No Shortage of Discrimination When It Comes to Water in the West Bank

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A Palestinian boy collecting water on his donkey from the village of Kafr Yasif in the West Bank, June 2016.
A Palestinian boy collecting water from Kafr Yasif in the West Bank, June 2016.Credit: Amira Hass

“Convene the Joint Water Committee.” This is the Israeli mantra trotted out in response to stories about a water shortage in the West Bank. Since the Palestinians have been boycotting the committee’s work for several years, the claim goes, it hasn’t been possible to upgrade and repair the water infrastructure.

This is also the reply Haaretz received last week from the Israeli Water Authority and the office of the coordinator of government activities in the territories, in response to a query about why the Israeli water company (Mekorot) has been reducing the amount of water it sells to the Palestinians in the Salfit District and Nablus since the beginning of June.

Mekorot gave a similar reply to the weekly Makor Rishon, which reported a week ago on a water shortage in a number of West Bank settlements, neighborhoods and illegal outposts.

Indeed, since late 2010, the Palestinians stopped approving requests for water and sewage projects submitted by the Israeli side in the Joint Water Committee (JWC). Initially, they refused to sign the minutes of the meetings. Then they stopped attending. The Palestinian prime minister at the time was Salam Fayyad, while the head of the Palestinian Water Authority was Minister Shaddad Attili. The Palestinians had come to the conclusion – some say far too late – that under the guise of sharing and reciprocity, Israel was squeezing written consent and ostensible approval from them for the development of the water infrastructure in the settlements, and even increasing their water supply. At the same time, it was limiting the development and expansion of the Palestinian water infrastructure, and perpetuating the unequal division of water between Israelis and Palestinians.

In 2014, after Rami Hamdallah had become prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Attili – whom the Israelis saw as a troublemaker and the source of the problem – was sacked; Mazen Ghoneim was named as his replacement. However, even if there were some who interpreted this as buckling to Israeli pressure in order to renew the committee’s work, the Palestinian position did not change.

“The committee is joint” – i.e., it requires the other side’s approval – “only when it comes to projects for the Palestinians,” Minister Ghoneim told Haaretz last week. “The Israelis do whatever they want in the settlements, whenever they want to. They didn’t ask our permission to build and expand settlements and outposts, so why would they seek our approval for pipelines?”

Fresh evidence arrived just last week: On June 20, the Israeli Government Procurement Administration website published a tender for a joint Israeli-Palestinians sewage line, which will be laid adjacent to the route of the existing sewage pipeline between Givat Ze’ev, Bir Naballah and Al Jib. The Palestinian Water Authority told Haaretz that this is being done without its knowledge.

According to COGAT, this is only the replacement and maintenance of an existing pipeline and, therefore, doesn’t require the committee’s approval. However, according to Palestinian sources, when the JWC was working, the Palestinians were required to obtain Israeli approval for upgrading (replacement and maintenance) of all existing pipelines – even in areas A and B, which are under Palestinian civilian control. Without such approval, for areas A and B as well, the donor countries, and especially the United States, would not fund the projects.

Article 40 of the 1995 Interim Agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which dealt with water and sewage issues, stipulated that the Palestinians would be able to extract about 118 million cubic meters annually from the Mountain Aquifer in the West Bank. In addition, the agreement stipulated that Israel would sell the Palestinians another 30 million cubic meters, and during the period of the agreement (until 1999), they would be able to increase the quota by another 80 million cubic meters annually at drill sites of their own in the eastern basin or “from another source.”

According to World Bank calculations, the amount allocated for Palestinians in the West Bank was about 20 percent of the output of the Mountain Aquifer. The rest of the water – i.e., most of it – was assigned to Israel, for consumption in the settlements and inside Israel. The role of the JWC was to implement the sides’ commitments under Article 40 and to manage the water and sewage systems in the West Bank.

At first, the Palestinians saw the provision as a basis for expanding their independent water sector. Today, 17 years after the agreement was supposed to lapse, the Palestinians are getting only 103 cubic meters a year from the Mountain Aquifer, according to calculations by the Palestinian Water Authority.

