Israel’s grip on Palestinian water isn’t just crippling – it’s incredibly lucrative

Israel has successfully made a demon out of Palestine. It’s turned the occupied people from a victim into a scapegoat – a colony, a prisoner, and now – a customer. Nick Charity investigates how Netanyahu’s government has turned a monopoly over water into an economic choke chain.

  • 25 per cent of Palestinians don’t have appropriate access to drinking water (WHO)
  • 180 million m3 – Palestine’s annual water consumption
  • 25 billion m3 – what Israel drains from the shared aquifers.
  • The Oslo Agreement signed in 1995 codified how Israel and Palestine would share water resources in the interim period before a resolution on statehood.

In the midst of a UN decision over Palestine’s statehood, you would be excused for thinking Israel is punishing the occupied territories for attempts to take control of their water supply. But Netanyahu may have his foot on the hosepipe for more ambitious reasons.

It’s been a few weeks since the most recent violence in the West Bank. The past months have been punctuated with raids and attacks. The story has become familiar – Israel claims it has reports of a weapons cache in Bethlehem or Hebron, and Tel Aviv fires missiles over the border.

In the public forums the rhetoric is equally familiar. They are the aggressors – they are the threat and Israel has a right to protect itself. They are the enemy that you would be prejudiced to deny – any criticism of aggressive foreign policy is branded anti-Semitic. Meanwhile Gaza has been a walled prison for years, with food and energy blocked from all outside supply lines, and European NGO ships are stopped in the Med before they can get close enough to provide aid.

This was the latest step of how Israel controlled the struggle. They’ve tried to controlling history, with the ongoing battle on social media – the Electronic Intifada against the Israeli press machine – false images of atrocities have been flung by both sides. At the checkpoints between east and west Jerusalem Palestinians must check their IDs and fingerprints while Israelis pass between freely. It is an Apartheid to rival that of South Africa’s to make the occupied start to believe what their betters believe – that they are less than human. In the comparatively peaceful lands in the West bank the impetus is not on holding up the prison walls like those that that keep Gaza contained, but rather breaking through to build swathes of new settlements – dotted across what little remains of Palestine’s countryside.

This is the story of how Israel mastered colonisation – of the land, of the mind and of the heart.

But now ‘the Middle East’s only democracy’ has found a new low in imperialistic control by rationing Palestine’s most precious resource to turn an occupied annex into profit centre.

“Israel is trying to ensure that there is only one water controller in the Palestinian territories: Israel,” said the Palestinian official on the telephone. I’m speaking to Yousef Awayes – Director General of the Palestinian Water Authority. This is the PLO’s arm for development of water resources, but the organisation is more of a hopeful gesture than a board for administration.

He has been telling me of how Palestinian towns get their water from the isolated Israeli settlements – they have become peripheral in their own communities.

“All negotiations over imports have resulted in heavily constricted channels being opened up to specific communities, directly from Mekerot (the Israeli network operator) and not connected to the Palestinian grid.

“Mekerot is serving their settlements, and we have villages nearby, so we are allowed to use the Israeli network providing these settlements to connect our communities, but only with specific quantities – they are controlling the dimension of the pipes and installing water metre counters. They are controlling the quantities and deducting the money directly from the VAT they owe us, before even selling us the water. Effectively we are buying our own water from Israel.”

  • Palestine buys 54 million m3 of water from Israel a year at ILS 3.7 (US$0.97).
  • That’s roughly what a UK household pays local providers to get water out of a tap (77p per litre)
  • The PA collects £2.2bn a year in taxes
  • It also spends $4bn on imports, almost entirely from Israel.
  • It’s own water usage only costs $15million a year.

Deep Below the West Bank, and crossing under the Israeli border, are rich aquifers of natural water. To the east, the Jordan river is a rich source of drinking water which could supply every household in the West bank many times over before making a dent in Israel’s banks downstream on its way to the Dead Sea.

But the Oslo Agreement signed in 1995 essentially codified Israeli control over resources, ensuring Palestine would have access to develop 26 million cubic metres per year, while Israel consumes 1.25 billion m3, and banning development of the second, more plentiful Western Aquifer.

Israel’s control of water was essentially codified in the articles of the Oslo Agreement in 1995. The agreement made a constitution of the arrangement for Palestine to take a huge proportion of water from its neighbour – even that it sits on top of and could extract

“This was to be the way until the final status negotiations after five years,” added Awayes. But the problem is that the five-year period has long past, and nothing has changed.

“We have not reached the final state of agreement, so we still legally bound to the Oslo agreement. We don’t have full access to our own water resources. Most of our water comes from a shared aquifer with Israel and we are not able to develop a single drop of water without acceptance from Israel.”

Palestine has to buy 54 million cubic metres a year from Israel, while Israel consumes 1.25 billion from the Eastern Aquifer, and last week the Israelis put up the price to ILS 3.7 (US$0.97). Water has become a $52million-a-year revenue stream. impressive when you realise its foreign imports and exports duties total $75 million and it charges its own people only $15million for utilities. Palestinian water has become a huge supplement to the government’s revenue, while the cost represents 14 per cent of the Palestinian Authority’s annual budget ($408 million) – a crippling burden just to access its own water.

But this constitutes only a small proportion of what Palestine buys from Israel. It bought $3.67 billion of imported goods from Israel in 2012 – who dominates $875 per cent of total imports Its imports were worth $4bn in 2012, 87 per cent of which is estimated to go to Israel due to imposed restrictions. Compared to the $2bn Israel spends on defence each year, controlling Palestine’s economy has proven a very lucrative business.

Overall, Palestine is an Israeli profit centre, and the country has taken grave measures to protect its investment, recalls Mr Awayes.

“Israel can stop any Palestinian well whenever it wants,” he said. “Israel has free access to anywhere, even area that are supposed to be under the control of the PA. Soldiers do not respect us and challenge us. Three months ago an Israeli convoy entered an area here and destroyed three agricultural wells, because according to them, the wells affect Israeli’s surplus well nearby in the Jordan Valley. So they decided to go in, destroy the well and get out, that’s it. Right now they have an action plan to destroy some shallow agricultural wells in the north of Janin. They consider that these wells are illegal, and they are seeking actions to destroy them without any consultation at all. The full control is Israel’s.”

It sounds like the plot of the recent Bond film, Quantum of Solace. The villain secures control of a national resource, blocks the taps and then sells the product back to the under-developed nation at an exploitative premium. But Netanyahu’s grip on Israeli resources is strangulating while the PA is trying to provide for a population which has grown eightfold since 1948. Now Israel is in danger of running the Aquifers dry and Palestine will become ever-more reliant on its neighbour. Meanwhile Israel and the US and blinded by the faith they bestowed in the Oslo and Paris Agreements to see the damage they will cause to the struggling communities in Gaza and the West Bank. They were meant to be temporary measures until statehood was granted, but as long the statehood question in kept in the air, Palestine will continue to turn a profit.

An Israeli press office was approached for comment but did not respond.

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