The provision and denial of water in Palestine-Israel masks ulterior political motives that seek to replace one population with another.

Writer: Mark Zeitoun

It will be another meager crop this year for the Palestinian subsistence farmer in the Jordan River Valley. Casting an eye over dusty fields in Fesa’el, he contemplates whether he should continue to eke out a living this way, or move to Nablus and work as a day laborer like so many before him. He turns his back on the lush orchards of the adjacent Israeli agri-business settlement of Tirzah, which has taken land away from villages like his own. Climate-proof thanks to a reliable and cheap supply of water, such settlements continue to expand as ever-more people are lured to them.

Along this west bank of the Jordan River, there is considerable evidence that the allocation of water is a mechanism for ulterior political goals. A December 2011 French Parliamentary report by MP Jean Glavany suggests “water apartheid” policies are designed to keep Palestinian and Israeli communities in the West Bank separate, while journalist Ben Ehrenreich notes in the same month’s Harper’s that water is used for ethnic cleansing. However, the manner in which it is provided or denied suggests a nuanced perversion of the life-providing essence of water: to replace one population with another.

Water as a military tool

The diplomatic and academic community usefully questioning environmental conflicts would do well to also engage with the implications this particular use of water has for theory, for conflict management practice, and for action. Water expert Peter Gleick has identified how groups use water as a military tool for political ends – a practice which has been honed to near-perfection in the protracted conflict for the West Bank. Here, the broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict determines the use of water, meaning environmental peacemaking efforts interested in more than shallow water cooperation must consider control of the resource: both the mechanisms that enable control, and the politics and ideology that drive it.

That control in rural areas throughout Israel and Palestine has been in the hands of successive Israeli governments, and achieved through a very effective use of combined hard and soft power. Converting control of water into a demographic shift is evidently simple: first, an area is rid of its inhabitants by denying access to water resources or to basic water services. The area is then populated with the preferred inhabitants, by providing the water services that were previously denied.

The United Nations’ (UN) formal recognition of the Human Right to Water in 2010 coincided with a stepped-up violation of that right, just west of Bethlehem. To maintain an income there, farmers who have to battle an array of army jeeps, zoning regulations and the wall have been trickling away for decades. In the Yatta governorate south of Hebron, Israeli army destruction of the most basic of water infrastructure, such as family rainwater reservoirs, has increased dramatically since about the same time. It may be difficult to believe – but visible to anyone who visits – that these people are prevented even from collecting the rain.

Israeli citizens are not spared the pain, particularly the inhabitants of ‘unrecognized villages’ who have largely been denied basic water services since Israel’s establishment in 1948. The recent moves to push over 30,000 Bedouin people into ‘government-recognized settlements’ will be only the latest in a long chain of transgressions against them. And it shows how water can cleanse: if the communities had been provided with a regular and safe supply of water in the 1950s, it would have been much more difficult – if not impossible – to uproot them today.

Just as it will be difficult to uproot the Israeli settlers back in the West Bank, who have grown accustomed to the shield of law and a cheap and reliable water supply. Water attracts rather than repels here, and while the success of the Israeli settler project derives from political Zionism, credit is also due to the efforts of the Israeli water engineers. The awkward pipes and jerrycans of the first colonizing settlers serve as umbilical cords to sustain the domestic needs of hilltop outposts, and are soon replaced with world-class design buried networks that anchor agri-business.

Ideology trumps rationale

The terms of the 1995 Oslo II Interim Agreement have ensured that water distribution between Palestinians and Israelis is so asymmetric that water supply for settlements outstrips demand. So, as more land is grabbed, the Minister of Infrastructure calls for more settlement water pipes, and the water will follow. The budget for sewage treatment is not so easy to clear, however: the hilltops stolen by the Yitzhar or Ariel settlements south of Nablus bloom as the raw settler sewage flows into the withered Palestinian fields in the valleys below. Meanwhile, the Palestinian political class who signed the agreement appear more focussed on the UN than on their own backyard, and ignore the plight of their farmers (see related video on dual expropriation of Palestinian farming land).

Unrepresented by their government, and unable to eke a living off of the land, Palestinian parents scramble to send their kids to the urban centres, or preferrably Europe and the US, while Israeli governments subsidize the settlement of Zionist North American and European parents. Judging by the rate of cleansing over the last 16 years, there is about a generation or two to go.

Unrecognized Bedouin villages are not connected to Israel’s national water grid, forcing residents to travel long distances to access water. Source: Physicians for Human Rights – Israel.

The use of water to transfer populations in this way may seem surprising, given the well-known Israeli advances in water technology. The country’s wastewater reuse and desalination projects are of such magnitude that they can significantly reduce tensions over freshwater sources. But those hoping for science to lead us to peace – the way we used to pray for rain – are missing the point entirely. Ideology can overwhelm rationale, and the suffering of those forced off their land is not due to a lack of rain – it’s what is in the minds of those who allocate the water that counts.

A fair distribution of resources in rough accordance with international norms may be less on those minds than fundamentally discriminatory ideas about securing water supplies for exclusive use. Ultimately this is a shortsighted route to water security. The contamination of groundwater due to constricted development of Palestinian villages and unchecked construction of Israeli settlements will affect everyone drawing from the aquifers – rich or poor, Jewish or Muslim, Palestinian or Israeli, Zionist or anti-Zionist. Unless, of course, the population transfer is completed before the aquifer collapses entirely.

From an analytical perspective, the perversion of water’s essence is more elegantly explained through political ecology theory than the (more popular) approach of environmental determinism. The former can inform the efforts of those involved in managing the water conflict, who must question if their quest for stability actually hampers the positive change that is needed to reverse the ethnic cleansing. Given the strength of the forces driving the mal-distribution of water, analysis and policy must also give wind to the sails of the many managers, scholars and activists who fight chauvinism in Palestine and Israel – and clear the way for social equality, political representation and fair water-sharing. Future harvests may not be so bitter, for our efforts.

Mark Zeitoun is the author of Power and Water in the Middle East (IB Tauris), which was released in paperback in January 2012. He has worked as a water engineer and strategic negotiations advisor for several years in the West Bank and Gaza.

This article appeared in the print version of Revolve’s Water Around the Mediterranean special report in association with the Union for the Mediterranean on pages 26-27.

Ed note: See related map by Al-Haq