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Dispute Over Precious Water On West Bank Slows Talks

Israel and Palestinians seek compromise on dividing water supplies

By John BattersbyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 3, 1995



EIN ARIK, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED WEST BANK

THE water from the tiny underground spring that sustains this Palestinian village laps against the the mosque wall as women and children fill their jugs.

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The spring is a happy place at what is both the lowest and most central point of the village sitting between two rocky hills planted with olive trees.

Children splash and play, and women exchange stories about their lives.

But it is also a potent symbol of the scarcity of water in the Mideast and, particularly, the land on the West Bank of the Jordan River, soon to be handed back to Palestinians in the next phase of the Israeli-Palestinian self-rule agreement.

Ein Arik is located four miles from Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital of the West Bank.

The future control of the water supply, now in Israeli hands, has become one of the most intractable problems delaying the Israeli-Palestinian talks on the phased withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and holding the first Palestinian elections.

It is also a potent symbol of future interdependence of Israel and any future Palestinian state.

Israel demands continued control of the water supply, but is prepared to discuss the issue during negotiations about a future Palestinian entity.

And Palestinian negotiators are demanding control of the water supply. ''You can't have a state without water,'' says Alayan Hindi, a leader of a community of Palestinian refugees who live in this village of about 1,100 people.

Presently, Israel uses more than four times the amount of water than Palestinians from the mountain aquifer on the West Bank.

The 500 million cubic meters drawn from the aquifer by Israel each year represents 25 percent to 30 percent of all the water used by Israel's 5 million inhabitants.

About 50 million cubic meters is piped to the 130,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank. In contrast, about 1 million Palestinian residents on the West Bank receive 130 million cubic meters.

Any compromise on the political positions of the two sides will mean less overall usage by Israel and more by the Palestinians.

Gershon Baskin, codirector of Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, a private think tank, has outlined a compromise in a recent submission to the negotiators.

Under the proposed plan, Israel would partially recognize Palestinian rights to the water and allocate an additional 50 million cubic meters a year to them from the eastern basin of the aquifer, which provides politically moderate Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley area.

In return, the Palestinians would agree to defer the final question of water control to the discussions about sovereignty due to begin in May next year.

''This would establish a precedent for cooperation between settlers and the Palestinian Authority, which could prove very important later on,'' he says, adding that the parties should also agree to a joint monitoring commission to sort out joint water resources.

''The reality is that within 20 years there will not be a drop of water for anything other than domestic consumption in either Israel or the West Bank if water consumption and population patterns continue at their present rate,'' Baskin says.

But Israel is already reducing its water consumption for agriculture by importing larger quantities of fruit and vegetables and cutting back on its water-hungry agricultural sector.

Some villages, like Ein Arik, are fortunate enough to have a natural spring. Some inhabitants have storage wells to supply running water in their homes. Others carry it from the well.

But in summer, there is not enough water, and most residents buy truckloads of water from the larger town of Ramallah or fetch it from surrounding villages with larger springs.

''We are situated between Ramallah and the settlements, and both have ample water supplies, but we have nothing,'' Mr Hindi says. ''We have been applying to the Israeli Civil Administration [military authorities] for decades for a water supply, but it is always the same reply: 'we don't have enough water.'

''But the nearby Jewish settlements of Talmon and Dolev [about four miles farther west] got an unlimited supply of water immediately after they were established in the 1980s,'' he adds.

Hindi hopes that with the advent of the Palestinian Authority - the council appointed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to administer self-rule - in the West Bank - that the villages will at least get a sympathetic ear.

A recently established committee is devising a plan to put before the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, the conduit for Western donor funds earmarked for the PA.

''PECDAR has told us that when the water supply to Ramallah is increased, we will be connected,'' he says

''It will take a lot of time and money, but at least there is some light at the end of the tunnel.''