According to a British researcher, the work of the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee reflects another example of Israel’s ability to coerce and restrict the Palestinian population.
By Amira Hass | Apr.06, 2013

The major projects to expand the water infrastructure in West Bank settlements, undertaken between 1995 and 2008, were carried out with the approval of the Palestinian Authority after it was made clear that otherwise Israel would not allow the PA to repair and improve the water infrastructure serving its own population. Dr. Jan Selby of the international relations department at Britain’s University of Sussex found this to be the case after studying the minutes of 142 of the 176 meetings of the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee that took place during that 13-year period.

The Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) informed Haaretz, however, that during nearly the past three years, it has refused to approve such undertakings in the settlements.

The JWC was established as part of the Oslo accords, and even though it was originally allotted five years in which to operate ‏(a length of time designated as an interim period‏), it still exists to this day in its original format, and continues to meet, with the official aim of protecting, supervising and developing the trans-boundary water resource known as the mountain aquifer.

Selby disputes the academic literature that sees the committee as an example of positive cooperation that serves to preserve and develop shared water sources. He claims the committee not only represents another dimension of asymmetry and of Israel’s ability to coerce, limit and impose conditions on the Palestinians, but also that its activity has enabled the entrenchment of Israel’s takeover of the West Bank. According to Selby, at least some of the donor countries to the PA, who funded Palestinian water projects, have been aware of the extortionate dimension of the JWC, “but preferred to remain silent on the issue.” The water article in the Oslo accords meant to expand the Palestinian independent water grid and adjust the quantities to the needs of the growing population. But ironically, during the years of cooperation, and according to Selby because of Israeli limitations, the Palestinian dependency on water bought from Israel only increased.

Selby cross-referenced the information in the minutes with the specifics of the projects. That is, he found that the proportion of Palestinian projects approved by the JWC and by the Supreme Planning Council of the Civil Administration was in those years lower than the proportion of projects approved for the settlements: 66 percent of the Palestinian requests to drill wells as compared to 100 percent of the Israeli requests; between 50 to 80 percent of Palestinian water supply networks were approved as compared to 100 percent for the settlers; 58 percent of the wastewater treatment plants for the Palestinians and 96 percent for the settlers.

During the years that Selby researched, Israel submitted to the JWC far fewer projects for approval than the Palestinians did, 135 versus 600, respectively. Such a gap is understandable, considering that the Palestinian population is today seven times the size of the settlers population in the West Bank and that upon receiving responsibilities over its population, in 1994, the PA inherited from Israel’s pre-Oslo direct occupation a neglected water system and hundreds of communities which were not connected to it.

Despite the numerical gap in the projects, the capacity of the Israeli water installations that were approved is far greater than that of the Palestinian facilities, both in relative and in absolute terms. The average diameter of water pipes used for the Palestinian population is 2 inches, as compared to 8 inches or 12 inches for the Israelis. The 174 water reservoir projects for the Palestinians that were approved have a total capacity of 167,950 cubic centimeters, as compared to 28 projects for the settlers with a total capacity of 132,250 cubic centimeters. The average capacity of an Israeli reservoir is 4,724 cubic centimeters, whereas the average for a Palestinian one is 965.

These disparities stem largely from the fact that most of the Israeli projects the JWC approved were for water networks linking settlements to one another, as well as connecting them to the water infrastructure in Israel proper. None of the Israeli requests to the JWC that Selby examined were for networks within the built-up areas of the settlements.

The Palestinian requests, however, concerned water networks both within and between Palestinian locales. Selby also notes that for Palestinian pipelines within Area C, the waiting time is several times longer because a whole additional series of authorizations is required, from both the Civil Administration and the army. Furthermore, the time required for approval by the JWC was different: on average, 11 months for a Palestinian project and two months for an Israeli project.

Drilling wells

There are projects for which it took much longer to obtain approval, especially in the case of drilling wells. Israel rejected the seven requests to drill new wells in the western basin, and approved two out of nine requests to drill alternative wells instead of those which had dried up. In the aquifer’s eastern basin, Israel often opposed the drilling of wells at the best sites from the hydro-geological perspective, compelling the PA instead to do its drilling at a less productive site.
Smaller pipe diameters

Selby claims it would be incorrect to read the projects the PA submitted for the committee’s approval as independent and practical ones that were proposed in line with the population’s needs. The PA selected them and submitted the requests on the basis of previous knowledge, anticipating what was likely to be rejected, and what had a better chance of being accepted. In the knowledge that a small-diameter pipe had a greater chance of gaining approval, for instance, a proposed project was “tailored” in accordance with that assumption and did not necessarily reflect the objective needs of the society and its natural growth in the future.

Selby writes that the PA went along with the JWC regime because it had no alternative. Nonetheless, he notes, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that PA compliance with the JWC regime, while primarily a consequence of encirclement, occupation and dependency, is also something for which it holds a degree of responsibility.”

He notes that after 2010, when the Palestinians took a more principled stance in the JWC and refused to approve projects in the settlements, it led to a stalemate in the work of the committee.

Israel Water Authority spokesman Uri Schor’s response: “The entire issue of water and sewage infrastructure involving the State of Israel and the PA was arranged with full agreement in an interim accord signed by both sides and in the presence of the United States, Russia, Egypt and others as witnesses. Among the agreements was establishment of a joint ‏(Israeli-Palestinian‏) commission which, in its capacity of implementing the accord, was authorized to discuss and approve projects for both sides, and this is how things are being done.”

The Palestinian Water Authority has sent the following response: “Selby’s claim that the Palestinian side has approved settlement projects is only partly true. Today, and for almost three years now, no Israeli settlement related project has been approved by the Palestinian side in the JWC. This has brought the JWC to an impasse and deadlock as the Israeli side is conditioning approval of Palestinian projects in the JWC on approval by the Palestinian side for Israeli settlement projects, which we refuse to do. Today the JWC discussions are mainly limited to pricing issues.

“The main reason why settlement related water supply lines have been approved in the past is that most Palestinian communities in the West Bank receive their water supply from the lines that feed the Israeli settlements. Due to the need to supply water to these communities and the Israeli refusal to approve new systems solely serving Palestinian communities, the Palestinian hand was forced to agree to projects of such nature. Also the Israeli side has always conditioned the approval of Palestinian projects on approval by Palestine of Israeli projects, despite repeated Palestinian attempts to reject this conditionality. Due to the need to construct, develop, rehabilitate and upgrade Palestinian systems to supply much needed water, the Palestinian hand was forced to approve some of the Israeli projects.

“Lastly, it is important to keep in mind the overall political context of the agreement on water, which was only intended as an interim agreement. The expectation was the settlements will be evacuated following a permanent status agreement and that any approvals thus will only be of temporary nature until evacuation occurs. However, following the failure of permanent status negotiations and the realization that Israel does not intend to roll back its occupation and colonization enterprise, it became clear that settlement projects will have a lasting effect and will erode the two state solution, and thus the Palestinians have rejected since several years to approve any settlement projects.”