A Proposal for an Equitable Resolution to the Conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians over the Shared Water Resources of the Mountain Aquifer

By Shuval, Hillel I. | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

A Proposal for an Equitable Resolution to the Conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians over the Shared Water Resources of the Mountain Aquifer


Shuval, Hillel I., Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


INTRODUCTION

IN THE PRESENT POSITIVE ENVIRONMENT and advanced stages in the search for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the signing of the Oslo agreement of 1993 and the Sharm al-Sheikh agreement of 1999, some have claimed that the disputes over shared water resources can become a major roadblock in the final stages of the path of peace. In fact, some of the major opponents in Israel to reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians, based on the principal of territorial compromise and the establishment of an independent Palestinian entity or state, use the fear of threats to Israel's water resources and Israel's "water security" as one of their main emotion laden arguments against reaching an accommodation.

On the other hand, a just and equitable solution to the severe water problems faced by both sides, which will bring social and economic benefits to all, can provide a major impetus to the peace process (Shuval, 1992). It is the goal of this paper to analyze the developments in recent years towards possible approaches to a just resolution of this problem, which can meet the legitimate needs of both Israelis and the Palestinians.

One of the main issues under dispute is the shared use of the mountain aquifer, the major portion of the recharge area of which lies under the occupied territories in the West Bank but which flow naturally into Israeli territory both to the northeast and to the west. Historically, major portions of the ground water of the mountain aquifer have been utilized by early Jewish farmers who settled in Palestine during the period of Turkish rule before 1918 and then under the British Mandate going back some 60-80 years (Blass, 1960). This intensive development of the aquifer continued after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, which was based on the decision of the United Nations in 1947.

In essence, Israel was utilizing a major portion of the safe yield of the western and northeastern sectors of the mountain aquifer, through the full development of the springs, rivers and wells long before the occupation of the West Bank by Israel in 1967. Thus, Israel bases its claims for the continued utilization of these waters on one of the cardinal principles of international water law-prior historic use and the prevention of significant damage that would result from the loss of their current water resources which are fully used to meet vital Israeli economic and human needs (Caponera, 1992).

The Palestinians, on the other hand, base their claims on these very same waters, which arise mainly as rainfall over the areas populated mainly by the Palestinians and now partially under the control and rule of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank with equal determination, on the principles of international law which call for equitable sharing of international trans-boundary water resources as well as on hydrological and geographic considerations and demands for the recognition of their historic national water rights which they feel belongs to the land in which they live, no less than their current urgent human and social needs. There are also serious questions as to the water resources needs of Gaza, which requires an urgent solution, but they will only be dealt with peripherally in this paper.

On the assumption that as an out-come of the Oslo peace process which has been accepted both by the current Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority some form of Palestinian State or autonomous entity will evolve in stages in all or part of the occupied territories, it is apparent that the mountain aquifer will be considered under international law as a shared body of trans-boundary groundwater (Caponera, 1992) with claims and counter claims by both sides as to its future utilization and control, which must be resolved if a peace agreement is to be achieved. Even many of those in Israel who oppose the establishment of a Palestinian State or autonomy based on a territorial compromise, recognize that the water needs of the Palestinian population of the occupied territories, as it grows and develops will essentially be the same regardless of the nature of the political solution and will have to be met from the same shared pool of water resources. …

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