Severe drought conditions, only recently ameliorated by heavy winter rains, and the current hostilities have exacerbated the fundamental inequality in division of the scarce water resources of Israel-Palestine between Israelis and Palestinians. Water is becoming a weapon of war aimed at quelling Palestinian support for resistance to occupation.

Water inequality and Israel’s use of restricted access to water as a weapon of suppression have been continuing components of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. From the seizure of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 to the present day, Israeli water policies have discriminated against Palestinians by denying them equal utilization of shared water resources. Palestinian water consumption is significantly below the basic minimum recommended by the World Health Organization and many Palestinian communities lack access to piped water, while Israelis enjoy the luxury of swimming pools, green lawns and two showers a day, and support a thriving export agriculture through irrigation.

Water accords included in the Oslo II Interim Agreement of 1995 were supposed to have established a framework and institutions leading to a workable solution of the dispute. Instead, Israel has continued to maintain almost complete control over the water sector in the West Bank through the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC) established under the agreement. Using its veto on the JWC, Israel has blocked many new Palestinian water projects and delayed others claiming infringement on its own water rights. Since the onset of the second intifada in September 2000, the government of Israel has engaged in various forms of collective punishment to crush resistance to settlement and occupation of Palestinian lands. Among this arsenal of measures are efforts to make it more difficult for ordinary Palestinians to obtain water, not only for agriculture, but also for drinking and basic human sanitation.

High and Dry

Israel’s water policies and actions are best understood in the context of the region’s scarcity of water resources and persistent drought over the past decade. The region shared by Israel and Palestinians relies on three main sources of water: the Jordan River basin, including Lake Galilee, and two major aquifers, one extending from the mountainous central spine of the West Bank into Israel, and the other stretching along the coastal plain across both Israel and the Gaza Strip. In a normal year, these three sources supply approximately 1,530 million cubic meters (mcm) of water. Other sources, including desalination, recycled wastewater, springs and rainwater collection supply about another 550 mcm. In the last two years, Israel has embarked on the development of additional desalination facilities that are expected to add another 200 to 300 mcm of potable water by 2004. Israel has also recently contracted to purchase about 50 mcm of water a year from Turkey over the next 20 years.

Israel-Palestine has suffered below average rainfall for a de- cade. Drought conditions drained Lake Galilee, the West Bank mountain aquifer and the coastal aquifer to their lowest point in memory. These three main water sources reached or crossed their “red line”—the point beyond which sustainable yield is threatened with irreversible damage from contamination by pollution or intrusion of saline water. Fortunately, in early 2003 heavy winter rains and snow in some higher elevations have reversed the decade-long drought for the time being.

According to Israel’s Hydrological Service, Lake Galilee dropped to its lowest level of 214.9 meters below sea level in 2001, but rebounded slightly to 214.3 this past year. The absolute red line is 215.5 meters below sea level. At that point the National Water Carrier, which normally transports about 400 mcm from the lake to the populated area of the coast and on to the upper Negev for irrigation, will stop working because the pumps cannot work below that level without engineering changes. [1] In September 2002, the New York Times reported that the lake was so depleted that one marina dock is now 200 yards from the water. The marina has had to pave a road across the dry lakebed so trailers can carry boats to the water. At the city of Tiberias, the walled harbor is littered with debris and piers for tourist boats are high and dry. [2]

The coastal aquifer has been heavily pumped in both Israel and the Gaza Strip, and hit very hard by the decade-long drought. Far more has been pumped than replaced by rainfall over the same period of time. In places the watershed has dropped four meters, allowing in the seepage of seawater that could soon destroy the aquifer. In Gaza, the coastal aquifer has reached a point where 80 percent of the potential drinking water is unsuitable for human consumption. Saltwater intrusion from the Mediterranean now extends several miles inland. In some areas, Gaza’s drinking water has ten times the sodium content considered safe to drink, leading to health problems like kidney ailments and hypertension. According to Riyad al- Khudari, a hydrologist who is president of al-Azhar University in Gaza and former chair of the Palestinian delegation to the Multilateral Water Working Group, existing Gaza supplies would be adequate if not for intensive pumping by Jewish settlements inside Gaza and just across the border in Israel. [3] These charges are denied by Israeli officials.

