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water war gaza

Many people think that the controversy between Israelis and Palestinians is limited to the issue of the occupied territories and the right to self-determination. Yet the outcome of the negotiations between the two nations is burdened with another major issue that could prove decisive: the future allocation of water resources.

The issue arises from the fact that the area inhabited by Israelis and Palestinians is not sufficiently rich in water, and Israel has been using more than its share to the detriment of the Palestinians. The problem has been raised during negotiations as an element of contrast and, during daily life, as an instrument of coercion and blackmail.

Although the issue of water has a social bearing, it has been administered with political and public order parameters in mind. When the clash between Israelis and Palestinians gets overly violent, one of the first measures on the part of the authorities in Tel Aviv – apart from closing the enclave and denying access to Palestinians – is that of denying them access to water.

This is an incidental fact. The systematic fact is that the limited access to water hinders Palestinian agriculture and the health and hygiene level of Palestinian families.

The water in the area comes from two main sources:

- a groundwater aquifer that runs north-south through Israel and Cisjordan parallel to the sea-shore, from the mountains of Galilee to the desert of Bersheva;

- the Jordan river and its tributaries;

There are a number of wells through which one can access the aquifer, while the river water is directly channeled or pumped.

Both the wells and channel/pumps are controlled - directly or indirectly - by the Israelis.

But there are also pejorative elements in the scheme, such as an inefficient - old and run down - distribution network on the Palestinian side, coupled with a devastated sewer network (also thanks to the Israeli military intervention). This allows for a very little recycling of used waters.

The situation assumes even more dramatic connotations in Gaza.


Compared to Cisjordan, the Gaza strip has less water resources, both in relation to its population density and because of the fact that the groundwater aquifer used by Gaza inhabitants is for the most part contaminated. About 95% of the water is contaminated by the sewer system mentioned above and has a high level of salinity because of its nearness to the sea.

There are also other, external, factors that make the access to water precarious, such as the scarcity of rain in the past few years that has denied sufficient water to the aquifers (statistically speaking there is a drought every four years). Seen as the same aquifer is exploited in an abnormal manner by the Israelis, the impoverishment of the groundwater reserves continues undisturbed.

A study by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (O.C.H.A.) of the United Nations has recently predicted that the combined “increase in population, scarce winter rains and intensive exploitation” of water resources could produce by the year 2016 a complete depletion of the specific water resources that would be irreversible by the year 2020. Every year the level of the groundwater aquifer used by the inhabitants of Gaza decreases by 15-20 cm. The Gaza strip's 2 million-or-so inhabitants need about 200 million cubic meters of water every year, while the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) has ascertained that the groundwater resources can be tapped for a maximum of 55 million cubic meters per year. Any further exploitation would mean their progressive and final depletion.

Also, in 2006, an Israeli air attack destroyed the main electric plant in the Gaza strip. This has hindered the pumping of water and the functioning of the structures that recycle the used water. In addition there is the lack of gasoline. Since June 2007 the embargo against the Gaza strip by the authorities in Tel Aviv has prevented the Palestinians from importing equipments and materials needed to repair and maintain the water and sewer system. Presently, much of the sewer system unloads its water directly at sea.

Military operations in 2008-2009 have also worsened the situation.

Insufficient, irregularly flowing water, a high level of pollution, a critical health situation and a rapidly growing population are all elements that add up to a strong social want on the Palestinian part. As such, all of these elements have been used by Israel as a bargaining chip with the Palestinians.

Presently the inhabitants of Gaza have to import – when it is allowed – water from the Israeli water company. In the future they would like to import the water by ship from Turkey, if need be.

There are obviously a number of international initiatives that would/could solve the problem. The rise to power of Hamas in 2007 blocked a project for the construction of a desalinization plant financed (with 400 million dollars) by USAID. Another project has been drafted by the World Bank for the reparation and restructuring of the water and sewer systems (worth 6.4 million dollars), yet once again the security hazards do not allow any work to be carried out in the area.


In the territories that are controlled by the ANP (Palestinian National Authority) the health situation is less critical, but the social and economic situation is much the same as in Gaza.

