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War over Water: Never Ending Misery of the Palestinians in the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

last update : 22/11/2020 - 05:16 PM ( Since 3 months )



Dr Nor Aishah Hanifa
Senior Lecturer, Department of Strategic Studies
National Defence University of Malaysia (NDUM), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The Arab-Israel conflict is a blanket term to describe various conflicts took place and taking place between Israel and the Arabs. Often we misunderstand that Arab-Israel conflict as a conflict over territory although big part of the conflict is about land.  War over water often not seen by global communities. The first Arab-Israeli war sparked in 1948 following declaration of Israel as a state on May 15, 1948. The first war was followed by the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956 and The Six Days War in 1967, which were the wars over water. Amnesty International asserts that “The legacy of Israel’s 50 year occupation of the Palestinian territories has been systematic human rights violation on a mass scale”. Since 1967 Israeli military authorities consolidated complete power over all water resources and water related infrastructure in the Occupied Palestinian territories (Amnesty International 29 November 2017).

In this regard water issue between states can create crisis and wars in international system. Adequate flow of water is imminent to state security and survival. States need water security to maintain its national security. Without water security states would face human security, food security and economic security issues. Without water security states can fail and collapse in the long run. Rivers, riverheads, lakes and mountain ranges are playing major role in water supply system. Crisis sparks between states because of water scarcity.  States involve in conflict for a stiff competition over who can control the water system. Control over water system brought Israel and the Arab nations to involve in the Six Day War in 1967. 

The Six Day war is an exemplary war which started because of water supply and ownership of the river heads. The war began when Jordan diverted part of the Yarmouk River in 1951. In response Israel began construction of its National Water Carrier (NWC) in 1953, resulting in crisis between Israel and Syria. In 1955, the Johnston Plan was implemented to allocate water. By the plan 55% of water from Jordan River basin would go to Jordan, 36% to Israel, and 9% each to Syria and Lebanon. In 1964, Israel opened the NWC and began diverting water from the Jordan River Valley. Thereafter the Arab Summit of 1964 adjourned and a plan was decided to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River to Syria and Jordan. Israel started to attack construction of this project which escalated as the Six Day War in 1967. Israel completely destroyed the Syrian diversion project and took control of the Golan Heights, Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank.

Beside many other strategies, Israel uses water as a strategy against Palestinians’. By controlling water, Israel determine to weaken Palestinian people and their dreams to establish a nation state. B’Tselem (11 November 2017) reports Israel started to control all water resources in the occupied territories since 1967. Israel issued Military Order 158, which stated that Palestinians could not construct any new water installation without obtaining a permit from the Israel army. Since 1967 Israel retains exclusive control over all water resources between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, except of the coastal aquifer which runs in the Gaza Strip. Israel ignores needs of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Water shortage is a severely impacting Palestinians’ life. Water crisis is worse in the Gaza Strip under Israel’s blockade for more than a decade. Water supply in Gaza is sub-standard and not potable.

In the West Bank Israel retains control over all water resources under the Interim Agreement (Oslo II) signed in 1995. This agreement is still in effect in the West Bank. According to the Interim Agreement, water in the West Bank pumped from the mountain aquifer. Supposedly a joint Israeli-Palestinian resource, allocated 80% of water for Israeli use and 20% of water for the Palestinians’ use. The Interim Agreement is injustice because the agreement established that Israelis would receive unlimited water supply. In contrast water supply to the Palestinians was restricted. Fixed quantity of water was imposed over the Palestinians, approximately 118 million cubic meters of water from existing drillings and 70-80 million cubic meters from new drillings. The agreement also gives Israel right to sell water to the Palestinians. Israel would sell the Palestinians an additional 31 million cubic meters a year.  But in actual condition Palestinians purchase more water than the stipulated amount.  The Palestinian Water Authority figures show that the PA purchased an additional 63.8 million cubic meters from Mekorot (Israel’s national water company) for use in the West Bank. Amnesty finds Mekorot has systematically sunk wells and springs in the West Bank to supply its population, including those living in illegal settlements with water for domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes.  Settlers enjoy smooth supply of water. Even their settlements have swimming pool facilities, when Palestinians have no sufficient water.

Israel’s policy also against the Palestinians’ interest to get adequate water supply. Most often Palestinians’ face technical difficulties in new water drillings. Israel intentionally impose obstacles to the Palestinians, such as lengthy delays in approving projects. Israel also refuse to grant approval to repair poor pipe line infrastructure in the West Bank.  About one third of all water supplied to the PA lost in leakage. Israel continuously refuse to approve PA proposals to repair the pipeline system which is running through the Area C. In addition Palestinian communities in the Area C forced by Israel’s policy to purchase water privately from water tankers all year around at considerable cost. Palestinian communities purchase water with high prices ranging from 4 to 10 USD per cubic metre. Israeli authorities and settlers also making conditions worse. They take over natural water resources belongs to the Palestinians. They also dare to destroy water cisterns and spring fed pools. Often they block Palestinians’ access to natural water sources.

Water crisis is more severe and deadly in the Gaza Strip. Gaza’s water and sanitation infrastructure were heavily damaged in Israel’s bombing especially in the Operation Cast Lead (2008) and Operation Protective Edge (2014). As of 2015, more than 100,000 of Palestinians in Gaza still cut off the public water network. Secondly most Gazans depend on costal aquifer for water supply. This has been polluted by over pumping and waste water contamination. B’Tselem (11 November 2017) reports that 97% of the water pumped from the aquifer and supply to domestic use in Gaza is unsafe to drink.  The aquifer system is in the brink of collapse in Gaza. Gazans are forced to purchase desalinated water from private vendors. An estimated 68% of the treated water is also polluted. Furthermore 40% of water supplied for domestic use is lost on the way due to outdated and damaged water infrastructure.  

Right to water and sanitation are fundamental human rights stipulated in international law. Israel as the occupier should ensure adequate water supply to people in the occupied territories. Israel often breach international law to carry out belligerent policies against the Palestinians. Israel’s water policy is Israel’s smart strategy to chase out Palestinians out of the occupied territories. Palestinians face devastating life under Israel’s occupation. Their livelihood is slowly failing especially their agricultural farms in the OPTs in the Jordan Valley. They have to abandon crops like citrus plantation due to shortage in water. They forced to opt for cucumber, zucchini and squash which are less water consuming crops. In contrast Israeli settlers establish successful grape plantations and farming in the OPTs.

Through this strategy Israel able to achieve its national interest via the territorial policy. Here Israel does not need military to fight against the Palestinians. Water become an effective weapon in Israel-Palestinian conflict. A deliberate attack over the Palestinians’ livelihood. International law and liberal institutions have limitation of power over Israel. Palestinians continue to suffer in prevailing power asymmetry condition. Israel cannot expect peace from the Palestinians when Israel touches their root of life and existence. In fact Israel’s policies are turning the Palestinians away from peace process. Some sections of the Palestinians become vulnerable threat to Israel because Israel develop such conditions for people to aggress.  This is a simple psychology that Israel always ignore and place all accusations over the Palestinians. If Israel wants to eradicate terrorism and violence, Israel need to give the due to the Palestinians.

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