The Relationship between Water and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In the past fifteen years, the problem of water scarcity in the Middle East received a great deal of attention from both scholars and the media. The idea of ‘water wars’ took off, inspiring many books and research projects. News columnists have popularised the claim the next major war will likely be fought over water, whose scarcity is compared to that of oil.1 Of the many ‘water wars’ that are identified or predicted, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most interesting examples of water conflict.

However, the ‘water wars’ theory is far from certain. While some advocate for the water wars theory, others assert that water scarcity has actually encouraged peaceful outcomes to conflicts, and still others find a middle ground between those two positions. Most research on the subject clearly suggests that water scarcity does not directly cause interstate conflict. Nevertheless, I maintain that water has in fact played a role in the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while it is not a lynchpin of war. Like all factors that contribute to conflicts, the role of water is subtle and intertwined with many other issues.

Ties between Water & National Identity

The first and most subtle way that water has strained the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is through integration into national identity and culture. Throughout the history of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, water has been essential in shaping national identities. This is especially true of Israel, where water and its relationship to agriculture have influenced fundamental Israeli beliefs and practices.

Water possesses special significance in the Israeli national identity due to the relationship between Zionism and agriculture. A key component of the Zionist movement was the return not only to the homeland, but also to agricultural living. This is partially due to the influence of socialist movements in Europe at the time, which advocated personal connection and claim to the land through agriculture. For most of Jewish history, their people were denied land rights and were required by European law to live in urban areas as a method of disenfranchisement. As a result, the agricultural lifestyle was idealised.2 The opportunity to live in Israel meant the chance to ‘restore to Jews that which they lacked in the Diaspora and to create what they considered to be the ‘ideal man’ who would ‘make the desert bloom.’3 Transforming the desert waste into an agricultural utopia was popularised and became a fundamental part of the Israeli identity.

Although not all of the original Israelis were members of the Zionist Labour movement, political motivations necessitated controlling water resources. The early Israelis were extremely invested in cultivating and transforming land so that transferring ownership back to the Arabs would become more difficult.4 Working the land was absolutely essential to the security of the state; one Israeli said ‘Jews must work the land – all the land. If not, it will be occupied by Arabs; first by their grazing animals and then, by them, themselves. This would be the end of the Jewish state.‘ The political need for agricultural transformations manifested into a zeal which remains a part of Israeli culture today.5 It is evidenced, for example, by many Israeli politicians who claim that the existence of Israel wholly depends on maintaining the current water sources.

Finally, moving to the Levant’s harsh conditions added a great deal of stress on people who were used to an abundance of water, very temperate climates, and cultivating water-reliant crops. The Jewish immigrants dealt with this change of venue by physically transforming the land into something similar to their past- by planting lush vegetation, investing in water heavy agriculture, and building familiar architecture (such as fountains). Focusing on transforming the land into something more familiar mitigated the anxiety many immigrants faced and helped build a sense of national pride and unity.6

Because of these factors, water became ingrained into the very identity of Israel and retains its importance to this day. It is also important to note that Israelis are not directly confronted with water shortages on a daily basis and this makes water less of a political necessity and proves its social importance.7 In fact, water commissioner Meir Ben Meir admitted in 1997 that ‘were it not for the ideological and practical necessity to cultivate and irrigate land, Israel would not have a water problem.’8

Although there are few resources examining a cultural connection between Palestinians, water was also important to Palestinians. According to Mariam Lowi, a professor at the College of New Jersey and a widely recognised expert on Palestinian water, the reason there are few sources on this is because of a lack of recorded materials.9 Historically in Palestine, water was a cultural value rather than an ideological one. Prior to the Israeli state, the native population in the Occupied Palestinian Territories was largely agricultural; farming was viewed as the way of life and water was perceived as a part of the land.10 Palestinians routinely practiced water-related rituals, prayers, and songs as a community.11 Although Palestinians did not romanticise agricultural labour like Israelis, water was absolutely vital for survival and had similar cultural significance.

