BBC: Obstacle to Understanding on Water

“Middle Eastern rhetoric often portrays the issue of water as an existential, zero-sum conflict – casting either Israel as a malevolent sponge sucking up Arab water resources, or the implacably hostile Arabs as threatening Israel’s very existence by denying life-giving water,” observes Martin Asser in the water section of BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” series (May 23, 2007). Asser himself is guilty of the former, depicting Israelis as interloping, wasteful thieves — “hundreds of thousands of immigrants” exploiting the “indigenous population, mainly Palestinian peasant farmers.”

Painting an image of profligate Israeli water users, Asser writes:

In addition to their sheer numbers, citizens of the new state were intent on conducting water-intensive commercial agriculture such as growing bananas and citrus fruits.

At the time of Israel’s founding, the Palestinian Arab agricultural industry was equally “intent” on raising water-intensive produce, such as citrus fruits. (Think of how often Palestinian refugees to this day recall the citrus groves they left behind in 1948.) Since then, the Israelis have attempted to switch to high value, low water crops, like flowers for the lucrative winter market in Europe. As an added bonus, since flowers are not an edible crop, recycled water can be used instead of potable water. Unfortunately, Gazans largely resisted Israeli urgings to likewise export flowers instead of citrus.
Today, Israel is an international leader in pioneering research on conservation measures, drip irrigation, desalinization, water-efficient crops, and wastewater recycling. The groundbreaking innovations achieved at the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Water Research Institute of Technion University have been introduced in nations around the world. For instance, Israeli researchers are investigating the suitability of bananas for irrigation by reclaimed wastewater because of this crop’s relative salt resistance and its high demand for nutrients, coupled with the possibility of using drip irrigation, thus preventing direct contact between water and fruit. Asser ignores all of these critical modern day developments.

West Bank Aquifers

Asser is not the first to falsely allege that Israel is stealing West Bank water when he writes:

In the 1967 war Israel gained exclusive control of the waters of the West Bank and the Sea of Galilee, although not the Litani.

Those resources – the West Bank’s mountain aquifer and the Sea of Galilee – give Israel about 60 percent of its fresh water, a million [sic — should be billion] cubic meters (1 MCM) per year.

Heated arguments rage about the rights of the mountain aquifer. Israel, and Israeli settlements, take about 80% of the aquifer’s flow, leaving the Palestinians with 20%.

What are the facts? There are two – not one – West Bank aquifers which straddle the border between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank. Thus, because Israel had access to these water sources before 1967, it did not “gain exclusive control” after the Six Day War. As documented in CAMERA’s “Does Israel Use Palestinian Water?”:

The Western Aquifer, with a safe annual yield of roughly 360 MCM, is fed by rain falling on the western slopes of the West Bank’s Judean and Samarian mountains. The water percolates through porous surface rock into the aquifer far below the surface, and then naturally flows downwards toward the Israeli coastline. Prevented from actually reaching the coast by natural hydrologic barriers, the water instead emerges in natural springs which are almost entirely in Israel. (Jehoshua Schwarz, “Water Resources in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip,” in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, ed. Daniel Elazar, 1982; Eyal Benvenisti and Haim Gvirtzman, “Harnessing International Law to Determine Israeli-Palestinian Water Rights: The Mountain Aquifer” in Natural Resources Journal, V 33, Summer 1993)

The major outlets of the Western Aquifer are the Rosh-Ha’ayin springs near Petah Tikva in central Israel, and the Tannanim springs, in northern Israel near Hadera. With an annual yield of over 300 MCM, these springs were unused for millennia. Their uncontrolled discharge created large swamps that were drained at the turn of the century by Zionist pioneers, thereby finally allowing the water flow to be harnessed. (Schwarz, p. 91) This is especially important because under international law the development of water sources, and their first and continuing use, are key elements in establishing water rights.

As for the Northern Aquifer (Nablus-Gilboa), with a safe annual yield of 140 MCM, it is fed by rain falling on the north-central slopes of the Samarian Mountains. Most of the aquifer’s catchment area is in the West Bank, but, again, most of the water from wells and springs emerges in pre-1967 Israel (Benvenisti and Gvirtzman, 559).