The water shortage cannot be attributed only to the drought conditions that have plagued the region for the last decade. From 1990 to 2000, Israel welcomed nearly one million Jewish immigrants, mainly from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. At the same time, Israelis have not curtailed levels of household water consumption comparable to those in the West. But it is Israeli agriculture that consumes as much as 80 percent of available water—a remarkable figure given that agriculture accounts for only 2 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product. Such export crops as citrus fruits and flowers, in particular, are heavy consumers of water, leading commentators to charge Israel with shipping “virtual water” overseas. [4]

Conspicuous Gap in Consumption

It is the Palestinians who suffer the most from the drought conditions. The distribution of shared water resources between Jews and Arabs is fundamentally unfair. Israel does not divide available water fairly according to need, in accordance with international law. Palestinians receive only 20 percent of the mountain aquifer, and have no access to water from the Jordan River basin. In normal times, Palestinians per capita consume only one third as much water as Israelis for household use and only one sixth as much for irrigation. Since the fall of 2000, with the drought and the intifada, the gap in water consumption has widened considerably.

According to a summer 2002 report by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, Palestinian household water consumption has fallen by half in comparison to that of Israelis: 60 liters per person per day (lpd) to 350 lpd. [5] Palestinian NGO sources reported by the BBC put the Palestinian water consumption in some parts of the West Bank as low as 16 lpd. (The international minimum standard is 50 lpd.) As a result, Palestinians are now unable to meet many basic needs such as maintaining personal hygiene and cleaning house. They do not have enough water for the animals, vegetable gardens and crops that provide a vital source of food for most households. In the words of the B’Tselem statement, “at a time when the Israeli public debates whether to water their lawns or wash the car, Palestinians suffer from a shortage of water to meet their most basic needs.”

In the West Bank, almost half of the more than 500 Palestinian villages and refugee camps are without the piped water that Israel readily supplies to neighboring Jewish settlements. For people in these localities, the principal source of water is rainfall collected on rooftops and stored in cisterns near the house. This source generally only meets household needs during the period from November to May. In the hot summer season, residents must collect water from nearby springs in plastic bottles or purchase water from private tanker trucks at very high prices. These conditions have significantly worsened as a result of the drought and the intifada.

Palestinian municipalities in the West Bank connected to water pipelines suffer unequal treatment in water distribution. Palestinian pay more for the same amount of water than do Israelis and the amount of their allocation is far smaller. Even before the current uprising, Palestinian officials charged that Israel was withholding water from West Bank towns and villages. [6] During the summer months, water is in such short sup- ply that it can only be provided to municipalities one or two days a week. In some towns the water supplied has dwindled to one seventh of normal. Water pressure is so low that taps will not bring forth water and toilets do not flush. [7]

The discrimination against Palestinians in water consump- tion is most conspicuous when compared to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. While Palestinian towns and vil- lages run dry and fields die, neighboring Jewish settlements get all the water they need. Some Palestinian NGOs assert that settlers receive on average 15 times the amount of water allocated to Palestinians. [8] In one reported instance, in the summers of 1999 and 2000 Hebron’s water was cut by two thirds but the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba suffered no reduction in its allotment. Kiryat Arba, with a population of about 5,000, received the same amount of water as the entire city of Hebron, with a population of 170,000. [9] This level of inequality significantly adds to the Palestinian frustration and anger fueling the uprising.

Israeli officials deny that there is a double standard in their water policy for the West Bank and Gaza. In their view, Palestinians and their leaders are to blame for Palestinian water shortages, not Israel. They rebuke the Palestinian Authority for failing to adopt proper environmental practices to preserve water resources. In the words of Israeli Water Commission official Noga Blitz, “We allocate water according to the 1995 interim agreement…and even 20 percent more. It is not an allocation problem; it is a Palestinian distribution problem. We do not interfere.” [10] Before the current outbreak of violence, Israelis accused the Palestinian Authority of holding up many water and sewage projects that would benefit Palestinian towns and villages because the same projects would benefit Jewish settlements. In their view, “sewage is sewage,” so why build separate treatment plants in close proximity to each other? For the Palestinian Authority, agreeing to joint sanitation facilities with Jewish settlements, even though the most effective means of waste disposal, would be tantamount to recognition of the right of Jewish settlements to exist on Palestinian lands.

