Israel's War for Water
By Marie Kennedy
In South Africa, residents of Soweto are smashing water meters and
taking Johannesburg Water to court in protest against prepayment
meters, which they claim are unconstitutional (the South African
constitution guarantees water as a human right).
In Michigan, activists striving to prevent bottling companies from
further water takings are seeking legislative oversight and a
constitutional amendment to protect against Great Lakes water
diversions or exports.
In Plachimada, Kerala, India, Adivasi women started their
years-long dharma, or sit-in, in 2002 to prevent the local
Coca-Cola bottling plant from stealing and polluting their water.
This year, Kerala banned colas, and Coke Pepsi Free Zones are
spreading across the country.
From Atlanta to Cochabamba to Buenos Aires, people outraged at
steeply rising water rates coupled with lousy service are driving
out private water companies and insisting on public accountability
for the management of this most precious resource. In practically
every country in the world today there are clashes over water—who
owns it, who controls it, who needs it.
But you don't hear much about the role of water in the Mideast,
particularly in the context of the armed confrontations between
Israel and their Arab neighbors. Yet Israel's expansionist program
is as much about water as it is about a clash of religion or
security. For Israel and the other countries of this arid region of
the world, control of sufficient water is security.
Israel's History and the Occupation
Many believe that water was the underlying reason for the invasion
and occupation of the West Bank in 1967. Among Palestinians, it is
understood that the location of the apartheid wall (security fence
in Israeli terminology) has more to do with continued Israeli
control of the Western Mountain Aquifer than with security. The
possibility has been raised that a major reason for the removal of
the settlements in Gaza was that the Coastal Aquifer upon which
these settlements and all of Gaza have depended became almost
useless due to over-pumping and pollution. Some believe that the
reason for the widespread destruction and de-occupation of Southern
Lebanon in the recent war was to realize the age-old hope of
Zionists to include the southern bank of the Litani in the state of
So, what is the basis for these speculations?
Water has been a key element of local and regional politics in the
Middle East for centuries. The early Zionists recognized that water
was critical to the realization of their dreams. In a proposal to
the League of Nations in 1919, the World Zionist Organization
delineated borders for the future Jewish homeland based on
watershed boundaries so as to include the headwaters of the Jordan
River, the lower Litani River in Lebanon and the lower reaches of
the Yarmouk River. In the 1947 partition plan, none of these areas
were included in the new state of Israel.
presented by Zionists to the League of Nations in 1919
Israel now controls all these areas,
however, with the exception of the Litani River. In 1973, Israel's
former prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, reiterated the importance
of expanding Israel's borders based on access to water: "It is
necessary that the water sources upon which the future of the Land
depends should not be outside the borders of the future Jewish
homeland. For this reason we have always demanded that the Land of
Israel include the southern banks of the Litani River, the
headwaters of the Jordan and the Hauran Region from the El Auja
spring south of Damascus."
The National Water Carrier, designed to irrigate the Negev Desert
in the south of the country with the water from the Sea of Galilee
and the Jordan River, was completed in 1964. Israel began to
withdraw water from the Jordan, soon taking more than its
previously agreed-upon share. Syria and Jordan responded by
starting construction of diversion schemes of their own. In 1965,
Israel attacked the Arab construction sites and the ensuing border
conflicts culminated in a full-scale war in June 1967. Ariel
Sharon, the general in charge of the war, later commented, "People
generally regard 5 June 1967 as the day the Six-Day War began. That
is the official date. But, in reality, it started two-and-a-half
years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the
diversion of the Jordan." Whether or not water was the primary
cause of the Six-Day War, the result of the war for Israel was
control of and direct access to significantly increased water
resources—estimated to be a 50 percent increase in freshwater
supplies. As Vandana Shiva writes in her book Water Wars, the result of the war "was in effect
an occupation of the freshwater resources from the Golan Heights,
the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and the West Bank."
Confiscation of almost all West Bank wells was one of the first
military orders of the occupation and, until 1982, the military
controlled West Bank waters. Now the Israel water company Mekorot
is in charge. Management has deeply discriminated against
Palestinians and has been wasteful of water when it concerns Jewish
settlements. No new Palestinian wells have been permitted for
agricultural purposes since 1967 and very few have been permitted
for domestic purposes. Israel has set quotas based on 1968 usage of
how much water can be drawn by Palestinians from existing wells.
When supplies are low in the summer, Mekorot closes the supply
valves to Palestinian towns and villages, but not to illegal
Israeli settlements. Settlers continue to fill swimming pools and
water lawns while Palestinians lack water for drinking and cooking.
Furthermore, settlers receive heavy subsidies for water to promote
agriculture while Palestinian farmers pay the same amount for
irrigation water as for drinking water. Twenty-five percent of West
Bank Palestinian villages are not connected to water service. When
tensions are high and closures common, it is almost impossible for
water tankers to enter Palestinian areas and for villagers to get
to nearby wells.
