Watering Down the Facts: Israel, the Palestinians & Access to Water
by Chaim Lax
One of the most pernicious lies that continues to be spread about Israel is the claim that the Jewish state purposefully denies the local Palestinian population access to drinking water, effectively creating a water-related humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza.
This libel, which is spread by influencers on social media, and by a number of news organizations and key NGOs, is usually based on a number of false and misleading assertions: That Israeli authorities withhold water from local Palestinians, that Israel steals water that rightfully belongs to the Palestinians, and that Israel purposefully pollutes Palestinian water sources.
As will be seen, all of these allegations have no basis in fact and are solely meant to taint Israel’s reputation in the international arena.
Does Israel Deny Palestinians Access to Water?
When it comes to the water libel, one of the most popular allegations made against the Jewish state is that Israel routinely denies (or severely limits) the Palestinians access to water in the West Bank.
This allegation is based on a manipulation of history, as well as a misleading portrayal of the West Bank’s current water regime. Prior to 1967, when Israel gained control of the West Bank, the water system in the region was out-of-date and inefficient. While some major cities had access to a pipeline system that was installed by the British Mandate decades earlier, most of the local Palestinian population relied on ancient aqueducts and local wells. Following the Six-Day War, Israel moved to improve the West Bank water system by upgrading and extending pipelines.
When Jewish Israeli communities in the West Bank were first established in the 1970s, the Israeli Civil Administration worked to connect these communities to the Jewish state’s national water carrier. At the same time, it also connected Palestinian population centers to this same water carrier. Due to this overhaul of the West Bank water system, between 1967 and 1995, the Palestinian water supply nearly doubled and per capita Palestinian water usage increased considerably, nearing Israeli levels.
It should be noted that Israel only provides water to established Palestinian communities in the West Bank and not those that have been illegally built in Area C.
In 1995, as part of the Oslo II interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), both parties signed on to a detailed accord known as the Water Agreement. As part of the agreement, Israel recognized Palestinian water rights in the West Bank (with the extent of these rights to be determined in a final status agreement), while also promising to deliver a certain amount of water to the local Palestinians annually. According to the Agreement, the remainder of the Palestinians’ water needs are to be fulfilled by the Palestinian Authority.
The Agreement also established the Joint Water Committee (JWC), a bipartite body composed equally of Israeli and Palestinian representatives that would facilitate water usage by both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Although initially only meant to serve for five years, the JWC’s mandate continued to be extended as future peace negotiations stalled and a final status agreement has yet to be reached.
As part of the Water Agreement, Israel is obligated to supply West Bank Palestinians with 31 million cubic meters (MCM) of water per year — but actually provides much more than required. Currently, Israel supplies one-quarter of the Palestinian Authority’s total water consumption in the West Bank.
Part of this increased amount of water comes from the Water Agreement’s quota for Jewish Israeli communities in the West Bank. As sustainable technology allows these communities to rely less on groundwater, any left-over water from the quota for these communities is then distributed to the Palestinians. In addition, while the Palestinians do pay for the water that is provided to them by Mekorot, Israel’s national water carrier, the price that is determined by both Israel and the PA is actually lower than that paid by Israeli consumers.
So, if Israel is exceeding its obligations to the Palestinian Authority under the Water Agreement and the majority of water wells in the West Bank are owned and operated by Palestinians, what accounts for any water shortages that Palestinian communities may experience?
The main fault lies with the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), which is tasked with managing the Palestinians’ water supply.
A number of international observers (including the World Bank) have noted a culture of mismanagement within the PWA. This mismanagement includes a lack of infrastructure maintenance, which causes a 33% loss of water due to leaks and theft (three times the amount of water that the Israeli water system loses), as well as wasteful water usage.
Palestinian agriculture uses 100% potable water (60% of the water used by Israeli agriculture in the West Bank uses non-potable water sources), and utilizes outdated farming techniques that lead to over-watered crops. In addition, the PWA was unable to wrest control over the water resources in certain Palestinian municipalities from the local authorities, which led to the decentralization of the Palestinian water system and rampant water theft.
Alongside its mismanagement of the Palestinian water system, the PA has also politicized it, by intermittently boycotting the JWC (in order to avoid advancing any water projects that would benefit Israeli communities in the West Bank), as well as rejecting an Israeli proposal to build a desalination plant along the Mediterranean coast for the benefit of Palestinians in the northern West Bank.
Not only does the PA mismanage and politicize the water system, but it also squanders its resources. Even though many Palestinian water projects were okayed by the JWC in the West Bank, most have never been actualized, even in Areas A and B of the West Bank, where the PA has full control over the infrastructure.
In 2017, in order to facilitate the development of the PA’s water system, it was decided that the JWC would no longer have authority in Areas A and B of the West Bank, where the majority of Palestinians live. However, this has had limited benefit for the local Palestinians.