Water as a Weapon

On January 31, 2001, several months after the current hostilities commenced, the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC) met at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip under the auspices of the Joint Israeli-Palestinian-American Committee on Water, and issued a joint call on the general public, as well as combatants, to refrain from harming the water infrastructure of both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Noah Kinarty, head of the Israeli delegation to the JWC, signed for Israel and Nabil al-Sharif, chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority, for the Palestinian Authority. The declaration read in part, “The Israeli and Palestinian sides view the water and wastewater sphere as a most important matter and strongly oppose any damage to water and wastewater infrastructure.” It went on to point out that these are mostly intertwined and serve both peoples.

Unfortunately, Palestinian water facilities have not been spared the devastation of war. Although many Israeli actions may have been taken in the heat of battle, Palestinian communities have seen much of their water infrastructure damaged or destroyed. Many Palestinians have suffered from dehydration, diarrhea and disease, due to an inability to obtain clean water or any water at all. Prevention of access to water has become a weapon in Israel’s arsenal of measures to suppress the Palestinian uprising against continued occupation and colonization.

The already bad Palestinian water situation has grown much worse during the current hostilities. The Palestinian Hydrology Group (PHG) has to assemble and update monthly a record of Israeli attacks on Palestinian water infrastructure. Israeli closure of many towns, villages and refugee camps, and checkpoints along major roads, has separated large numbers of Palestinian from their water supply. In the West Bank, between 250 and 300 localities are not connected to water supply lines but depend on the purchase of water from private or municipal water tanker trucks. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) blockades have made it much more difficult for tankers to get to water supplies and to deliver them to their customers. When trucks do get through the blockades, the time and distance traveled is often doubled or tripled, increasing cost. Trucks that averaged five to ten trips a day before the intifada now make only two or three daily trips. In many places springs and other water sources have been completely cut off by closure. There have also been incidents of tankers being stopped at roadblocks and forced to empty their water on the road. Truckers attempting to break into closed military zones risk being shot by Israeli soldiers.

In the last two years, Israeli attacks have damaged or destroyed many Palestinian water facilities. A huge number of rooftop water-gathering tanks all across the West Bank have been destroyed by Israeli gunfire either deliberately or in fighting with Palestinian defenders. In the summer of 2002, PHG monitoring of 152 communities found 34 with extensive shooting of roof tanks. There has also been destruction of pipeline, pumping stations, cisterns, wells and springs. In 2001 an Israeli helicopter attack in the Gaza Strip destroyed wells serving 200,000 people. Dozens of West Bank communities have suffered from damages to their water networks. In Qalqilya, over 15 kilometers of pipeline have been destroyed by Israeli gunfire since the beginning of the intifada. In the PHG monitoring project, 44 of the 105 communities with water networks reported damage; forty others in the survey reported destruction of wells, springs and cisterns. [11]

Jewish settlers in the West Bank have blocked water delivery to Palestinian communities and sabotaged water infrastructure. A recent report by Oxfam provides evidence of settlers vandalizing water supplies from Palestinian villages and pre- venting villagers from collecting water at springs. In village after village, Oxfam staff reported damages to water networks and storage facilities by settlers as well as the Israeli military. Oxfam also reported many instances of shooting at Palestinian Water Authority and municipality water personnel who attempt to make repairs. There is the case of the village of Deir Nidham in the Ramallah district where the water from the main pipeline first goes through the Jewish settlement of Halamish. Here settlers have shut off the valve that brings water to the village on numerous occasions and four times destroyed the piping that extends from the settlement to the village. The village’s outstanding debt for lost water reached almost $30,000 in May 2002. In another instance reported by Oxfam, settlers deliberately contaminated water sources in Asira al-Qabliyya and Madama, villages in the Nablus district. [12]

Mekorot is Israel’s national water distribution company. Along with all Jewish settlements, many Palestinian localities with piped water in the West Bank get the water through Mekorot pipelines. Since the beginning of the intifada, most Palestinian communities receiving Mekorot water have seen a dramatic reduction in the amount of water coming through the pipelines although nearby settlements have had no reduction in supply. Over 70 percent of the localities receiving Mekorot water in the PHG survey reported a decline in the water sup- ply. Thirty-nine communities received less than 90 percent of normal supply; four had stopped getting water from the Mekorot pipeline altogether. [13]

When Mekorot facilities in Palestinian areas break down, repairs and spare parts have been hard to come by. In an incident recorded in the B’Tselem report, one of the two wells operated by Mekorot in the town of Yatta (36,000 residents) south of Hebron ceased to operate due to malfunction in the fall of 2000. Mekorot refused to repair the well or provide an alternate source of water for the residents. For the last two years the people of Yatta have received water for a 24-hour period only every two weeks. From time to time, even this meager supply is halted because Jewish settlers in the neigh- boring settlement of P’nei Haver shut the pipeline valve. IDF closure of Yatta prevents municipal employees from leaving the town to open the valve. Mekorot employees let days go by before turning the valve back on.