According to most estimates, Israel uses 73 percent of the water
available from West Bank aquifers and West Bank Jewish settlers
another 10 percent, leaving West Bank Palestinians with 17 percent.
Israelis get about 350 liters of water per person per day while
Palestinians get just seventy liters—less than the 100 liter
minimum standard of the World Health Organization. About a quarter
of all of Israel's water comes from the Western Aquifer and over a
third comes from the Jordan Basin.
The occupied West Bank sits on top of 90 percent of the
replenishment area feeding the Western Aquifer, which flows
underground from the highlands of the West Bank to the lowlands of
Israel. A separate Palestinian state on top of the Western Aquifer
would give the Palestinians upstream claims to the lion's share of
this water. Israel would have downstream water rights, but those
rights would be limited, like Mexico's water rights to the Colorado
River. And if the eastern border of a Palestinian state were to be
along the Jordan River, Palestine would have downstream water
rights to the Jordan. Such considerations no doubt led former
Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan to declare that relinquishing
control over water supplies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories
would "threaten the Jewish state."
and the Wall
This concern about water may explain the route of the apartheid
wall. As Noam Chomsky points out, if the wall were really a
security wall it would be built "inside Israel, within the
internationally recognized border, the Green Line established after
the 1948-1949 war." But, the wall that is being built follows quite
a different path. Elisabeth Sime, a director of CARE International
in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, put it succinctly: "The route of
the wall matches that of water resources, the latter being
conveniently located on the Israeli side."
When completed, the wall will divide the West Bank into a northern
and a southern section. Writing in Stop the Wall in Palestine,
Abdel Rahman Al Tamimi, an engineer with the Palestinian Hydrology
Group, notes that the wall "will make the upstream of the aquifer
inaccessible to Palestinians ensuring that Israel will control both
the quantity and the quality of the water." He goes on to speculate
about what this will mean to any final status negotiations.
The aquifer is under the most fertile lands in the West Bank, thus
water usage in the area is closely tied to agriculture.
Inaccessibility to the lands because of the Wall will deem these
lands dried and useless in just a few seasons; the agricultural
sector will first diminish and then wholly disappear. This major
creation of facts on the ground will make the lands, by force,
unused and then the request by Palestinians in any negotiations for
water for the area will be argued by Israel as baseless.
The Coastal Aquifer, Gaza's only natural freshwater supply, was at
one time providing about 18 percent of Israel's water. Serious
over-pumping from this rather shallow aquifer has allowed salt from
the Mediterranean and other nearby saline aquifers to be
introduced. Salting, along with pollution from pesticides,
fertilizers and fecal matter (the latter mainly from the refugee
camps, most of which have no proper sewage control) have rendered
this water unfit for drinking in many areas. Citrus, the
traditional main crop of Gaza, is highly salt-intolerant and is
becoming obsolete. One wonders to what extent the lack of potable
water figured in Israel's decision to pull out of Gaza.
Growing Water Shortage and Lebanon
In fact, in spite of controlling the Jordan Basin and the Western
Aquifer, Israel is once more running out of water. The Coastal
Aquifer is gone and the flow of the Jordan River has dropped 90
percent over the last fifty years, primarily due to
over-extraction. Some observers speculate that Israel is once more
turning eyes toward the Litani River in Lebanon, the only country
in the region with a water surplus.
After the 1967 war, Moshe Dayan, Israel's defense minister during
the war, said that Israel had achieved "provisionally satisfying
frontiers, with the exception of those with Lebanon." Both David
Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan at various times advocated Israeli
occupation of southern Lebanon and the Litani. Over the years, the
Litani River has continued to be in Israel's sights. It's difficult
to know what role water played in Israel's invasion of Lebanon in
1978, 1982 and again this year.
During the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon between 1982 and
2000, rumors abounded but were never substantiated that Israel was
diverting water from the Litani River. What is known is that Israel
prohibited the sinking of new wells, seized all technical documents
relating to the Litani and, in the barrage of 1993, drove hundreds
of thousands from their homes in southern Lebanon. And in 2006? In
a final hard push, the day before the cease-fire went into effect,
Israeli ground forces advanced to the banks of the Litani. Again,
hundreds of thousands of refugees were driven from their
Israel destroyed vast portions of the water infrastructure of
southern Lebanon, including the Litani Dam, the major pumping
station on the Wazzani River and the irrigation systems for the
farmland along the coastal plains and parts of the Bekaa Valley. As
quoted in the LA Times (22 August 2006), UNICEF water and
sanitation specialist Branislav Jekic said, "I have never seen
destruction like this…. Wherever we go, we ask people what they
need most and the answer is always the same: water. People want to
move back to their communities. But whether they stay or not will
depend on the availability of water."
Marie Kennedy is professor emerita of community planning at the
University of Massachusetts Boston. She is on the advisory
committee and an editor of Progressive Planning.