Asser acknowledges the fact that the water from the aquifers is largely accessible in the Israeli coastal areas, but frames it in terms of an Israeli claim:

Israel says the proportion of water it uses has not changed substantially since the 1950s. The rain which replenishes the aquifer may fall on the occupied territory, but the water does flow down into pre-1967 Israel.

Moreover, Asser obscures the fact that the proportion of Israeli usage of West Bank aquifer waters has decreased since the 1950s. Thus, Israel’s share of the Western Aquifer’s water, which was 95 percent before 1967, has been reduced to 83 percent, while the Palestinian share of the aquifer’s water has significantly increased. Likewise, Israel’s share of the Northern Aquifer water, at 82 percent before 1967, has declined to 80 percent.
While Asser is quick to point out when he believes (wrongly) that Israel is in violation of international law, he ignores the fact that Israel’s use of this water, which flows through Palestinian areas but is accessible primarily in Israel, is consistent with international law. The relevant legal norms are the Helsinki Rules (1966), as supplemented by the Seoul Rules (1986), which, according to a leading authority, may be summarized as:
  1. Human conditions, i.e., the actual needs of the communities that depend on the waters, take precedence over the natural properties that exist in the basin.
  2. Among the human conditions, priority is given to past and existing uses, at the expense of potential uses. (Eyal Benvenisti, International Law and the Mountain Aquifer, in Water and Peace in the Middle East, Jad Isaac and Hillel Shuval, eds., 1994, emphasis added)
These same guidelines have been invoked by Egypt regarding the waters of the Nile (Egypt is downstream from Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, and a number of other African countries), by Iraq and Syria regarding the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates (Iraq and Syria are downstream from Turkey), and by Jordan regarding the waters of the Yarmouk (Jordan is downstream from Syria) (Arnon Sofer, Rivers of Fire: The Conflict over Water in the Middle East, Rowman and Littlefield, 1999). In other words, if the BBC wants to charge that Israel is stealing Palestinian water, then where are the stories about Egypt “stealing” Kenyan water, or Iraq “stealing” Turkish water?

Elaborating on Israel’s alleged selfish wastefulness, Asser states:

Moreover, Israel allocates its citizens, including those living in settlements in the West Bank deemed illegal under international law [sic], with between three and five times more water than the Palestinians.

While Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, use more water per capita than Palestinians, the ratio is far less than Asser claims. In 1995, for example, Israel’s annual per capita usage was 308 CM (correcting for use of recycled water), while for West Bank Palestinians usage was 124 CM, a ration of 2.5 to 1 (based on data from Statistical Abstract of Israel, 1996).

West Bank Usage

BBC readers would have no way of knowing from Asser’s piece that West Bank Arab towns have, during Israel’s administration of the area since the Six Day War, enjoyed a dramatic improvement in water availability.

In the period, for example, from 1967 to 1995, West Bank Palestinians increased domestic water use by 640 percent, from 5.4 million cubic meters to to 40 MCM. This occurred as Israel connected hundreds of West Bank towns to its national water carrier and drilled or permitted Palestinians to drill scores of major wells as well as innumerable private ones. Israel also pumps water from its own sources back over the Green Line at the rate of more than 40 MCM annually. The Ramallah area alone receives more than 5 MCM annually from Israeli sources.

Indeed, the fact that Israel, a parched country, provides water to Jordan, in addition to the Palestinians, undermines Asser’s depiction of Israel stealing Arab water. (Israel for many years had also supplied water to south Lebanese villages which had been cut off by the Lebanese government.)

Sea of Galilee

Regarding the Sea of Galilee, Asser seriously misrepresents the historic lines between Israel and Syria to suggest that Israel is stealing Syrian water:

Syria wants an Israeli withdrawal to 5 June 1967 borders, allowing Syria access to the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers. Israel wants to use boundaries dating back to 1923 and the British Mandate, which give the areas to Israel.

