West Bank Water and New York Times Stereotypes

Douglas Jehl got just about everything wrong in his August 15 New York Times story about water problems in Hebron. Entitled "Water Divides Haves From Have-Nots in West Bank," the piece was an anti-Israel caricature. It misrepresented that nation’s role in providing water to the Palestinians, omitted entirely Palestinian water obligations under Oslo and focused almost exclusively on denunciations of Israel.

Jehl got even the basics wrong. He claimed Israel is required by Oslo to "make available a fixed amount of water—slightly over one billion cubic feet a year" to meet the "immediate needs" of the Palestinians. Indeed, Annex III, Article 40 of Oslo II, to which he was apparently referring, does stipulate an increase of water for Palestinian use; it calls for an additional 28.6 million cubic meters, or Jehl’s "slightly over one billion cubic feet." But, in his apparent rush to blame Israel for Palestinian deprivation, the reporter neglected to mention that a full 19.1 mcm, or two-thirds of the total, were to be developed by the Palestinians.

The agreements also spell out in some detail the measures each side is to take to achieve this increased water supply. But Jehl excluded all reference to such matters, omitting even a hint of Palestinian responsibility for delivering more water to its own populace. Instead, he quoted one Palestinian after another excoriating Israel and the Jews.

"[T]here is not enough to go around, because it is all in the hands of the Jews," said one man. "The main reason for this water [problem] is the Israelis," said another.

Nor, obviously, did Jehl describe what each party to the Oslo Accords has actually done to comply with its commitments. Yet this information is crucial to understanding the realities about the water crisis in Hebron and elsewhere, and it recasts dramatically the crude and false picture sketched by the Times.

Whereas Israel has moved expeditiously to fulfill its side of the water bargain, the PA has severely neglected its obligations. For example, to increase water for the Palestinian city of Jenin, it was agreed that Israel would provide a major new well there, making available an additional 1.4 million cubic meters of water for residents. The Palestinians, for their part, were to connect the new well to consumers. More than a year ago Israel completed the well, which cost in excess of $2 million, but it has gone unused because the PA failed to implement the connection.

In Hebron, the focus of Jehl’s article, Israel was to provide licensing for additional major wells. This was done and a German company completed the drilling of two large wells in March. However, the PA has yet to put down piping to deliver the water to residents as it was obliged to do. Indeed, the PA has yet to obtain full rights-of-way to lay the pipes. If the wells were functioning, they would provide water for 70,000 people.

In the Bethlehem area, the PA was to dig two wells but Palestinian officials have yet to take the first step of seeking licenses from Israel to begin the project. In the Tekoa area, the PA sought and received approval for wells and dug at least one, but has done nothing to provide the infrastructure to deliver the water to residents. In the Salfit area, the Palestinians were to provide connecting pipeline to receive more water, but, again, they have failed to fulfill their obligations. The same negligence by the PA is evident in numerous other instances.

All this information is available to reporters. But assembling it would have required both footwork and an open mind. It would have entailed deviating from the path of the journalistic herd that, like clockwork every summer, recites the propaganda fable of blameless, parched Palestinians abused by Israelis. Jehl stuck to the well-trod fiction.

Consistent with his repetition of other distortions, he recycled the canard that, while Palestinians endure shortages, "There is no sign of a water shortage in the Jewish settlements just outside Hebron." In fact, there are many such signs for a reporter willing to look.

Immediately to the west of Hebron are two Jewish communities, Telem and Adura, which suffer severe water problems. As reported by Haggai Sari in the Israeli weekly Makor Rishon on August 21, Adura has experienced chronic water shortages for years and has recently been without water entirely for five days. A spokesman for the community said residents were forced to travel "with jerry cans to the gas station at Beit Jubrin, so that they could wash their babies…."

Moreover, even when the community has water in the taps it is undrinkable and is deemed usable only for cleaning purposes. Bottled water must be brought in for drinking. The uncertain availability of water for the Adura community entails frequent costly purchase of water from water trucks. In addition, under the Oslo Accords, the community is at the mercy of Palestinian authorities who control water to Adura and who, according to residents, turn off the supply "whenever they want."

Water shortages affect Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank. Mevo Dotan, for example, experienced such severe problems that Israel considered evacuating the entire community. Kiryat Arba, which adjoins Hebron, is, like other settlements, without water one day each week. Within Israel proper, too, communities suffer water shortages, especially in the Upper Galilee.

In other words, the vicious stereotype of Jews luxuriating in water at the expense of Palestinians is untrue. It hardly needs saying that Jehl's story did not include mention of wealthy Palestinians in Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah whose private swimming pools and ample water supply further belie his typecasting of Arab and Jew.

Jehl also omitted two other critical factors contributing to the water crisis in Hebron. First is the disastrous leakage from antiquated and corroded pipes which causes water losses of 20% - 50% in the city. Israeli experts, such as former water commissioner Dan Zaslavsky, have noted that these losses continue unstanched because repairs by the municipality have met resistance from Arab well-owners who profit during the dry summers from private sales of water.

In addition, there is massive theft of water by Palestinians from water pipes in the Hebron area, reducing availability of the resource for residents. Israeli spokesmen familiar with the theft problem report that scores of water trucks tap the resource illegally from water mains, then sell the water to thirsty customers. One official stated recently that he had disconnected five illegal taps in one day. A water expert cited by Haggai Sari in Makor Rishon characterized efforts by the Civil Administration and Israel's national water agency, Mekorot, to block the pirate hook-ups as "Sisyphean."

Why, one might ask, would an experienced reporter at the world's most influential newspaper produce a news article that violates so grossly the tenets of responsible journalism? Whatever the answer, whether because of laziness, naivete or ill-will, Jehl's piece defaming Israel can only fuel baseless enmity toward an entire people.

er, such scapegoating of Israel harms not only the Israelis but also the Palestinians. As Sari observed, Arafat has seized on the water issue for his own political uses, and in blaming Israelis "has created an excellent cover for the failings of his government" and "its rampant corruption." In this, Jehl—and his editors in New York—have lent a hand.

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