The groundwater aquifer that crosses Cisjordan is used mostly by Israel (73%) and by the ANP (17%). The remaining 10% is absorbed illegally (notwithstanding Israeli law but with the complacency of Israeli authorities) by the Israeli settlements.

Much of the water coming from the Jordan river – although the Israelis control only part of it – goes to Israel, which pumps it out of the river and channels it through its own network that is inaccessible to Palestinians. Israel controls the source of the river on the Hermon and its main tributaries such as the Yarmuk. The Jordan river's water is pumped into the Israeli national water network from the lake Tiberiade, thus before the water reaches Cisjordan. The same thing is done on the Yarmuk river, which is a tributary of the Jordan river.

Palestinians do not have access to sufficient water, so they cannot develop their agricultural potential adequately. When they attempt to buy water from Israel they are charged higher prices, making the Palestinian agricultural products less competitive.

In the Israeli-controlled Cisjordan, 90% of the Palestinian agricultural production is presently based on irrigation through rainwater (while 50% of the Israeli fields are irrigated with technical systems). This adds up to another dreadful statistic: 86% of the farmland in the occupied territories is exploited by the Israelis. Only about 6% is in Palestinian hands, the rest is under military jurisdiction and therefore off-limits.

After the 1967 occupation, the control of the water resources was taken from the Palestinians and given to the military government which was later named (for obvious aesthetic purposes) “Civil Administration”. This office administered production, distribution and usage of the water resources. Every concession was subject to an authorization, every directive was issued directly through military decrees, thus cutting the Palestinians out of the decision-making process. The civil/military Administration decided who could dig wells and how much water each could extract from the wells. In 1982 the control over water resources was transferred from the Civil Administration to the Israeli state water company “Mekorot” with a 49-year concession (which ends in the year 2031). It is like saying that until that year the occupied territories will remain occupied.

Thanks to the concession, which gave the Mekorot company a monopoly over water in the region, allowed for pipelines and wells to be build – always in favor of the Israeli clients, of course. If the territories were to be reclaimed by the Palestinians, these structures could cause big problems and controversies. The Palestinian living in the occupied territories is considered just an end-user with limited and controlled access to the water system. The territories that are called “occupied” territories are in fact already part of the “great Israel” as in the Zionist dream. When water gets scarce during the summer season, Mekorot closes the water on Palestinian villages and uses it for its Israeli clients.

Mekorot water company main basin

During the October 1967 war (also known as the “war of the 6 days” or the “Yom Kippur”) the Israelis destroyed 140 water wells. In the course of the following 20 years, the Palestinian community has been allowed to build but 13 wells.

In their fight for water the Palestinians, in order not to buy water from Israel at a high price, often build “illegal” wells (without an authorization) that are destroyed if discovered. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2011 alone Israeli authorities have destroyed 89 “abusive” Palestinian water structures (wells, containers, baths), 25% of which were financed by international associations (including the EU). A report by Oxfam states that if the Palestinians were not limited in the use of water, their gross national product would increase by 1,5 billion dollars c.ca.


The water problem, with all the social discomfort that it causes, is instrumental in the Israeli policy of attempting to force its Palestinian counterpart – be it Hamas in Gaza or the ANP in Cisjordan – into signing a global agreement (territories, self-determination, water) favorable to Israel. Whether this tactic will prove successful remains to be seen, because the negotiations between Israel and Palestine may not benefit from yet another element of contrast that generates further resentment. A forced accord, says history, never lasts very long.

Israel's agricultural workforce is quite limited and makes up a meager 3% of its gross national product. Less water, economically speaking, would not mean catastrophic consequences. Some staples, such as cotton, were reduced due to the intensive use of irrigation. On the Palestinian side agriculture represents 14% of the gross national product and about 33% of the workforce.

The Israeli 3% is made up mostly of settlers that live in the occupied territories, near the borders with Palestine and near Palestinian villages. These people are more sensible to security issues and are for the most part extremists and ultra-zionists.