First, southeastern Syria has only one internationally recognized boundary — the line negotiated in 1923 between the British, which held the Palestine Mandate, and the French, responsible for the Syrian Mandate. It was located east of the Sea of Galilee, placing the whole of the Jordan River valley as well as the Yarmouk river within Mandate Palestine. In the 1948 war, Syrian troops crossed that line and reached the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

What Asser calls the “5 June 1967 border” is nothing more than an armistice line set by the Israel-Syria Armistice Agreement of July 20, 1949. Specifically, the agreement clearly stipulates:

The line described in Article V of this Agreement shall be designated as the Armistice Demarcation Line . . . The basic purpose of the Armistice Demarcation Line is to delineate the line beyond with the armed forces of the respective Parties shall not move. . . (Article III)

It is emphasized that the following arrangements for the Armistice Demarcation Line between the Israeli and Syrian armed forces and for the Demilitarised Zone are not to be interpreted as having any relation whatsoever to ultimate territorial arrangements affecting the two Parties to this Agreement. (Article IV)

Morevoer, the Armistice Agreement did not, in fact, put the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers in Syrian territory. To the contrary, the agreement established the area between the Sea of Galilee shore and the 1923 boundary as a demilitarized zone. Article V(5):

Where the Armistice Demarcation Line does not correspond to the international boundary between Syria and Palestine, the area between the Armistice Demarcation Line and the boundary, pending final territorial settlement between the Parties, shall be established as a Demilitiarised Zone from which the armed forces of both Parties shall be totally excluded, and in which no activities by military or para-military forces shall be permitted.

Furthermore, to suggest that Israel’s control of the Sea of Galilee water or the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers somehow endangers Syria’s supply is ludicrous. Syria draws 85 percent of its water from the huge Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, as well as the Orontes, and thus faces no shortage.

Israeli Unilateral Action

Again excoriating the water-grabbing Israelis, Asser notes:

In the 21st Century, Israel has tried to solve the Palestinian problem unilaterally, pulling troops and settlers from Gaza and building a barrier around West Bank areas with the large concentration of Palestinians. . .

Asser ignores the fact when Israel withdrew from Gaza in the summer of 2005, it left behind the wells and facilities to clean water at each settlement. And, just as Israel supplied the Gaza Strip with 4 MCM of water annually before the withdrawal, it continues to do so today, through the Kissufim Line of the National Water Carrier, .

Arab Culpability Erased

And, as with the Jerusalem piece, in this section Asser minimizes and ignores facts contrary to his thesis. Arab culpability is erased, for example, when he writes:

The Six-Day War in 1967 arguably had its origins in a water dispute – moves to divert the River Jordan, Israel’s mains source of drinking water.

Whose “moves ”? He doesn’t say. In this case, Syria is the belligerent party violating international law. (Also, Asser plays up the role of war in bringing about the Six Day War; water was one of many factors. Others include Egypt’s illegal closing of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, the massing of troops on Israel’s southern and northern borders, bellicose Arab rhetoric calling for the annihilation of Israel and Egypt’s ejection of the United Nations Emergency Forces serving between Israel and Egypt. But Asser casts doubt on the widely-recognized fact that Israel’s Arab foes forced Israel’s hand in launching a preemptive attack, stating: “Israel says the 1967 war was forced upon it by the imminent threat of hostile Arab countries. . . .” )

Likewise, Asser neglects to mention any information which puts responsibility for the water shortage on the Palestinian side. Thus, he does not mention that when Israel turned over most of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians in 1993 under the Oslo Accords, it left behind a water treatment plant. The Palestinians, however, stopped operating the facility. In addition, there has been a tremendous amount of waste on the Palestinian side. For instance, when Israel had complete control over Gaza before 1993, it enforced laws against illegal well digging. After 1993, however, the Palestinian authorities did not crack down on this practice, resulting in 2,400 unauthorized wells which drain 70 mcm from the low water tables.

Furthermore, Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Coordination of Activities in the Territories, who serves on a joint committee for Israeli and Palestinian officials to deal with Gaza water issues, told CAMERA that Palestinians can bring just about anything they want into Gaza through the Philadelphi border with Egypt now that Israel has withdrawn. “If they want to bring water from Egypt, probably they will do it. They can buy anything they want from around the world,” he points out, adding that the Egypt-Gaza border has become the entry point for all types of arms. Despite its bountiful supply thanks to the Nile River, Egypt has so far refused to provide water to the Palestinians. (Egypt’s per capita consumption is the second highest in the region, just after Syria’s.)


At the end, Asser notes that “Hydrologists say joint solutions need to be found” and that “improved conservation and recycling by both sides is needed.” He rightly concludes that “Israel and the Palestinians must work together, because they cannot survive as combatants.” That laudable goal is not served by heaping sole blame on Israel, which despite its scarce supplies, has helped out its many neighbors, while totally ignoring Arab responsibility.

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