Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza

Ever since the 1973 war, the regional conflict focus has shifted from being Israeli-Arab to Israeli-Palestinian. This is true regarding water conflicts, as well. In fact, while earlier periods were marked by major water projects and region-wide water conflicts, this most recent period has mostly been one of internal adjustments within each state to optimize existing water resources. Israeli water policy, however, also includes territory and populations under military occupation, the final status of which has yet to be determined. Because of the hydrography of these areas, the focus has also shifted from a surface water to a groundwater conflict (see appendix I, maps 4 and 5).

As mentioned earlier, Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967, including the recharge areas for aquifers that flow west and northwest into Israel (at about 320 MCM/yr and 140 MCM/yr, respectively) and east to the Jordan Valley (about 125 MCM/yr) (Kahan 1987, 21). The entire renewable recharge of these first two aquifers is already being exploited and the recharge of the third is close to being depleted as well. Because any overpumping would result in salt-water intrusion into Israeli wells, Palestinian water usage has been severely limited by the Israeli authorities.

In 28 years of occupation, a growing West Bank population, along with burgeoning Jewish settlements, has increased the burden on the limited groundwater supply, resulting in an exacerbation of already tense political relations. Palestinians have objected strenuously to Israeli control of local water resources and to settlement development, which they see as being at their territorial and hydrologic expense (see, for example, Davis et al. 1980; Dillman 1989; Zarour and Isaac 1992).

In 1967, Israel nationalized all West Bank water and limits were placed on the amount withdrawn from each existing well. Since that time, the only permits for new Palestinian wells that have been granted are for domestic needs. Agricultural usage was capped at 1968 levels and all subsequent extension of land under irrigation has been through increased efficiency (Richardson 1984). At the same time, 17 wells were drilled to provide water to the new Israeli settlements. Some Palestinian wells were undercut and became desiccated, notably at alAuja and Bardala, because of the deeper, more powerful Israeli wells (Dillman 1989, 56-57). Of the 47 MCM/yr pumped in the mountain area, 14 MCM/yr, or 30 per cent, goes to the Jewish settlements. The eastern aquifer, which flows into the Jordan Valley, is the only one not being overexploited, but Palestinians have not been allowed to expand their water resources in this region either (Dillman 1989, 57). Currently, a total of 150 MCM/yr is consumed by its residents - 115 MCM/yr by Palestinians and 35 MCM/yr by Jews.

Israelis argue that Palestinian agriculture can expand using water saved through more efficient agricultural practices. For example, modern methods of irrigation have helped Palestinian farmers in the Jiftlik Valley to increase vegetable production tenfold without significantly increasing water needs (Rymon and Or 1989). They argue further that any limits imposed on pumping have depended on the situation of each aquifer at the time that the permit was requested - not on whether the applicants were Arabs or Jews and that, with only one exception, desiccated Palestinian wells have been supplied with alternate sources (Info Briefing 1986; interviews, Zeev Golani, October 1991; Shmuel Cantor, December 1991).

One factor exacerbating tensions between the sides is that legal ownership of water originating on the West Bank (and consequent drilling rights) is still under dispute. Under pre-1967 Jordanian law, water on the West Bank had been considered a private resource and, although approval for any irrigation schemes was required from the Department of Irrigation and Water, permission was routinely granted (Dillman 1989, 52). Under the law, each landowner in the West Bank had the right to drill a well on his land, although the government had final authority to distribute permits and to determine pumping limits and allocations. After the 1967 war, one of the first Israeli Military Orders enacted was one necessitating permission from an area commander to operate a water installation (IDF Military Order 158, cited in Dillman 1989, 53). The following year, Military Order 291 brought all surface and groundwater under public ownership to be managed by Israeli water authorities in conjunction with the Israeli hydrologic network (Dillman 1989, 52). Technically, Israeli authorities did not significantly alter the structure of groundwater law in the territories, retaining the wording of Jordanian law, but transferring final authority from the Kingdom of Jordan to the Israeli military administration. In practice, however, day-to-day operations became increasingly controlled by the Israeli Water Commissioner to the point where, today, almost all water is metered, limited, priced, and allocated by that body.

Israeli authorities viewed these actions as defensive, of a sort. Hy drogeologically, Israel is down-gradient of the West Bank aquifers. In essence, groundwater flows (albeit extremely slowly) from the recharge areas and upland aquifers of the West Bank down to those on the Israeli side of the Green Line on its way to the sea. Israel had been tapping up to 270 MCM/yr of this groundwater from its side of the Green Line since 1955 (Garbell 1965, 30). Any uncontrolled, extensive groundwater development in the newly occupied territories would threaten these coastal wells with salt-water intrusion from the sea, causing serious damage (Jaffee Center 1989, 200).

