Mark Zeitoun | 28 January 2014

he suffering of the Palestinians forced off their land is not due to climate change or drought; it is the result of unchecked political forces.

There are at least two features to note in the way that power underlies the conflict over freshwater between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The first is that the imbalance in power between Israeli and Palestinian authorities is reflected in the striking asymmetry in distribution of the control of the transboundary flows. The impact of the skew upon farmers in the West Bank, on Palestinian state-building efforts, and upon the broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been well documented in NGO, World Bank, and academic publications. Much of this analysis centres on the effects of the military occupation of the West Bank, and the water clauses of the Oslo II Agreement, which was endorsed by the Government of Israel and the PLO in 1995.

What most academics, donors and environmental peacebuilding efforts have not stressed, however, is the extent to which Israeli control over water (and Palestinian consent to it) has enabled the expulsion of Palestinians and the settlement of Israelis in the West Bank. The second feature to note about power and this water conflict, then, is how chauvinistic forces can pervert the very life-providing essence of water, by enabling the transfer of populations.

The use of water as a military tool for political ends is well-practiced against Palestinian villages in Israel, and especially in ‘Area C’ of the West Bank. For instance, the United Nations’ formal recognition of the Human Right to Water in 2010 coincided with a stepped-up violation of that right, just south of Hebron. Israeli army destruction of the most basic of water infrastructure – such as family rainwater reservoirs – makes farming unsustainable, and staying on the land irrational. It is difficult to believe – but visible to anyone who visits – that these people are prevented even from collecting the rain. Palestinian families have ‘adapted’ over decades, by trickling away from the area.

It will be far more difficult to challenge the recently-arrived Israeli settlers of the West Bank, who have grown accustomed to the shield of law, and a cheap and reliable water supply. Thus, while the success of the Israeli settler project grows from organized political Zionism, credit is also due to Israeli water engineers, and the Joint Water Committee (JWC), a by-product of Oslo II. The coercive horse-trading of the apparently symmetrical JWC has been detailed by Jan Selby, who shows how Israeli approval of Palestinian water projects is conditioned on Palestinian approval of water projects for Israeli settlement. Seeking to provide water for un-served villages, and to ensure their own political survival, the Palestinian Authority, he argues, is in effect consenting to Israeli colonisation.

The mechanism may not be official policy, but it is simple and effective: water is provided to attract some people, and denied to repel others. Judging by the rate of people moving in opposite directions since Oslo II – and the December 2013 passing of a bill calling for Israeli annexation of the Jordan River Valley – there is a generation or two left to complete the transfer.

Israel’s use of treated wastewater and desalination is so far advanced that the technological achievements could, in a rational world, relieve tensions over freshwater resources. But those hoping for science to lead us to peace, the way we used to pray for rain, are missing the point entirely. Ideology overwhelms rationale, and the suffering of those forced off their land is not due to climate change or drought; it is the result of unchecked political forces.

This is where a deeper understanding of the way that power works is useful. Machiavelli, Antonío Gramsci, and Steven Lukes have all understood how social stability is maintained through the use of force and consent, or a combination of hard and soft power. Dictators that fail to realize this eventually fall. A hegemonic order established through a more sophisticated combined use of power is much more sustainable.

As it happens, soft power is much more common in transboundary water conflicts, and official endorsement of a skewed agreement or coercive practice poses particular challenges to all concerned about the causal mechanisms of environmental conflicts. It can mask the effects of practices enabled by power asymmetry.

The consent of the PLO and Palestinian Authority in this case suggests, at the very least, that researchers would do well to incorporate justice into their analysis, and question discourses sanctioned by the more powerful. Similarly, environmental peacemaking efforts interested in more than shallow water cooperation must consider control of the resource: both the mechanisms that enable control, and the political ideology that drives it. Such efforts would be more clearly guided by international fair water-sharing principles such as the ever-increasing support for the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention, which may serve to avoid the analytical pitfalls opened by ideology.

But the root of this problem is in the political arena. The use of water for population transfer is a predictable reflection of the broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is steered by intense forms of national/religious chauvinism. Such is the nature of a hegemonic order that initiatives and analysis that ignore this will not only continue to lack influence on resolution of the conflict, they will also deepen it. The more such initiatives give the impression the conflict is being resolved, the more land will be settled and annexed, and the more people will be moved in and out. The water conflict and suffering will continue so long as the more influential politicians continue this game, and diplomats and thinkers choose not to challenge them.

This article is based on the 7 February 2012 issue of Revolve.