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How water could bring Israelis, Palestinians together

A sole joint committee between Israelis and Palestinians survives 17 years after the Oslo Accords: the one on water.

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The shortage of water is draining the lifeblood of a key sector of the Palestinian economy: agriculture. A 2009 World Bank report estimated that the sector – the third largest in the West Bank – misses out on 96,000 jobs and $410 million in yearly revenues because of the lack of irrigated agriculture.

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  • Israel

    Graphic Israel
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

"I don't think development of the agricultural system could happen without an increase in the amount of water [from 1995 allocations]," says Minister of Agriculture Walid Assaf.

Water usage not tracked

The exact amount of water Palestinians use each year is difficult to pinpoint: While well levels are monitored, there is not a comprehensive system in place to measure water usage.

But how much Israel provides is carefully tracked, and it amounts to more water than Israel is required to provide under the Oslo Accords. In addition, Israelis argue that Palestinians would have plenty of water if they managed it better, fixed leaky pipes, halted theft of water and illegal wells, priced water more appropriately, and implemented the many projects that have already been approved.

"The municipality is the big problem for us," says Abu Elias, a farmer in Jericho who grows fewer eggplants, cucumbers, and tomatoes on his well-tended land than he used to. But he adds that the Israeli occupation aggravates water supply issues.

Palestinians contend that Israel – which can access the three shared basins from within its own borders, and thereby outside the agreement – has lowered the overall water table in the basins, similar to the effect of siphoning off water from one end of a bathtub, says Mr. Bromberg. That has dried up wells and springs and forced Palestinians to buy more water from Israel, they say.

"Israel is stealing my water and selling it to the poorest people on earth.... That's the water story," says Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian peace negotiator.

For Palestinians, it's not just about having enough to drink; it's about Israel recognizing their sovereignty over the water resources that lie beneath their homeland. "We look for the water ... from a national point of view," says Deeb Abdelghafour, an engineer with the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA). "The Israeli point of view is, 'You need water? We can give it to you from desalination plants.' Yes, we need water, but first of all give me my right to ground water."

Water projects plugged up

The PWA has proposed a number of projects designed to ease the water shortages.

One of the most important, according to a September report prepared by the PWA, is tapping into springs known as Ein Fashkha south of Jericho, which yield as much as 100 MCM per year. But the proposal for six to eight wells and a desalination plant, put forward in 2007, was rejected by the JWC.

Palestinians involved in the Ein Fashkha proposal say that it – like other delayed or nixed projects – was rejected for purely political reasons, reflecting a systematic Israeli effort to deprive them of their rights in their homeland.

Israelis involved in the JWC then and now say the Ein Fashkha project is environmentally unsound and impractical both financially and technically. A key problem was the location, which is thousands of feet lower than some of the cities it is supposed to serve.

Mr. Abdelghafour, who originally proposed the project more than a decade ago, says it's not worth trying to submit a revised proposal because the JWC has become "a useless committee."

One reason for the current gridlock, say Palestinians, is that they are being asked to OK projects in Israeli settlements – considered illegal under international law – in exchange for getting their own projects approved.

"Palestinians will not approve water projects intended to consolidate the presence and facilitate the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This is no different than asking us to approve our own occupation and colonization," said PWA chief Shaddad Attili in September. "If Israel continues to treat the JWC as a mechanism through which to arm-twist and blackmail Palestinians, then the JWC faces a very uncertain future. In essence, Israel will have killed the JWC."


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