With about 30 per cent of Israeli water originating on the West Bank, the Israelis perceive the necessity to limit groundwater exploitation in these territories in order to protect the resources themselves, and their wells from salt-water intrusion. To this end, they have even imported surface water from the National Water Carrier to the Ramallah and Hebron hill region for Arab domestic use, rather than allowing additional drilling (Spector and Gruen 1980, 10). Further, four or five Israeli settlements built in the late 1970s around Elkanna, near the Green Line, may have been sited to guarantee continued Israeli control of some of the contested water (State of Israel memoranda June 1977; Pedhatzor 1989).

Palestinians have objected to this increasing control and integration into the Israeli grid. Legal arguments often refer, at least in part, to the Fourth Geneva Convention's discussion of territories under military occupation (see, for example, Dillman 1989; El-Hindi 1990). In principle, it is argued, the resources of occupied territory cannot be exported for the benefit of the occupying power. Israeli authorities reject these arguments, usually claiming that the Convention is not applicable to the West Bank or Gaza because the powers these territories were wrested from were not, themselves, legitimate rulers (El-Hind) 1990). Egypt was itself a military occupier of Gaza, and only Britain and Pakistan recognized Jordan's 1950 annexation of the West Bank. In addition, it is pointed out that the water that Israel uses is not being exported but, rather, flows naturally seaward, and, because Israel has been pumping that water since 1955, it has "prior appropriation" ("first in time, first in right") rights to the water.

Although Jordan gave up all claims to the West Bank in 1988 in favour of the "State of Palestine," Jordanian water from the Yarmuk is still the most likely source of surface water for the area, with Jordan still "owing" the West Bank 70-150 MCM/yr from the Johnston proposals. During the Maqarin Dam negotiations and subsequently, the Israelis have urged construction of the project and the sharing of water resources with the West Bank and, naturally, Israel, "in the context of regional agreement and cooperation" (cited in Richardson 1984, 122).

It is clear that Israel would hope to keep control over some water usage in the West Bank, even in the event of Palestinian autonomy. When talks were held under the auspices of Camp David, the Israeli Committee determined that

. . . the water resources of the State of Israel inside the Green Line originate in the West Bank and that incorrect application of drilling in the West Bank could salinize the water reservoirs of the State of Israel ... The State of Israel must continue to control the water resources in the territories, both because of the danger to water reserve inside the Green Line and because (otherwise) it would be impossible to establish new settlements in these territories. (Cited in Davis et al. 1980, 4)

Although this position softened somewhat with negotiations to where, in 1980, Israel proposed a joint water committee of Israeli and Palestinian representatives, they made it very clear that "all decisions would have to be unanimous" (Spector and Gruen 1980, 11). As late as 1989, however, an official goal of the Israeli government has been

... to prepare legal and political bases which will guarantee Israeli control and administration of water resources in Judea and Samaria, regardless of the future political status of these areas. (State of Israel, cabinet minutes, 14 May 1989)

On 15 September 1993, the Declaration of Principles on Interim SelfGovernment Arrangements was signed between Palestinians and Israeli, which defined Palestinian autonomy and the redeployment of Israeli forces out of Gaza and Jericho. Among other issues, the Declaration of Principles called for the creation of a Palestinian Water Administration Authority. Moreover, the first item in Annex III, on cooperation in economic and development programmes, included a focus on

... cooperation in the field of water, including a Water Development Program prepared by experts from both sides, which will also specify the mode of cooperation in the management of water resources in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and will include proposals for studies and plans on water rights of each party, as well as on the equitable utilization of joint water resources for implementation in and beyond the interim period.

Annex IV describes regional development programmes for cooperation including:

The Declaration of Principles also included a description of the mechanisms by which disputes might be resolved. Article XV describes these mechanisms:

  1. Disputes arising out of the application or interpretation of this Declaration of Principles, or any subsequent agreements pertaining to the interim period, shall be resolved by negotiations through a Joint Liaison Committee to be established.
  2. Disputes which cannot be settled by negotiations may be resolved by a mechanism of conciliation to be agreed upon by the parties.
  3. The parties may agree to submit to arbitration disputes relating to the interim period, which cannot be settled through conciliation. To this end, upon the agreement of both parties, the parties will establish an Arbitration Committee.

Eventually, the final political and hydrographic status of this region will have to be determined. Aside from politics or nationalisms, hydrologic reasoning would seem to dictate that this determination should be done sooner rather than later. As one UN report notes,

The present integration of the basic water services in the occupied territories with those of Israel is about to lead to the complete dependence of the former services on those of Israel and will eventually make the separation of the two very costly and difficult. (Cited in Dillman 1989, 63)

Contents - Previous - Next