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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.

(Page 3 of 3)

Even when Palestinian projects are approved by the JWC, they often face another round of approval from Israel's Civil Administration – the branch of Israel's military that governs 60 percent of the West Bank, known as Area C. While major Palestinian cities lie in Area A, where the Palestinian Authority has relative autonomy, most of the wide-open spaces necessary for major projects lie in Area C.

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    Graphic Israel
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

"There is a second layer of approval that is always required if any aspect of the infrastructure proposed crosses Area C," says Bromberg, noting that the Civil Administration often has more demanding criteria for any given project, particularly waste-water treatment plants. "It's politics from every side. In the end, it leads to these sanitation projects not going forward."

A sewage solution?

Under Oslo, Palestinians are responsible for "treating, reusing, or properly disposing" of all sewage. Doing so could enable Palestinians to use effluent water for agricultural purposes, freeing up more ground water for drinking.

But 17 years later there is only one functional waste-water treatment plant in the West Bank for a population of at least 2 million. The majority of Palestinian sewage goes untreated, contaminating ground water and flowing into Israeli areas downstream.

"Gravity works also in the Holy Land," says Giora Alon, chief engineer with Israel's National Sewerage Administration, with a wry smile.

Sewage from Hebron, for example, flows 25 miles to the Israeli city of Beersheba. The JWC approved a waste-water treatment plant for Hebron in 2004, but difficulties in acquiring land upped the cost and delayed the project. In the meantime, Hamas won municipal elections in 2006 and the primary donor – the US Agency for International Development – backed out. The plant is finally under construction, along with ones in Nablus, Salfit, and Jenin.

"We are actually praying for it to be erected – the whole thing flows to us," says Dr. Alon. "It's in our interest."

Of the 30 Palestinian waste-water treatment plants submitted to the JWC since 1995, only four have received full Israeli approval, according to the PWA. In 2009, a controversial World Bank report accused Israeli bureaucracy of delaying desperately needed Palestinian water projects. Israel strenuously objected to the report, and pointed out that many projects had been delayed due to Palestinian inaction. But since then, the JWC has approved a flurry of waste-water treatment plants, according to a detailed Israeli accounting of 35 proposed plants provided to the Monitor.

Both sides agree the JWC is worse for wear, having outlived its original mandate by a dozen years. Baruch Nagar, head of Israel's Water Administration for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, says he's not opposed to working out a new pact, but is doubtful it would improve things.

"We are seeing now that they don't respect the current agreement," he says. "Why are we going to sign another?"

But at least the JWC hasn't folded, like all the other 26 bilateral committees set up by Oslo.

Deciding whether to work within the JWC is kind of like "a choice between a camel and walking," quips Alon. Though there may be spitting involved, and it kind of stinks, "you take the camel, right?"


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