Israel's Appropriation of Arab Water: An Obstacle to Peace

by Ronald Bleier (rbleier@igc.org)

Middle East Labor Bulletin, Spring 1994

"There is no reason for Palestinians to claim that just because they sit on lands, they have the rights to that water," Mr. Katz-Oz [Israel's negotiator on water] said. "The mountains do not own the water that fall on them. It's the same with Canada and the United States. It's the same all over the world." -- NYT 10/93
On the whole, when it comes to the common water resources shared with Palestinians and other Arabs, Israel ... acts like a great sponge. -- Sharif Elmusa (1993)
Palestinian hopes for genuine self-determination hinge on a number of factors, not the least of which is Israel's ability to solve its perennial and growing water shortage. According to Dr. Hussein A. Amery, of the Department of Geography, Bishop's University, Quebec, Israel uses 17% more than the 1.9 billion cubic meters of water that is renewable from natural sources.

"The deficit in water supply is being met by desalinating brackish salty waters, recycling waste water and over- pumping underground waters." ("Israel's designs on Lebanese water," MEI, 10 September 93 [No. 458] p. 18.)
But these facts and figures don't address the question of equity. Arguably 50% or more of the water that Israel uses is unilaterally appropriated from water that should fairly go to its Arab neighbors. Even the New York Times used the word "theft" when quoting an "Arab" in connection with Israel's appropriation of regional water resources. ("Hurdle to Peace: Parting the Mideast's Waters" by Alan Cowell NYT, 10.10.93 p. 1)

As a settler community, the Jewish state has historically taken for itself land and resources belonging to its Arab inhabitants and the neighboring Arab countries. A clear example of Israel's appropriation of the water belonging to Arabs is Israel's interest early on in diverting the waters of the Jordan River from the Jordan Valley to the Mediterranean and to the Negev.

Accordingly, in 1951, contrary to the armistice agreements and over the protests of U.S. and U.N. officials, the Israelis began moving military units and bulldozers into the demilitarized zone on the Syrian border. Spurred by hostilities in the area over water, in 1953, the Eisenhower Administration prepared a unified plan for the use of the Jordan River. In September 1953, Israel, in an apparent attempt to preempt the American plan, secretly began a crash program to construct a nine-mile long pipeline in the demilitarized zone to divert Jordan River waters.

When the Americans learned of Israel's activities which included around the clock work crews, they protested and President Eisenhower went so far as to suspend vital economic aid to Israel. No announcement about the aid suspension was made at the time, perhaps to keep from drawing the ire of the Zionist lobby at home.

However, soon afterward, the Israelis launched an unrelated attack on a West Bank Jordanian village, killing 53 people which came to be known as the Kibya massacre. As a result of the ensuing furor, on October 18, 1953, the Eisenhower administration made public its cutoff of aid to Israel. Eleven days later, under the pressure from the U.S. Zionist lobby and a pledge by Israel to suspend work on the diversion project, U.S. aid was resumed. (Taking Sides: America's Secret Relations with a Militant Israel, by Stephen Green, William Morrow and Co., N.Y. 1984. "The 1953 Aid Cutoff: A Parable for Our Times," pp. 76- 93.)

Israeli work on diverting the water of the Jordan River was only temporarily suspended -- perhaps for as long as two years. By 1960, however, the diversion project -- which came to be known as the National Water Carrier -- was complete and in fact was the target of the PLO's first (and unsuccessful) attack in 1964.

Jordan and Syria strongly protested Israel's unilateral appropriation of their water because Israel's diversion made local agricultural activity impossible.

Before the Israeli diversion, the U.S. plan apportioned 33% of Jordan River water for Israel's use. As Stephen Green points out, the significance of this figure is that only 23% of the flow of the Jordan River originates in Israel. The Israelis, however, wanted more than 33%. Today, Israel takes virtually all of the Jordan River flow leaving only brackish, unusable water for the Syrians and Jordanians. Moreover, Israel's diversion of the Jordan River water to the Mediterranean littoral and to the Negev, defies an important principle of international law regarding water use; namely that water should not be diverted from its catchment basin.

THE 1967 WAR

The '67 war was preceded by hostilities between the Syrians and the Israelis over Israel's violations of armistice agreements regarding the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria. Israeli encroachments on agricultural lands and raids on villages in the area forced hundreds of Arabs to flee their homes and in turn resulted in the Arab shelling from the Golan Heights which Israel used as an excuse to attack and conquer the area in the Six Day war. (See Laura Drake, "The Golan Belongs to Syria" MEI, 11 September 1992, pp. 24-25.) The Israeli plan to conquer the Golan Heights appears to be the reason that Israeli jets and torpedo boats attacked the American spy ship, the USS Liberty, a day before the assault on the Golan Heights. Apparently the Israelis didn't want the Americans monitoring their assault on the Golan while Syria had agreed to a cease fire. The Israeli strike resulted in the deaths of 34 American sailors and a cover-up by both governments of Israel's surprise attack on the defenseless ship.