In the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, these people belong to the nationalist far-right and make up a potent lobby that the Israeli government seldom ignores. Benjamin Natanyahu and the right-wing coalitions have often been heralds and victims of the settlers.

The latest government that emerged after the past early elections is riddled with individuals that have ties to the settlements and to the extreme right-wing: Lieberman, Alkin, Slomjansky, Ariel. Not only don't they want to share the water, but they don't intend to negotiate or give any concession to the Palestinians.

It is thus improbable that an accord over the administration of water could be reached, even outside of the main negotiations.

International laws, conventions and accords that could be used to settle the matter are not conclusive or binding. According to the UN 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 1, every people is entitled to the free use of its natural resources.

There are rules that regulate the use of water from international rivers (Helsinki, 1966), rules that regulate the international groundwater (Seoul, 1986) and rules regulating international water resources (1986). All of these treaties should determine the criteria to solve controversies, but have no real binding legal value. These treaties can solve the controversy on a geological, hydrological and morphological level, but are useless when faced with a political issue.

Then there are the multilateral commissions formed to solve controversies in the region, but their boycotting on the part of Lebanon and Syria, coupled with the reluctancy of Israel to discuss the issue, have made such commissions powerless. The only middle-eastern country that doesn't have water problems is, in fact, Lebanon.

There is an Israeli-Palestinian joint water committee (JWC) that was formed in 1996 during the Oslo negotiations. The committee is formally in charge of discussing the issue. Yet even in this context, every Palestinian concession is matched with a concession for the settlements. Every concession is, of course, the product of a difficult and time consuming beaurocratic process. The settlements are generally serviced by the national Israeli water network, while the water structures in the occupied territories of Cisjordan, the waters of the Jordan river and those of Gaza are not discussed during negotiations with the ANP.

jordan river
The Jordan river

The driving principle of the Oslo negotiations was an equal distribution of the water resources on the basis of the following factors: the quantity of such resources, the social and economic needs, the past use of the resources, the possibility to use alternative resources and their cost, and the attempt to limit damages on both sides.

The “past use of the resources” part of the negotiation is perceived by Israel as a reference to a pre-existing situation, that is the right to maintain their privileged position by lineage. No matter if the privilege was obtained through coercion and limitations imposed on the Palestinian population and as a consequence of unilateral exploitation. The reference to “social and economic needs” accentuates the needs of the Israeli economy, which is much more developed than that of their counterpart, as if it were a rightful claim to more water.

The Israeli vision of the water problem has developed into one that sees the right to water as a private, not shareable, right. It is striking to see – for those who have been in the occupied territories – the difference between the settlements, patches of verdant abundance among the desolated and arid surrounding areas.

Israel has made the water issue into an issue of national security and intends to base its political negotiations on this parameter. On the other front, the divergences between Hamas and the ANP limit the Palestinian common strategy to counter Israeli impositions and restrictions. On the global level, the divisions and civil wars of the arab world do not supply sufficient international support for the Palestinian claims.

Presently the Israelis use approximately 333 cubic meters of water per person annually while the Palestinians only use 83. It is a 1 to 4 relationship. Yet the settlers receive much more, their share being 1450 cubic meters per person. This last figure clearly goes to show an improper and unbalanced use of water for mere political ends.

The Israeli population counts presently around 8 million inhabitants, 90% of whom reside in urban centers. According to statistics from 2011 there are over 534.000 settlers, 320.000 of whom reside in the occupied territories of Cisjordan, 7800 in the Gaza strip, 198.000 in Jerusalem and the remaining 20.000 in the Golan heights. This half-a-million individuals are able to influence the Israeli public opinion because they live in the front line: the front against Arabs. They have substantial tax exemptions, social services, a powerful political lobby and are the ones that use and abuse the water resources. Their water is subsidized by the government (they pay only a fraction of extraction and transportation costs).

As of today there doesn't seem to be the right conditions for a peaceful solution to this controversy about the equal division of water resources. It is a problem that is linked both to the land that must be returned into Palestinian hands and to the self-determination of the Palestinians themselves. Even though the issue may seem to be subordinated to other, more pressing issues, without a solution to this problem, peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians will not be possible.