Water Lies At Heart Of Mideast Land Fight
An ancient Bedouin law says that if your water cistern dries up because someone left the lid open in the desert heat, you have just cause to kill the guilty party.Skip to next paragraph
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"In the Middle East, for the last 5,000 years, most of the wars have been fought over water," Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters recently.
"We are focused constantly on territory," Mr. Netanyahu said. "But what good is it to resolve the issue of land, if you leave the issue of water unresolved?"
Lack of headway in implementing the 1993 Oslo accords has kept officials from reaching the pivotal "final status" talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Water sharing is a key issue.
Unlike many other Israeli-Palestinian parleys that have fallen silent, however, the water talk has kept on running.
In general terms, the new air of cooperation promised by Oslo has become clouded since the change of government in Israel almost two years ago. Netanyahu ushered in a tougher attitude toward the Palestinians, promising to put Israeli security - including that of its water supply - first.
While his predecessors in the Labor government signed a 1995 accord that "recognizes Palestinian water rights in the West Bank," current Israeli negotiators say that water resources must stay under Israeli control.
Palestinians say that the land on which they hope to establish a state must include rights to water beneath it. As they see it, Israel is using more than its share, and is seeking to cement its hold.
Ariel Sharon, a former general who is now the influential minister of infrastructure, wants to hold large swaths of the West Bank not only to create "security zones," but to make sure Israel's water sources aren't jeopardized.
"We are standing above the most important aquifer of Israel," Mr. Sharon told reporters during a recent trip to the West Bank. The Palestinians, lacking in technical expertise, would damage water sources handed over to them, he says. "In just two years, they managed to destroy the aquifer in Gaza by overpumping. The danger is that they will overexploit our water dramatically."
But the reference to "our" water rankles Palestinians. As they see it, they shouldn't have to pay Israeli companies for their water or ask for permission each time they want to dig a well.
West Bank cities under full Palestinian control now receive their water from wells in those urban areas, where there are often shortages during the summer. But Palestinians in areas under partial or full Israeli control must buy much of their water from an Israeli company.
The Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), an independent think-tank in Bethlehem, says about 40 percent of the Arab villages in the West Bank have no running water at all: They draw their water from wells that often run dry.
"We are facing a real water shortage here, especially in the summertime," says Fadel Qawash, who represents the Palestinians in the water negotiations. "We need three times the total water we are using now. If the Israelis want to make the desert green, they can do it with their own water. They are the thirsty partner."
But Israeli officials point out that Israel is using steadily less water to grow crops, using recycled or treated wastewater instead. Palestinians, they say, must adopt similar methods.
"Let them reduce their allocations for agriculture," says Meir Ben-Meir, the Israeli water commissioner. In his office in Tel Aviv, Mr. Ben-Meir pulls out charts to show how Israel has diverted agricultural water to be used for drinking water only.