Questioning Water Policy: Israel and Palestine


PDF downlaodHilal Elver*
POMEAS BRIEF, No.2, July 2014


The Middle East has a long history of water related conflict that extends for 5000 years. In the Israel and Palestine context, however, fresh water sharing is not only a question of a resource conflict, but is also a violation of a fundamental human rights, international water law and humanitarian law principles. Israel's almost exclusive control over water in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), a feature of its prolonged occupation, constitutes a key obstacle not only the realization of Palestinian rights to water and sanitation but amounts to an infringement on the inalienable Palestinian right of self-determination.

As the Occupying Power in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), Israel is responsible under international humanitarian law (IHL) for the wellbeing of the occupied population, including a guarantee of adequate water and sanitation services, public health and hygiene. Moreover, IHL prohibits the demolition of structures that would leave an occupied population without food and water and might result in their forced displacement. Israel, has neglected these basic responsibilities under IHL and International human rights Law. It has defied many UN resolutions calling for the respect, protection and fulfillment of the rights to water and sanitation of Palestinians. Moreover, unequal water distribution from the West Bank aquifers between Palestinians and illegal Jewish settlers, as aggravated by discriminatory pricing can be reasonably interpreted "water apartheid," a Palestinian NGO Al-Haq reported.1 Such assessments have been further documented by respected international human rights NGOs and international organizations.


Neglected issue in peace talks: water

Despite an acute injustices, water scarcity, and life threatening sanitation problem in the OPT, water has not generally been treated as a prominent aspect of the confrontation between the two peoples. The question of water rights bears on the viability of a future Palestinian state, and yet for a long time it was neglected in most discussions of the conflict. The international community seems insensitive to the need to treat water as one of the major issues that must be addressed in any serious attempt to establish a just and sustainable peace. The killing and wounding of demonstrators and demolition of homes are dramatic violations of human rights. In contrast, dried up wells, open sewage canals, and the lack of system of piped clean water have a humdrum quality that explains media neglect. Even the Palestinians seem insufficiently concerned about Israel's misappropriation and misuse of OPT groundwater. Some have suggested that this relative disinterest arises because what is mainly at stake are subterranean resources that are not seen directly.

This neglect is being overcome, and water has been recently viewed as a matter of significant interest. In last decade or so, fresh water scarcity became a global problem, and as well, there was a growing realization of acute water shortages and dire conditions affecting sanitation and sewage problems in West Bank and Gaza that made the international community far more attentive to water concerns.

What is available to share?

There are two major shared water resources in the region: The Jordan River and the Mountain Aquifers. The Jordan River Basin, shared by Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestinians with all its competing national and economic pressures, provides a clear example of how water possesses strategic importance because of its necessity and scarcity. In the aftermath of the 1967 War the general hydro-political map of the Middle East dramatically changed, and Palestinians were abruptly denied access to Jordan River due to the Israeli occupation of the Jordan Valley.

The second and the most important water resources is the Mountain Aquifers consisting of three separate water bodies (Western, Eastern, and North Eastern). This most legally and politically controversial shared groundwater, lies mainly under the OPT, percolates into Israel across the Green Line, but the entire aquifer complex is totally controlled by Israel. Approximately 600 million cubic meters of water provides 60% of Israel's water.

Western Basin of the Mountain Aquifer, the purist and most abundant groundwater reserve in the region. Since the 1967, Palestinians are required a burdensome permit process administered by the Israeli authorities, which rarely results in giving any access to water.

According to a World Bank study, "about 85% of the recharge of the Western Aquifer, high quality renewable freshwater originates in the Palestinian Territories. But the Israeli military is limiting Palestinians to a mere 6% of this indispensable resource. If Palestinians had access to only half of the sustainable yield of this aquifer, Palestinians' total water supply in the West Bank would double."2

What impact Israel's control over water?

Israel's control of water has an enormous impact on the overall life and agricultural sector in OPT. Since Oslo, due to control over irrigation, agricultural sector has shrunk from 28.5% of the economy to 5.8% today. This reduction costs the economy an estimated 110,000 jobs per year and reduces GDP by 10 % per year.3 See; Jadaliyya, Not Enough Water) In contrast, the Jordan Valley has become the site of Israel's multi-million dollar settler agricultural industry, by getting 6 times more water than is available to Palestinians on a per capita basis.

European markets are full of settler agricultural goods despite the manifest illegality of the settlements. EWASH reports that each settlement peach consumed by British citizens, for example, requires 140 liters of water appropriated from Palestinians. The European Community recently issued a decree that places some restrictions on the distribution of settlement products in European markets.

Water consumption profile: water apartheid and discrimination

There is a significant discrepancy in terms of water consumption among Israelis, settlers, and Palestinians. The most flagrant cases of discrimination are observed when comparing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and nearby Palestinian communities. While the average water consumption in Israel stands at around 300 liters per capita per day (pcd), water consumption in Israeli settlements is much higher: over 700 liters for each person daily. An Amnesty International report makes the comparison very vivid: "The 450,000 Israeli settlers, who live in the West Bank use as much or more water than the Palestinian population of some 2.3 million."4

The World Bank report indicates that after losses from the network, average net water consumption of Palestinian households is approximately 50 liters (13.2 gallons) daily depending on location and season. This is 50 per cent less than the World Health Organization's minimum recommended daily allowance of 100 liters. To contextualize just how little water this is, note that a short shower uses 50 liters of water, and it takes 9 liters (2.4 gallons) to flush the toilet.5

