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Palestinians accuse Israel settlements of diverting water

Israel settlements use more than four times as much water as Palestinians and the absence of a peace agreement is stalling negotiations to improve the situation.

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David Elhiini, the head of the council of Israeli settlements in the region of Auja, said that the lack of infrastructure is in fact the fault of Palestinians – not Israel. Auja's farmers have no access to water, he said, because the Palestinians haven't invested enough in water transmission and pumping infrastructure. In other areas of the Jordan Valley, including the neighboring Jericho, farmers have enough water for their crops.

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"It's not our problem," he says. "It's very easy to blame it on us."

Israel counters criticism of its practices by pointing out that it supplies Palestinians with double the amount that it committed to provide under the 1995 interim peace agreement. Meanwhile, Israeli water experts accuse Palestinians of digging hundreds of illegal wells in breach of the accord, which said a final quota would be settled in permanent peace talks.

Auja once Palestine's 'fruit basket'

Auja village council member Salah Freijad said that Auja was nicknamed the "fruit basket" of Palestine because a spring flowing year-round provided more than enough irrigation for produce.

Only a few dozen of about 8,150 acres are now being used for agriculture in the village. In addition to the drought, Freijad accused Israel of drying up the stream by drilling its own wells to divert water to local settlements. He added that the Palestinian Authority has diverted some of the water as well.

The dried-up stream has devastated the town. Children are being taken out of school and sent to nearby settlements to earn money. Some farmers have been forced to sell off land to survive. "This village can be declared dead," says Mr. Freijad.

Israel is grappling with a water crisis of its own, though not as acute.

With the country's main freshwater water reservoir, the Sea of Galilee, 4.2 feet below its lowest "red line" (which indicates water is being consumed faster than it is replenished) public service announcements remind radio and television audiences that "we haven't got any water to waste." Over the summer, the government levied a tax multiplying water bills for private users, stirring public outrage.

Spokespersons from the Israeli public water utility, Mekorot, and the government's water authority didn't return calls for comment.

Shuval: Not a zero-sum game

Though many have said that cross-border water disputes are a potential causus belli in the Middle East, Shuval says that the water dispute between Israelis and the Palestinians isn't necessarily a zero-sum game.

With new desalination plants purifying sea water for residential and industrial usage, Israel has enough water to double or triple the Palestinian water quota – though it would require an investment of $50 million to $100 million a year. But in order for that to happen, the sides would have to overcome a nearly year-long freeze in peace talks and reach an elusive final settlement, he said.

"The tragic situation is that the Palestinians are short of water," Shuval says, "and the only way for them to get more water is to reach a peace agreement in which Israel will increase the Palestinian water resources."