Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israeli Refusal to Yield Control of West Bank Water Forces Deferral of Issue

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israeli Refusal to Yield Control of West Bank Water Forces Deferral of Issue

Article excerpt

Israeli Refusal to Yield Control of West Bank Water Forces Deferral of Issue

By Frank Collins

The unyielding Israeli position on water very quickly led to one of the initial deadlocks in the conference on the extension of limited Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank beyond the Jericho area. The Israeli edict delivered at the conference, "Any increases in water supply for Palestinians are not to come out of the Israeli share of the water," only hardened the deadlock. The Palestinians could by no means accept that condition.

The 1995 negotiations, dubbed "Oslo II," were to reach agreement on the conditions of the Palestinian autonomy for the remainder of the five-year interim period provided for in the Oslo Declaration of Principles (DOP). The West Bank water issue generally was acknowledged to be the most intractable, next to Hebron, of the more than two dozen major issues under negotiation in Oslo II.

More than a year after the signing of the Cairo agreement implementing Palestinian autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area, the protracted negotiations were concluded with the signing of Oslo II on Sept. 28 in Washington, DC.

To get around the failure of the negotiations on the management of West Bank water during the interim period, the Israelis insisted that further negotiations on the question be abandoned and the subject be pushed over into the final status negotiations. Therefore, any agreements reached would not take effect until after the five-year interim period is over. In conformity with the provisions of the Oslo Declaration of Principles of Peace, the final status negotiations will begin no later than May 1996. There is little likelihood that an earlier start will be made on them in view of the glacial rate of the most recent ones.

Elimination of the water question from the Oslo II negotiations means that the status quo now will continue for another four years. That status quo of limited and diminishing water rations for Palestinians in the West Bank constitutes an almost intolerable situation.

Recognizing the seriousness of the Palestinian water crisis, the Israeli negotiators offered to raise the Palestinian allotment by 28 million cubic meters (25 percent) but only over a four-year period, with the major increments to take place only in the third and fourth years. This will do little to remedy the immediate water shortages. It is not clear where this water is to come from in view of the Israeli refusal to grant water increases to the Palestinians out of Israel's current supplies. Most likely is an Israeli plan to develop the eastern aquifer in the West Bank running down into the Jordan valley and not yet fully pumped. The time required to develop this aquifer would account for the delay in offering the Palestinians the promised increase of 25 percent.

Immediately after their 1967 conquest of the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli military occupation authorities issued orders to the effect that no new wells were to be drilled to supply water to the Palestinian population. All new wells drilled in the ensuing 28 years provide water only for Israel and for the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Israeli wells have proliferated to the point that 80 percent of the water pumped from West Bank acquifers now is diverted to Israeli usage, reducing the Palestinian portion to only 20 percent. The total pumping rate has reached the maximum, or average annual rainfall replacement rate of the aquifer, and is possibly beyond the safe point, given the highly variable rainfall of this semi-desert region.

The drilling of new and deeper wells by the Israelis has diminished the output of the Palestinian wells. Many of the latter have dried up completely because Israeli authorities will not issue permits to deepen them, even where the water table has dropped. The water from the remaining wells now has to serve the needs of a vastly increased Palestinian population.

When the drilling of new wells by the Palestinians was forbidden at the beginning of the military occupation, West Bank population was 940,000 (World Bank figures based on the Israeli census taken immediately after the conquest). …

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