By comparison, according to a study by B’Tselem, whose figures were revised in 2013, 28 Mekorot drilling sites in the Jordan Valley (the eastern basin) produce about 32 million cubic meters annually, i.e. a little less than a third of the total water the Palestinians are extracting from the entire Mountain Aquifer. The vast majority of that 32 million cubic meters is allocated to about 10,000 Jewish settlers in the Jordan Valley, for domestic and agricultural purposes. This compares to the 103 million cubic meters allocated for the entire 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank.

The Palestinian population in the West Bank has grown by about 1 million since 1995. As a result, the Palestinians have no alternative now but to buy a larger quantity of water from Israel than had originally been agreed.

A British study published in 2013 revealed that the discrimination against the Palestinians was also maintained by the JWC. The researcher, Dr. Jan Selby of Sussex University, found that between 1995 and 2008, the proportion of Palestinian projects approved by the committee (i.e., approved by the Israeli side) was lower than the proportion of projects that were approved in the settlements: At most, 66 percent of Palestinian applications to drill wells were approved, compared to 100 percent of the Israeli requests; between 50 percent to 80 percent of applications for water supply networks for the Palestinian population were approved, compared with 100 percent for the settlers; and 58 percent of requests for wastewater purification plants for the Palestinians were approved, compared to 96 percent for settlers.

Selby also found that the capacity of approved Israeli water storage facilities was almost five times greater than for their Palestinian counterparts – 4,723 cubic centimeters for the Israelis, compared to 965 cubic centimeters for the Palestinians. And the most common diameter of a water pipe for the Palestinians was two inches, compared to eight and 12 inches for the Israelis.

During that same period, the 174 storage tank/reservoir projects for the Palestinians had a total capacity of 167,950 cubic centimeters, compared to 28 such facilities for the Israelis with a total capacity of 132,250 cubic centimeters.

Selby concluded that the expansion of the infrastructure in the settlements was carried out with the approval of the Palestinian Authority, because it had been made clear that otherwise Israel would not allow it to rebuild and develop the Palestinian water infrastructure.

Sources in the Palestinian Water Authority prefer to say today that in the early years, “We signed projects of mutual interest [i.e., joint pipelines for the settlements and the Palestinian communities]. Gradually, we were expected to approve projects exclusively for the settlements in return for approval of our projects.”

The sources added that the largest projects, which could only be implemented in Area C, also went through the complicated Civil Administration bureaucracy, which sometimes delayed or canceled their implementation. And even before a project went through the Civil Administration approval process, Selby found that, on average, an Israeli project was approved by the Joint Water Committee within two months, while a Palestinian project took 11 months.

Selby’s research encapsulated the growing Palestinian frustration and explains the decision to avoid the joint committee.

A COGAT spokeswoman stated, “Improving the condition of the water infrastructure in the West Bank requires planning of new water pipelines, since the existing lines have reached their full capacity and therefore it is necessary to convene the Joint Water Committee.”

She added, “We note that in light of the difficulties the Palestinian Authority is piling on the committee, water and sewage projects have been approved unilaterally in order to give a preliminary response to the water problem for both populations in the region.”

Uri Schor, a spokesman for the Israel Water Authority, told Haaretz, “In November 2011, the director of the water authority, in the framework of the joint committee, gave approval to the Palestinians for 43 projects to upgrade existing drill sites, replacements and new drill sites. In October 2012,” he wrote, “there was an agreement between the two sides about the pricing of the additional water for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” A Palestinian source tells Haaretz that drilling requests approved by the authority had been submitted a long time before, and that the pricing agreement was set for one year only.

Since October 2012, Schor added, “The Palestinian government made a political decision not to approve any more Israeli projects (in contravention of the water agreement) and thereby torpedoed a joint working framework that made it possible to serve both populations in the West Bank.”

The Palestinians, however, say that the recent massive cut in the water supply to their communities is aimed at blackmailing them to return to the Joint Water Committee and to “approve projects exclusively for the illegal settlements, in order to make them supposedly legal.”

At the Palestinian Water Authority, they note that just like the status of Area C and economic relations (the Paris Protocol) that were intended to be temporary, Article 40 and the water quota imposed on the Palestinians were also meant to be temporary.

But temporary has become permanent. The Palestinians say their requests to amend Article 40 have gone unanswered. The only realistic solution today, they say, is to enable them to immediately carry out drilling in the more fertile western basin of the Mountain Aquifer.

Minister Ghoneim, meanwhile, sums up the Israeli position: “Israel treats us like business customers, not as people having a legal right to the water sources in our country.”