When Israel conquered the Golan Heights, they captured the headwaters of the Jordan and thus secured for themselves the greatest part of the flow of the Jordan River. Israel captured the final portion of the Jordan River flow in their 1982 invasion of Lebanon when they included as part of their self-declared "security zone" the Hasbani and Wazzani Rivers which arise in Lebanon and flow into the Jordan.


Ever since the Israelis captured the West Bank and Gaza in the Six-Day War in 1967, they have strictly controlled the water resources in the territories largely because they have become so dependent on Palestinian water emanating from underground aquifers on the West Bank.

West Bank water not only makes up 30% of the water in Tel Aviv households but also is critical to preserving the pressure balance which keeps the salt water of the Mediterranean from invading the coastal aquifers.

Israel has permitted no new drilling of agricultural wells for water for the Palestinians in the territories and has permitted fewer than a dozen for domestic use. Moreover, the Israelis charge the Palestinians fees that are three times higher than they charge Israelis for water for domestic use (with even higher relative charges in Gaza).

As Sharif Elmusa points out: "[I]n terms of relative GNP per capita, Palestinians pay a minimum of fifteen times more than Israeli consumers -- a phenomenal difference for water systems managed by the same company." ("Dividing the Common Palestinian-Israeli Waters: An International Water Law Approach" in Journal of Palestine Studies, Spring 1993, No. 87, p. 63. See also note 11, p. 74.)

West Bank water is so critical to Israeli water usage that it is difficult to imagine the Israeli government making even minor concessions on water issues in upcoming negotiations with the Palestinians.

Indeed, according to press reports, the present public negotiating position of the Israelis is to ignore Palestinian claims to the water of the West Bank and Gaza to "negotiate" instead over new water sources, presumably through desalinization techniques. Needless to say, Palestinians will have difficulty accepting Israel's negotiating policy on water.

The water shortage in Gaza is even more critical than it is on the West Bank. Experts predict that before the year 2000, under current use, the Gaza aquifer will be so depleted that salt water from the Mediterranean will make it unusable.

Even in Gaza where the Arab population outnumbers the approximately 5,000 Jewish settlers by more than 170 to 1, the Israeli government appropriates 10-25% of Gaza water for Jews. (see Elmusa, pp. 61)


Zionist interest in the waters of Lebanon goes back as least as far as the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 when Chaim Wietzman wrote to the British Prime Minister explaining that because of its water requirements, a Jewish homeland in Palestine must include the Litani River.

In the 50's, Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett recorded in his diaries that Moshe Dayan's plan for the control of the Litani River was to "'enter Lebanon, occupy the relevant territory' then the 'territory south of the Litani will be annexed to Israel and everything will fall into place.'" (Quoted in Amery, pp. 18-19)


Since its invasion of Lebanon in 1982 there have been innumerable rumors and many unsubstantiated reports that Israel has been taking more or less water from the Litani River. Since Israel doesn't allow outside observers to the Litani area or to its self-proclaimed "security zone" these rumors and reports have been impossible to verify.

However, after the 1982 invasion Israel prohibited the sinking of new wells just as they did on the West Bank. They also "seized all the hydrographic charts and technical documents about the Litani and its hydro-electric installations, and carried out seismic soundings and surveys near the Litani's western bend, most likely to determine the optimum place for a diversion tunnel." (Amery, p. 19)

So far Professor Amery is alone in pointing to the "hydrological" aspect of the barbarous Israeli barrage of Lebanon during the last week of July 1993 where the express purpose was to create hundreds of thousands of refugees and make much of the area uninhabitable.

Amery's analysis suggests that Israel's interest in Lebanon is -- along with its political goals -- to maintain and/or establish control over as much of Lebanese water as possible. Amery notes that since 1985 former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon has been calling for an enlarged "security zone" in Lebanon that stretches to the Awali River (north of the Litani).

Amery quotes a Lebanese newspaper that agues that a larger security zone was already in process of "being established by depopulating and flattening 30 ... villages that border the zone" (p. 19). Longer term, the demographic issue is bound to have a major impact on the politics of water use. The population of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and Jordan today is approximately 10 million. Current forecasts are that by 2020 the population of the same area will double to 20 million with no prospect of any significant increase in water supplies. Without a peaceful resolution of land and water issues, instability and possibly more war loom as awful prospects.

Despite or because of the September 1993 Oslo Accords, it is clearly even more urgent to ask if there is any means to convince Israel to reverse its policy of unilaterally taking for itself the legitimate Arab share of the area's water.

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