As the conflict developed, water gained larger symbolic consequence in Palestinian culture: water became a symbol of Israeli ‘theft’ and dominance over Palestinians.12 Military interference with water projects (such as sewage treatment plants), reinforced the idea that water policies are directly affected by larger political issues. Palestinians have come to believe that nothing is safe in the current hostilities and blame Israel for water scarcity problems. Palestinians are extremely reluctant to accept Israeli technology, as it might politically imply an acceptance of Israeli control. According to Ziad Abdeen, a public health researcher at Al-Quds University, ‘a pervasive sense of injustice in the allocation of water resources is a common feature of almost all Palestinians’ ideology, regardless of the individual’s political or theological inclinations.13

Water’s Effect on Politics & Political Events

Numerous historical events reveal the importance of water to both Israelis and Palestinians. The importance of water stemmed largely from its economic importance to a viable Israeli and Palestinian state. Aaron Aaronsohn, a Palestinian who worked for the British government, wrote in his unpublished paper ‘The Boundaries of Palestine‘, that ‘the whole economic life directly depends on the available water supply. It is, therefore, of vital importance not only to secure all water resources. but also to insure the possession of whatever can conserve and increase these water-and eventually power- resources.

Water was a major factor in the outbreak of the Six Day War. It began in 1953, when Israel attempted to divert the Upper Jordan River to the National Water Carrier at the B’nei Yacov Bridge. The National Water Carrier is a pipeline which carries water from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev desert which has little water. This is widely recognised as the beginning of water competition between Israel and the Arab states. The Arab states were incensed by the attempted diversion of traditionally Arab resources, (under the Ottoman civil code, water from the Jordan River Basin could not be diverted without the consent of all parties), and began to realise the political importance of water resources.14

After the completion of the National Water Carrier in 1964, Arab policy towards Israel became even more hostile. The carrier was considered theft and inspired action including the Arab Diversion Plan. Under the Diversion Plan, members of the Arab League decided to divert the tributaries of the Jordan River upstream, which would reduce Israeli water supply by 35%. After the Arab states begin construction of the Diversion Plan, Israel launched several attacks on the construction along the Syrian border. Meanwhile, Fatah also conducted its first attack in response to the diversion of Arab waters by carrying out a militant attack against the National Water Carrier on January 1, 1965. The tensions continued on this level until Israel finally bombed the Arab construction in April of 1967, when the Six Day war was incited.15

Between 1967 and the Oslo Accords, water did not have much of an effect on the conflict. Rather, the political state of the conflict instituted a power hegemony, which did not allow for water sharing and halted water development. Simultaneously, a great deal of damage was done to the previously existing water sector; resulting in the destruction of two hundred water pumps irrigation systems and wells in the Jordan Valley alone.16

In 1980, the settlement movement truly took off when the Begin administration attempted to counter urban sprawl. At the same time, the region suffered an enormous drought. The Israeli government responded to this situation by limiting Palestinian agriculture with quotas, discriminatorily controlling water distribution, and by instituting higher water prices for Palestinians.17 The Palestinians saw these actions as another attempt at de-legitimation and dispossession by the Israelis, resulting in further politicisation of water.18

The Oslo II Accords of 1995 established a new era in Israeli-Palestinian water. These agreements were new in that Israel recognised the Palestinian right to water and agreed to give Palestinians 70-80 MCM/year in addition to their consumption of roughly 110 MCM/y for ‘future allocation.’ Oslo II also created the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) whose responsibilities were to be outlined in the interim agreement. The Oslo accords established a joint committee composed of the PWA and the Israeli Water Authority meant to focus on water cooperation, examining, and planning water rights and implementation.19

The Joint Water Committee (JWC) has not realised the hopes of those who had portrayed it as an avenue for collaboration and peace-building. Upon reflection, it seems that the JWC could not ever be truly collaborative, and has become a deceptive form of power hegemony. After Oslo, the PWA supposedly became responsible for providing water to 3 million people and inherited the already present water infrastructure. In truth, the PWA is responsible for very little and has jurisdiction over only a very small section of the land. Specifically, the PWA administers only 11% of the land within the green line: 9% of the West Bank was annexed when the security wall was built (including East Jerusalem), 8% of the land is owned by settlers, and 28.5% of the land is under Israeli jurisdiction in the Jordan River area. This leaves only 21% of the remaining land that is considered ‘Area A’, and is under Palestinian control. Furthermore, many of those living on the remaining 11% operate private wells, leaving the PWA virtually useless.

Politicians have continued to pay a great deal of attention to water as a component of the conflict since the collapse of the Oslo peace process. This is evidenced by the release of the Palestine Papers by Al Jazeera’s transparency unit, which show an unadulterated version of the political progression in the last 12 years. Water has been given a varying level of significance by Palestinian negotiators. Although water was considered very important before the first intifada, it took a backseat to other issues after protests broke out. In both 2000 and 2009, water was given more importance following a significant drought, suggesting that water has been given more attention in political negotiations in conjunction with water scarcity. Admittedly, the political situations in 2000 and 2009 were drastically different and these differences might be the reason for the change in approach to water. Nevertheless, it would be reasonable to conclude from this information that drought had an impact in a more serious appeal for water rights.