What about Area C? Catch 22

Discrimination is manifested in Israel's routine policy of demolishing essential water/sanitation infrastructure belonging to Palestinians, particularly in Area C (60% of the West Bank), where Israel exercises full military and administrative control and all Israeli settlements are located. Faced with no other alternative, Palestinians are forced to build small-scale water/sanitation facilities without Israeli permits and Israel routinely demolishes them. Over the last three years, demolitions have increased, especially in the cases of wells and cisterns. The Guardian's David Hearst shows the devastating effects of this Catch 22 policy: If Palestinian villagers obey the law they cannot build cistern to collect rain water, but if they fail to maintain agricultural land by adequate irrigation, their land is routinely confiscated by the Israeli military!6

Area C is considered at high risk of chronic water scarcity, accessing less than 30 liters of water per capita per day, paying a high price for water, having no network nor adequate water storage and relying on low quality water. While about 150,000 extremely poor Palestinians live in Area C they are required to pay on average four times more per liter than those connected to a water network. This means that these Palestinians spend an incredible amount to obtain water, as much as one third of their income. As a result, the Palestinian population is gradually shrinking, while illegal Israeli settlements continue to grow at a rapid rate. Access to essential services such as water/sanitation has been a trigger for displacement as resident's lives become increasingly unsustainable.

Further destruction came through Israel's separation or "apartheid wall" by way of cutting off access of owners of 136 wells providing 44 MCM of water annually. The construction of the wall has closed 46 springs and 906 dunums of underground water. Consequently, over 7,000 Palestinians agriculture families have lost their livelihoods.
A number of water springs, on which some Palestinian communities depend as their sole source of fresh water, have recently been taken over by Israeli settlers, as documented in a recent UN report. Of the 56 springs surveyed in the report, 30 were found to be under full settler control, and the other 26 at risk of a settler takeover. Palestinians were barred from accessing the spring areas by acts of intimidation, threats and violence by the settlers, as well as by physical obstacles.

Creating water dependency

Israel's obstruction of Palestinian water development has forced Palestinians into a state of dependency on purchasing water from Israel. Most villagers date the start of their battle over water with Israel to 1982, when Ariel Sharon, then minister of defense, transferred all the West Bank water systems to Mekorot, the Israeli national water company for the nominal price of one shekel. Palestinians in the West Bank purchase more than half of their domestic water supply from the Mekorot at exorbitant prices.

During the summer for example, Mekorot further limits water supply to several Palestinian communities, leaving them with dangerous shortages. These shortages have been so severe in recent years as to lead to social unrest, particularly in refugee camps in the Bethlehem area.

Being dependent on Israel for water supply leaves Palestinians in an unacceptably vulnerable position. Mekorot frequently cuts the water supply to Palestinian villages and neighborhoods. While it is true that Israel is selling Palestinians far more water than it is obligated according to the water component of the 1995 Oslo II Agreement (Article 40), it is also the case that Israel is preventing Palestinians from developing additional quantities of water from new Palestinian wells that were supposedly authorized by Oslo.7

The high tech versus discrimination and apartheid

The water economy of Israel is well known for its efficiency particularly as regards water usage in agriculture. Drip irrigation systems, sophisticated computer water distribution, wastewater treatment designs and reverse osmosis technology are just four examples of Israeli technical know-how. Making the desert bloom by bringing water from Israel's relatively wet north to the desert south was an immense national project carried out by consecutive Israeli governments. The re-use of treated wastewater for agriculture, the import of fresh water by tankers and large-scale desalination projects continue to attract international attention as a positive model of water developments.

However, what is less frequently commented upon is Israel's discriminatory policies that have left Palestinians, including tens of thousands Bedouin citizens of Israel without piped water and sanitation systems. This has forced many Palestinians to leave their agricultural land, forced them buy tankered water for domestic water at far higher prices than settlers pay, and prevented the creation of an adequate sewage system. This latter deprivation means that Palestinians would be blamed for polluting shared underground water.

If a two state solution remains viable, governing the use and protection of the aquifers is vitally important for both sides and it has major geopolitical implications in relation to the fixing of borders. Both sides are aware of that control and use of water is a precondition of any future agreement. The leadership of Israel has refused to implement rules and principles of the international law on shared water resources, because in common with other area of controversy, international law clearly favors the Palestinian claim. From this perspective the PA should become aware of the consequences of agreeing to some inequitable agreement, remembering the Oslo experience that so encroached upon Palestinian prospects.


1 Elisabeth Koek, "Water for One People: Discriminatory Access and 'Water Apartheid' in the OPT," Al-Haq, 2013, accessed June 20, 2014,
2 Susan Koppelman and Zayneb Alshalaifeh, "Our Right to Water: The Human Right to Water in Palestine," Blue Planet Project, accessed June 18, 2014,
3 "Not Enough Water in the West Bank?," EWASH, March 24, 2013, accessed July 1, 2014,
4 "Troubled Waters: Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water," Amnesty International, 2009, accessed July 2, 2014,
5 Koppelman and Alshalaifeh, "Our Right to Water: The Human Right to Water in Palestine."
6 David Hearst, "West Bank villagers' daily battle with Israel over water," The Guardian, September 14, 2011, accessed June 29, 2014,
7 "Oslo II Accords (Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip)," Council on Foreign Relations, September 28, 1995, accessed June 30, 2014,

*International coordinator of POMEAS