Thus, when Palestinians in established West Bank communities suffer from water shortages, it is not due to Israeli stinginess or cruelty, but the ineptness of the Palestinian Water Administration, the politicization of the water system, and the PA’s inertia in developing the West Bank’s natural resources.
Does Israel Steal Water From the Palestinians?
Another popular water-related claim made against the Jewish state is that Israel steals water that rightfully belongs to the local Palestinian population in the West Bank.
Much like the first claim, this allegation is steeped in misinformation and perverts reality.
First, it is important to note that, due to the dynamic nature of water, there is no consensus within international law with regard to the status of water in disputed territories.
While international law may not have reached a consensus, it is enshrined into law (i.e. the Water Agreement) that Israel is entitled to extract a set amount of water from the West Bank. Thus, the claim that the Palestinians have sole rights to the water in the West Bank and any water used by Israel is legally theft is unfounded and counter to the binding accord that was agreed to by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
When it comes to claims of Israeli water theft, the allegations mainly surround the mountain aquifer, the largest source of underground water in the West Bank.
The mountain aquifer is split into two parts, the eastern aquifer, which flows under the Jordan Valley, and the western aquifer, which flows under the western part of the West Bank as well as pre-1967 Israel. The majority of the western aquifer is located within pre-1967 Israel while the eastern aquifer is situated entirely inside the West Bank. Even before Israel gained control of the West Bank in 1967, a large amount of water that originated in the West Bank flowed into Israel due to the topography of the region.
Thus, with the established precedent of West Bank water flowing naturally into pre-1967 Israel and the location of the majority of the western aquifer within pre-1967 Israel, it is clear that the Jewish state has a significant claim to waters that originate within the West Bank. It should also be noted that while the Palestinian Authority has access to the largely untapped waters of the eastern aquifer, it has failed to properly drill in this area and, instead, has chosen to illegally drill in the area of the western aquifer. Therefore, aside from the tenuous claim that Israel steals Palestinian water, the allegation is actually a mirror reflection of the PA’s activities in the West Bank, a direct violation of the Water Agreement.
Does Israel Pollute Palestinian Water?
Much like the claim that Israel steals Palestinian water, the allegation that Israel pollutes Palestinian water is more reflective of the Palestinian Authority than of the Jewish state.
While Israel works to conserve water and reduce the impact of water usage on the West Bank’s environment by recycling wastewater, employing water-conscious farming methods and desalinating non-potable water, the Palestinian Authority makes no such efforts. In the West Bank, approximately 65% of Palestinian wastewater is released back into the environment untreated, polluting Palestinian water sources as well as Israeli waterways.
Even though foreign governments have earmarked funds for Palestinian water treatment, most of these projects have not gotten off the ground and the toll on the environment continues to worsen. Unlike Israeli farmers in the West Bank, who use up to 80% recycled wastewater for their agriculture, Palestinian farmers rely on potable water, reducing the amount of drinking water available to local Palestinians.
Aside from the pollution of local water sources with Palestinian wastewater and inefficient farming techniques that reduce access to drinking water, a third type of activity that harms the local water system is illegal water drilling. While Mekorot has worked to reduce extractions from the mountain aquifer in order to preserve sustainable water levels, illegal Palestinian drilling in the western aquifer has reduced the water flow to local communities and may harm water quality if water levels continue to drop.
Thus, while opponents of the Jewish state seek to impugn its international standing by alleging that Israel pollutes Palestinian water sources, the above clearly illustrates that Israel continues to work to protect the West Bank environment and water resources while the Palestinian Authority’s negligence and disregard for the environment continue to harm local Israelis and Palestinians.
The Case of Water in Gaza
While the above has focused primarily on the West Bank, it is also important to take a look at water issues in the Gaza Strip.
As part of the 1995 Water Agreement, the local Palestinian authorities were given control over the water infrastructure in Gaza, aside from that which serviced Jewish communities and military bases. Following the disengagement of all Israeli civilians and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, local authorities gained complete control over the entire Gazan water sector, which included 25 wells that were formerly used by Israeli Jewish communities in Gaza.
However, under the control of Hamas, which overthrew the PA in 2007, the water system in Gaza has become neglected, causing more than 40% of its water to be lost due to leaks and theft, as well as the seepage of saline into the water supply.
In addition, Hamas has misappropriated materials intended for the water infrastructure (such as pipes) for terror purposes, which has led to Israeli and Egyptian restrictions on the import of dual-use items into Gaza.
Gaza’s Palestinian rulers bear sole responsibility for Gaza’s water, except for a negligible amount of water that Israel is obligated to provide, which it doubled in 2018. Nevertheless, Israel has contributed to the advancement of Gaza’s water system, by allowing water-related equipment to enter the coastal enclave, facilitating the construction of sewage treatment and desalination plants and deploying a wastewater pipeline that connects Gaza to a treatment facility in the nearby Israeli city of Sderot.
Thus, even though it has almost no official responsibility for the quality of water in Gaza, Israel is continually working to improve the Gazan water system, despite it being run by a terrorist organization that is determined to destroy the Jewish state.