Israel's New Weapon: Water
JERUSALEM - Human-rights reports condemning Israel's dealings with the Palestinians have become so frequent of late they're like the dripping of Chinese water torture.
In the last few months, there have been reports on the conduct of Israeli forces in Gaza, on restrictions on medical supplies and food entering Gaza and the necessity for a boycott of Israeli products and people. This week Amnesty International made its latest contribution with a report on water itself.
Amnesty issued a 112-page report that accuses Israel of denying sufficient water to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The report says Israelis uses more than three times as much water per person as Palestinians, and that Gazans are down to 20 liters of water a day - the World Health Organization's designated minimum level for subsistence.
"Water is a basic need and a right, but for many Palestinians obtaining even poor-quality, subsistence-level quantities of water has become a luxury that they can barely afford," said Amnesty's researcher for Israel and the Palestinian territories Donatella Rovera.
Palestinian officials gushed about the Amnesty report. Israelis told them to suck it up.
A measure of the importance of water in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and throughout the parched Middle East - is the position water rights were given in the Oslo Peace Accords between the two sides.
When the peace agreement was signed in 1993, the most difficult issues were set aside for "final-status negotiations." In other words, the two sides figured they'd be able to agree on some issues only when they'd already made nice for a few years, their people would've seen the benefits of early measures, and consequently would accept compromise on the toughest questions.
Those tough questions, by the way, were: the status of Jerusalem, the future of Palestinian refugees, the final borders of a Palestinian state.
The first three issues are essentially at the heart of every story you read every day about this conflict. Water, on the other hand, doesn't get so much coverage.
Because it's harder to deal with than any of the others.
That's right. You can pay refugees to make new lives in the West Bank and Gaza or Sweden. You can draw a line on a map and call one side of the line "Palestine." You can even give sovereignty over the Temple Mount above ground to the Palestinians and underground (where all their ancient relics are) to the Israelis.
But you can't make more water.
There are three main sources of water for Israel and the Palestinians, and they're all in rotten shape.
The Sea of Galilee, according to Israeli government water officials, is so low after a decade of droughts that another winter of light rainfall could turn it into a "dead lake." In other words, the water would become contaminated. Fears such as this led Israel's Water Authority this summer to institute higher charges for homes that use large amounts of water.
Contamination isn't a fear for the coastal aquifer, which runs beneath Gaza. It's already a reality. The aquifer has been over-pumped, so that sea water has leeched into it and untreated sewage from the 1.5 million Palestinians living on top of it has seeped down into it. That's led to dangerous quantities of nitrates in the water pumped out of the ground in Gaza.
The mountain aquifer beneath the West Bank is little better. Amnesty says Israel pumps 80 percent of the water that comes out of the mountain source, leaving only 20 percent to the Palestinians.
Israeli officials argue that they then sell much of that water back to the Palestinian Authority as they're mandated to do under their peace accords (Article 40 of Annex III, to be precise). They also contend that the Palestinian Authority refuses to recycle its waste water, doesn't build water plants even when Israel gives a permit to do so and has frittered away billions of dollars in Western aid without setting up its own water infrastructure (or pretty much any other infrastructure, in fact).
To be sure, the World Bank conceded recently that the Palestinian Water Authority is "in total chaos." In most of the Palestinian villages of the West Bank, water is trucked in by leaky, old tankers, which sometimes fail to make it past Israeli military checkpoints.
Amnesty contends that Palestinians consume an average of 70 liters of water a day, including agricultural use. Much less than the Israeli average of 300 liters.
Israel disagrees with those figures. The Israeli Water Authority says Israelis use 408 liters a day of fresh water from natural sources, while Palestinians use 200 liters.
Those numbers won't wash with Amnesty, which points the finger at Israeli settlements in the West Bank as big users of local water resources. Certainly the settlements have a lusher look than the neighboring Palestinian villages.
The language of Amnesty's report highlights that water is not merely something that's drunk or used for irrigation. The report "calls on the Israeli authorities to urgently address the desperate need for water security in the [occupied Palestinian territories]."
"Water security." Like everything else in the Middle East, water has turned into a security issue. In other words, something that can lead to violence.
Behind the politics, Amnesty points out the specific and pressing problems of the people of Gaza. The three-week Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza which ended in mid-January this year destroyed much of the infrastructure, such as it was.
Since then Israel has restricted construction materials entering the Gaza Strip, because it fears Hamas will use them to rebuild military facilities and weapons-smuggling tunnels beneath the Egyptian border. That, according to Amnesty, has brought the water situation in Gaza to "crisis point."
Unfortunately the fact that water was supposed to be left to "final-status" peace negotiations means that there's likely to be little change in the situation now. Final-status talks are a long, long way off. Palestinian negotiators have refused to talk to their Israeli counterparts until construction in Israeli settlements is at a complete halt. That means no water talks, either.