Devastation of War

On March 29, 2002, Israel launched an offensive, Operation Defensive Shield, aimed at reoccupation of West Bank cities. According to the IDF, the goal of the operation was to eradicate the “infrastructure of terrorism” following the killing of 80 Israeli civilians over the previous month. As the IDF entered Ramallah, Bethlehem, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Jenin and Nablus as well as smaller towns and villages, each was declared a closed military zone, bar- ring access to the outside world. In each case, the incursions were preceded by cutting off water and electricity to the residents of the towns, a violation of the prohibition against collective punishment of civilians under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Over the next three months the IDF killed over 500 Palestinians, at least 70 of them children, and destroyed large sections of the Palestinian towns and refugee camps that they reoccupied. [14] These incursions did not spare the water networks; indeed in some cases water infrastructure was deliberately destroyed. In Ramallah, the West Bank seat of the Palestinian Authority just north of Jerusalem, shelling by Israeli tanks destroyed the electricity system powering the main water pumping station, leaving the 230,000 people in the city and outlying villages without running water. When crews from the Ramallah municipal water department first attempted to repair the pumps, they were turned away by Israeli gunfire. On a second attempt, after receiving permission from Israeli military authorities to venture out, they were arrested and taken into custody. Under 24-hour curfew, cut off from the outside world and without water, residents were left to rely on whatever water had been stored and rainwater that fortunately was in good supply because of spring rains that week. [15]

The northern West Bank city of Jenin suffered the most casualties and the greatest amount of destruction during Defensive Shield. Army tanks and bulldozers wantonly flattened several thousand homes and water facilities alike. Water pipelines along streets and pumping transfer stations were destroyed in large numbers during the two-week fight for control of the refugee camp and parts of the city. Residents of these areas were left without food and water from April 4 until the blockade was partially lifted on April 17. Water shortages during the period of closure left many people with no water to drink, leading some children to drink wastewater and become sick. The closure of Nablus between April 4-22 cut off the city’s wells from tanker trucks that supply surrounding villages with their main source of water. [16]

Destruction of water infrastructure, along with closures and roadblocks, has caused a dramatic rise in the cost of water across the West Bank. Because a growing number of water networks no longer function at full capacity or function at all, more and more people must rely on tanker trucks for their meager water supply. But as distances grow due to the need to find ways around checkpoints and blockades of main roads, supplies dwindle from closure of springs or settler vandalism and danger from roadside snipers increase, the cost of water from tanker trucks has sky- rocketed. Truckers have reluctantly had to pass their own additional cost on to their customers. A survey of eleven localities by Oxfam in the summer of 2001 found an average increase of 82 percent in the price of tanker water from the previous summer. [17] The average price came to about $6.75 per cubic meter of water. The PHG monitoring project in the summer of 2002 found the highest prices in the Hebron area, where the cost of water for some villages reached about $10 per cubic meter. [18]

Increases in the cost of water are coming at the same time that Palestinian income is plummeting from the impact of the intifada and Israel’s closures. Many families can no longer afford the cost of water. Households have gone into debt just so they can have water. Oxfam reports cases of village fami- lies who have had to sell their livestock because they could no longer afford the price of water to keep them alive. People’s long-term livelihoods are being sacrificed because they do not have access to reasonably priced water.