Water has interacted with history by influencing the course of historical events, politics and cultural identities. This interaction has not been the sole factor leading to violent outbreaks at any point throughout the conflict. Instead, water scarcity and allocation is one of many aggravators such as identity, culture, and economy that mesh together to create conflict. Nevertheless, the importance of water within this particular conflict should not be downplayed, although its role is subtle and nuanced.

1 Steven Solomon. ‘Will the Next War be Fought over Water?’ NPR, 2010. return to main text
2 Mostafa Dolatyar, and Tim Gray, Water Politics in the Middle East: A Context for Conflict or Cooperation? Hampshire: Macmillan, 2000), 66. return to main text
3 Miriam Lowi, Water and Power: The Politics of a Scarce Resource in the Jordan River Basin. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 51. return to main text
4 Mark Zeitoun, Power and Water in the Middle East: The Hidden Politics of the Palestinian-Israeli Water Conflict, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 78. return to main text
5 Sean M Lynn-Jones, ‘Global dangers: Changing dimensions of international security.’ (MIT Press, 2004). return to main text
6 Alwyn Rouyer, Turning Water into Politics, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 80-105. return to main text
7 Alon Tal and Alfred Rabbo, Water Wisdom: Preparing the Groundwork for Cooperative and Sustainable Water Management in the Middle East, (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2010), 77. return to main text
8 Jan Selby, Water, Power, and Politics in the Middle East, 69. return to main text
9 Sharif Elmusa, Water Conflict: Economics, Politics, Law and Palestinian-Israeli Water Resources, (Washington D.C.: Insitute for Palestine Studies), 282. return to main text
10 Miriam Lowi, Water and Power: The Politics of a Scarce Resource in the Jordan River Basin. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 39. return to main text
11 Sharif Elmusa, Water Conflict: Economics, Politics, Law and Palestinian-Israeli Water Resources, (Washington D.C.: Insitute for Palestine Studies), 282-286. return to main text
12 Sharif Elmusa, Water Conflict: Economics, Politics, Law and Palestinian-Israeli Water Resources, (Washington D.C.: Insitute for Palestine Studies), 27. return to main text
13 Alon Tal and Alfred Rabbo, Water Wisdom: Preparing the Groundwork for Cooperative and Sustainable Water Management in the Middle East, (New Brunswick: Rugers, 2010), 68. return to main text
14 David M. Wishart, ‘The Breakdown of the Johnston Negotiations over the Jordan Waters,’ Middle Eastern Studies 26.4 (1990): 537. return to main text
15 Mostafa Dolatyar, and Tim Gray, Water Politics in the Middle East: A Context for Conflict or Cooperation? Hampshire: Macmillan, 2000), 67-71. return to main text
16 Israeli Military Order No 158. Israeli Defense Force. 19 November 1967. return to main text
17 Anthony Coon, ‘Town Planning Under Military Occupation.’ Jerusalem Post. Feb 15, 1985. return to main text
18 Zeitoun, Power and Water in the Middle East, 69-72. return to main text
19 Declaration of Principles. Washington, D.C., 1993. return to main text
20 Mark Zeitoun, Power and Water in the Middle East: The Hidden Politics of the Palestinian-Israeli Water Conflict, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 90-105. return to main text
A Palestinian farmer in the occupied West Bank inspects his olive trees which were uprooted by Israeli settlers, 9 October 2012.
Palestinians fill plastic bottles and jerry cans with drinking water Jan. 23, 2013 from a public tap at the U.N. Relief and Works Agency headquarters in the southern Gaza Strip refugee camp of Rafah.
A Palestinian and an Israeli argue near al-Auja, West Bank, over the recreational use of a water channel. After Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War, 30,147 dunams of al-Auja’s land was classified as ‘closed-off area’ barred from Palestinian use.
Wind blows through a Palestinian greenhouse in al-Auja, abandoned due to lack of water. Though sitting atop a vast reservoir of underground water, the West Bank village has been unable to dig a well deep enough to reach it, denied permits by the Israeli military.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank are supplied with water by Mekorot, Israel’s national water authority. The water comes from deep wells that tap aquifers under the occupied Palestinian territories. West Bank settlements use far more water per capita than neighboring Palestinian communities.
Palestinians are restricted to shallow wells by Israel’s occupation and to buy West Bank groundwater from Israel with European Union aid.

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