Water for Israelis and Palestinians

One sadly takes for granted the ignorance and the biased perspective of critics of the policies of the State of Israel, such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, the World Council of Churches, the Near East Council of Churches, and the other supporters of the boycott of the state. It is more surprising to find inaccurate information coming from a prominent German Social Democrat and president of the European Parliament, one regarded as a friend of Israel and one who argues that a boycott is not a solution for anything. Sadly, his words on a complex issue echoed the bias of the fallacious Palestinian narrative of victimhood.

On February 12, 2014 Martin Schulz, speaking in German in the Israeli Knesset supported Israel's right to exist and the right of the Jewish people to live in security and peace. He admired the present Israel with its hundreds of startup companies and high-tech research centers with their innovations in microchips, computer tomography, and ultrasound scanners. He also condemned increasing European anti-Semitism, a way of thinking that he thought had been consigned to history.

Unfortunately, Schulz also spoke of a conversation with unnamed young people who said that an Israeli is allowed 70 liters of water a day, but a Palestinian only 17. Schulz confessed he had not checked the exact figures, but his remark was unfortunately inflammatory because of the disproportionate figures. Schulz, during his visit to Israel was speaking personally and not as an official representative of the EU. Yet his words were a reminder of the declarations and decisions of the European Union which have been prone to bias against Israel. Particularly the guidelines the EU issued for boycott of goods from about Israeli settlements.

Even on the water issue the EU has not been impartial. The EU funds some of the members of EWASH, the coalition of 30 NGO groups set up in 2002, concerned with the water issue in the West Bank. This group, with which Oxfam is connected, also presents inaccurate information about water policies and statistics. Oxfam had already stated absurdly that the Israeli settlers used six times the amount of water used by Palestinians. There are disparities, which are declining, in access to water between Israelis and Palestinians, but this does not excuse the unfounded claims of Palestinians and the boycotters of Israel that Israel is denying Palestinian water rights.

Water control has always been a problem in the Middle East; it was so under both the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate. For Israel and the Palestinians the control concerns three main sources of water: the Sea of Galilee; the Coastal Aquifer along the coastline, between Haifa and Gaza, and the Mountain Aquifer, which is divided into three areas and part of which is Israel's main source of high quality drinking water.

In 1953-55, Eric Johnston, the special envoy of President Eisenhower, formulated a unified water resource development plan of the Jordan River system, allocating quantities of water to the different political states. The plan was accepted by Israel and Jordan, but rejected by the Arab Higher Committee for Palestine, the organization headed by the ex-Mufti of Jerusalem, the violent opponent of Israel. Already in 1953 the Israeli water carrier had been constructed to take water from the Sea of Galilee to the south of Israel. After 1967 Israeli settlements were connected to the Israeli National Water Carrier by long pipelines. Palestinian towns and villages located along the pipelines were connected to running water.

By the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of October 1994 the two countries agreed on a water agreement to share the Jordan River system. Around the same time in the Annex III of the Oslo II Accord of September 1995, Israel recognized Palestinian water rights in the West Bank. There was a partial arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians for the equitable use of joint water and sewage resources and joint management. The agreement detailed the amount of water from each of the West Bank aquifers (Eastern, Northeastern, and Western) to be allocated to Israel and to the PA. A Joint Water Committee, comprised of an equal number of representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and operating through four subcommittees, was set up to deal with approving water supply systems and sewage instillations. It makes decisions by consensus. Israel transferred control, power, and responsibilities, to the Palestinian Authority of Palestinian water supply in the Gaza Strip, except for the Israeli settlements in Gaza at that time, and in the part of the West Bank it controls. This was an interim agreement: the issue of ownership of water and sewage-related infrastructure in the West Bank was to be addressed in the permanent status negotiations.

Under the Oslo Accord of October 1995 Israel agreed to supply Palestinians with 28.6 million cubic meters (MCM/Y) a year: in fact it has been supplying more than 60 MCM/Y. Data on the issue is imperfect and different data are provided by the Water Authority and the World Bank. At present, Palestinians in the West Bank have 127,000 liters of fresh water available per capita a year, while Israelis have 154,000 liters available. In 2009, Palestinians consumed 95,000 liters per capita a year compared to the Israeli 137,000.

It needs to be said that an accurate comparison depends on the calculation of the size of the Palestinian population in the West Bank. A study by Professor Haim Gvirtzman shows there is now little difference in per capita consumption of natural water between Israelis and Palestinians. The per capita domestic water consumption of Palestinians is much higher than the minimum needs defined by the World Health Organization.
The Palestinians have been delinquent in building sewage treatment plants. They have lost large amounts of water because of leaky pipes; these losses amount to about a third of the total availability. Palestinian farmers have engaged in water theft. Palestinians have drilled more than 250 unauthorized wells in the West Bank, and 3000 in Gaza, all causing harm to the underground water table. They have also engaged in unauthorized connections to the Israeli water supply pipelines, especially Mekorot, the Israeli National Water Company.

Nevertheless, nearly all Palestinians are connected to running water. Before 1967, only 4 of the 708 Palestinian towns and villages were connected to a running water network: in 2012 96% of the 708 were connected. All will benefit from the extraordinary increase in desalination that Israel began in 1973. The desalination plants at first supplied only the Dead Sea and Eilat areas. Now, through the five plants along the Mediterranean coast, Israel produces 505 million cubic meters of water a year. By 2020 the amount will be 750 million.

No doubt, for many commentators differences on the water issue are more political than technical. What is important is that Palestinians are responsible for water resources in the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank. It is a major step towards self-government. It is distressing and self-defeating for Vitens, the largest Dutch drinking water supplier, to withdraw from working with Mekorot. If Jordan and the Palestinians can work with the Israeli carrier, why should Vitens and Oxfam and the other boycotters do otherwise unless they want to harm the Palestinians?

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.