The major role of water on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

“Water is the driving force of all nature”

(Leonardo da Vinci)

Many of us believe that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is simply a matter of occupied territories, and claims of the Palestinian people to self-determination. However, one of the reasons behind this endless and bloody conflict is the access to water supplies.

The control over the hydric supply network has represented, since the very beginning, a national security issue for Israel and the occupation of Golan Heights and the West Bank facilitate the provision of this primary good. Most of the water issues are characterized by misinformation; inaccurate data and a lack of interest, which make this 48 year old conflict still unsolvable.

Water in the Middle East, more than in any other parts of the globe, is a precious good as it is nearly impossible to rely on sufficient rainfalls.

Shared Waters Map

The present map shows the water supplies Israel and Palestine depend on. The Jordan River is the primary water resource of the area shared between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It runs for 200 kilometers through Palestine, Israel, Syria, the West Bank and Jordan finally flowing into the Dead Sea. Three important underground river basins, known as the Mountain Aquifers- the Western, The North-Eastern, and the Eastern- are claimed by both Israel and Palestine and they flow under the West Bank. Until the year 2000, water resources were exploited from either party, jeopardizing in any case Palestinian’s efforts to satisfy the country’s hydro-necessities. Despite its many tributaries, one of which is River Yarmuk that separates Israel from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the latter with Syria, there is an alarming hydro-situation. The area is not only an area of many conflicts and political instability, but it also has to face a drastic demographic increases.

A major problem lies whether or not Palestine can claim its sovereignty over the water resources. It is clear that Israel will never accept to be water-dependent on Palestine. The huge share of water consumed by Israel originates from territories outside the national borders set before the Six-Day War. After the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israeli authorities classified water as a national security issue. Everything had to be authorized by Israel, from drilling wells to exploiting the existing ones, pipes construction and so on. These restrictions caused several damages to the Palestinians’ ability to sustain and improve their standards of living. Moreover, Israel still controls the head of the Jordan River, which originates from Mountain Hermon and redirects the water into the Lake Tiberias. This implies that just a limited and controlled amount of the Jordan River water can be exploited for the survival of the Palestinian population. If that was not enough, while the Upper Jordan River water is drinkable once it goes out from Lake Tiberias it is inaccessible and full of organic pollutants originated from the surrounding area. Alongside the groundwater aquifer, which extends from the Mountains of Galilee to the Bersheva Desert, there is the Coastal Aquifer which goes across the entire Israeli coast north the Gaza Strip where it pours out. Even this water supply is severely restricted to Palestinians and inaccessible for drinking.

Since the occupation of the West Bank, Israelis in this area can better exploit water supplies by virtue of deep wells, while Palestinians can only obtain water from more superficial sources. According to UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) reports, those who live in the Occupied Palestinian Territories have access to about 300 million m3 per year, while the Israeli population has access to around 2000 million m3 per year. The demographic increase and the highly dependence on agriculture make water the most important resource for Palestinians’ survival. This makes Palestinians highly reliant on Israel. For example, they are forced to buy expensive water in bottles or mobile tanks from Israel. This situation causes uncertainty and vulnerability among the population, especially during those periods of crisis when water supplies are interrupted.

New perspectives seemed to arise during the Oslo Agreements in 1993, where the importance of fair water supplies was internationally emphasized. However, even if during the subsequent Oslo II Agreements in 1995 the Joint Water Committee was established, not much has been resolved as most of the water projects in Area C are to be authorized by the Israeli Civil Administration. According to Article 40, the quantities of the Mountain Aquifer had to be equally allocated among both parties, provide provisional and extra supplies from new wells to fulfill Palestinian needs. Even if this agreement was intended to protect Palestinian water rights, it resulted in worse exploitations. Incredible as it may sound, legislation for wells was and still is controlled by Israeli authorities who determine the wells’ deepness and water quantity the Palestinians can access to. In fact, the Israeli counterpart decided that the division plan would have been discussed at the very end of the negotiations because the final amount of water supplies was linked to fixing new boundaries for the future Palestinian State.

Nonetheless, during the year 2000, the Peace Process was drastically interrupted from the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Water was once again used as a weapon against the Palestinian population. The Taba meeting, in June 2001, aimed at saving the Peace Process while the Camp David II arrangements were destined to fail. The building of the Security Fence in 2002 had the principal aim to isolate terrorist actions and safeguard water supplies while claiming supremacy over the entire hydric resources. The Fence didn’t follow the Green Line established in 1967 but it went far inside the West Bank, absorbing many Palestinian wells. According to a 2009 Amnesty International Report, the Fence was planned, since the very beginning, to prevent Palestinian from having access to water sources. Hence, the existence of important hydric resources within the West Bank is enough to justify the Israeli military presence. According to a 1999 research by Sherman and Martin, “The politics of Water in the Middle East: An Israeli Perspective on the Hydro-Political aspects of the Conflict”, “between 80% and 90% of the total subterranean flows in the aquifer originate from falling on permeable outcrops in the West Bank”. This implies that a Palestinian State in the West Bank will never arise because it would weaken Israel’s position and sovereignty in the region, and this would entail the return of millions of refugees from the surrounding areas. Israel is well aware of the international public opinion on the matter but it is still refusing to accept the UN resolutions on the 1967 border issue.

Nonetheless, something has lately changed among international partners for example, Israeli water company Mekorot. Millions of US dollars have been blocked by the Netherlands and Argentine during the 2014 World Water Day, putting an end to important cooperation agreements. This was the result of a campaign against Mekorot’s approach to Palestinians’ rights to access water supplies and its disinterest in international law agreements and general human rights.

The year 2014 has proven to be a rather successful year in terms of hypothetical agreements. In fact, the two governments have been discussing a draft water agreement with the vital help of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian NGO interested on border issues. The FoEME Proposal differs from the Oslo Agreements as it follows: firstly, it does not set borders and therefore, it is adaptable to any decision; secondly, it takes in consideration all shared water supplies from underground resources to water basins along or across the border; finally, FoEME proposes a review process in order to adjust water allocations over time. All this will be done through the establishment of two bodies: the Bilateral Water Commission and the Water Mediation Board. Both are composed of an equal number of Palestinian and Israeli representatives, and strict rules will be established in order to prevent either side from dominating the other.

Strong and blaming judgments should be set aside at such a sensitive time. The International community needs clarity and transparency from both countries to better resolve the water issues. Security and fear should give way to peace agreements proposed by International Organizations and NGOs. Israel should respect International Law and trust its allies while Palestine should take distance from Hamas terrorist attacks as they deteriorate the region’s stability.


MA in Diplomacy and Collective Security, International Relations (University of Perugia)

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