians to access water only from wells drilled prior to 1967, while Israel continued to survey more underground water resources and drill wherever it found necessary. Mostly, Jordanian Law continued to apply to the wells that were already drilled, in the Palestinians had free access to them, but Israel declared in June of 1967 that West Bank water could be subject to changes at any time according to the ’59 Water Law, which made land ownership distinct from water rights, and disallowed water use to be transferred, among other stipulations. In 1995, the signing of the Interim Oslo Agreements, lifted some (but not all) of the restrictions on drilling, and explicitly granted Palestinians 80 mcm/yr more (Daibes, 8).
The Interim Agreements signified the recognition from both parties the need to protect the environment and water rights, among other things. However, Appendix 1 of Annex III, Article 40 of this document only dealt with the immediate water needs of the Palestinians, granting them an extra 80 mcm (Daibes, 33). No effort was made at this time to establish an equitable water sharing plan, merely the recognition that one was needed. In a lot of ways, this overlooking of sustainability for the Palestinian water rights only further legitimized the control Israel already held over the 36 wells in the Mountain Aquifer System.
The Interim Agreements were negotiated by the neutral party, the United States, and followed the Customary International Law standards, based on equitable and reasonable utilization of resources. The Palestinian Authority was willing to accept the terms of this agreement, as they believed it to be a step forward toward their goal of self-determination and autonomy from the Occupying force. Since this was the negotiation to discuss water rights at all, even the 80 mcm they received seemed like a good sign. Israel, however, has been resistant to acknowledging any sovereignty over them of International Law of any kind, because they are enjoying the illegal hegemonic control over Palestine that they currently hold. Acknowledging the law or these agreements would be to acknowledge that they have been acting in contradiction to them, and force them to relinquish some of the West Bank water that they are so dependent on. Furthermore, as difficult as it is to enforce Customary International Law (non-codified rules) on any sovereign nation, the case of Israel/Palestine is made all the more complicated by the lack of sovereignty on the side of the Palestinians.
This is a matter of fierce debate. While it is true that Palestine is not a sovereign nation, it does – to some extent – fulfill the four stipulations of statehood under International Law: permanent population, defined territory, government, and capacity to enter into relations with other states. Although its population is growing by its increasing birthrates, and some families have returned from abroad in the last 60 years since leaving their homes as a result of the 1948 War, the population is mostly stable, and has not been subject to massive migrations since 1948. It has a defined territory with the Green Line, despite how much of that land Israel has tried to acquire through illegally moving civilian populations or building the Wall (in violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention V Article 49). The Palestinians in the West Bank are governed by the Palestinian Authority (Fatah), and in Gaza governed by Hamas. It is unclear if the International Law requires a unified government, or only some proof that governance is in place, so the fulfillment of this stipulation is shaky. Palestine has the capacity to enter into relations with other states, as is evident by its constant negotiations with Israel. Palestine has even declared independence, in 1988. Despite the fact that Palestine is still not free, it should be under the protection of and held accountable to International Law, as the Montevideo Convention on Human Right and Duties of States provides that the political existence of a state is not dependent on the recognition of its existence by any other state (Daibes, 20).
I know there is still a lot more to talk about. I want to talk about the recent war in Gaza as an example of Malthusian warfare, which obviously requires first a discussion of Malthusian warfare. I am just not ready to talk about any theory at this point. I will want to reread Homer-Dixon, and possibly find more sources for exploring these issues on the abstract level. Also, I haven’t even begun to talk about the more recent water negotiations or the Palestinian Water Authority in the path toward peace.