Other household reactions to the high cost of water involve putting themselves at risk of disease by using unclean water or cutting water consumption well below minimum standards. Both the Palestinian Hydrology Group and Oxfam tell of people using water from irrigation canals or the bottoms of cisterns (where bacteria accumulate) for drinking, cooking and cleaning. While boiling and filtering reduces the likelihood of disease, the danger is still present. Frugal use of water for drink- ing and cleaning below allowable standards puts people at a great health risk. In one study of rural Palestinian households, one quarter reported some member suffering from diarrhea. In about half of the cases, those affected had not had an adequate amount of water in the previous two weeks. [19]

Finding a Solution

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict over water remains a long way from a solution. Recent evidence of the distance came in a charge made in October 2002 by then-Israeli Infrastructure Minister Effi Eitam, head of the far-right National Religious Party, that the Palestinian Authority was waging a “water intifada” against Israel. In his statement, Eitam said that unauthorized drilling and “pirate” connections to water pipes to Jewish settlements in areas of the West Bank under Palestinian Authority control constituted “stealing water from the state of Israel.” He ordered Water Commissioner Shimon Tal to stop all new drilling of Palestinian wells in the West Bank and to freeze the issuing of new permits by the Joint Water Committee. He also charged Palestinians with polluting Israel’s groundwater. [20]

Palestinian Water Authority officials reject the charge of a “water intifada” against Israel’s groundwater, but acknowledge that Palestinian farmers and families have been drilling wells without official permits from the JWC. The fact is that the Palestinian Water Authority has submitted over 200 recent applications for new wells in the West Bank, but Israeli members of the JWC have vetoed all of them. Given the growing Palestinian water and health emergency, and the fact that many Palestinians exist on only 15 liters per day of water or less and pay exorbitant prices for that water, the charge by Eitam is another example of the inability of many Israelis to recognize the humanity of the Palestinians. Israel has made water a political issue with the Palestinians, and Israel is using water as a weapon in its efforts to suppress the Palestinian uprising and the goal of an independent Palestinian state.

The only solution to the water issue between Israel and the Palestinians is equal sharing on a per capita basis of their joint water resources. Steps were taken in this direction in 1995 with the Oslo II agreement that established the JWC. While con- flict and distrust now cloud its deliberations, the Joint Water Committee is the only Israeli-Palestinian institution set up during the Oslo peace process that continues to meet. The only way out of the current darkness of atrocity and counter- atrocity is to build trust between people as they work together to find solutions. This was one of the roles of the JWC before intransigence and violent hostility overtook it. No movement toward peace is likely as long as Likud and settler-dominated political parties remain in power in Israel and Islamists in Palestine remain committed to the violent destruction of the state of Israel. Yet trust, coupled with monitoring of agreements to ensure mutual compliance, is necessary for peace. One road in that direction is sharing of water resources under the auspices of joint Israeli-Palestinian institutions.


[1] Ha’aretz, December 12, 2001.
[2] New York Times, September 10, 2002.
[3] Interview with Riyad al-Khudari, June 1998.
[4] See, for example, Gershon Baskin, “The Clash Over Water: An Attempt at Demystification,” Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture 1/1 (Summer 1994).
[5] B’Tselem, “Summer 2002 in the West Bank: Especially Severe Water Shortages,” (Jerusalem, August 2002).
[6] Interview with Fadil Qawwash, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority, June 1998.
[7] Associated Press, August 8, 1999; B’Tselem, op cit.
[8] Interview with Abd al-Rahman Tamimi, director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group,
May 1998.
[9] Statistics quoted at, posted on June 30, 1999.
[10] Quoted in the Jordan Times, July 7, 2000.
[11] Palestinian Hydrology Group, Water and Sanitation Hygiene Monitoring Project, Impact of the Current Crisis Technical Report 2 (Ramallah, August 2002), pp. 40-46. See also PHG, Report on the Impact of Closure on Water Supply to Palestinian Villages and Towns (Ramallah, July 2001), pp. 1-3.
[12] Oxfam International, Forgotten Villages: Struggling to Survive Under Closure in the West Bank (London, 2001), pp. 44-45.
[13] PHG, Water and Sanitation Hygiene Monitoring Project, Report, p. 10.
[14] Amnesty International, Shielded from Scrutiny: IDF Violations in Jenin and Nablus (London,
November 2002).
[15] New York Times, April 5, 2002, and personal communications with contacts in Ramallah in the months following the Israeli incursion.
[16] Amnesty International, pp. 3-11.
[17] Oxfam International, p. 26.
[18] PHG, Water and Sanitation Hygiene Monitoring Project, Report, p. 36.
[19] Health Sector Biweekly Report, al-Quds University, CARE International/ANERA, July 12, 2002.
[20] Jerusalem Post, October 23, 2002.

How to cite this article:

Alwyn Rouyer "Basic Needs vs. Swimming Pools," Middle East Report 227 (Summer 2003).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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