Israel and the Water Card

The New York Times hailed Israel’s ingenuity in addressing its water needs, but played down how Israel exploits its military domination to divert water away from Palestinians and to Israelis, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Israel is the object of widespread admiration for its economic and technical accomplishments and the ingenuity that went into them, for being a nation that made the desert bloom. Much of the admiration is quite warranted, with Israeli talent and resourcefulness having not only produced blooms on kibbutzes but also a leading high-tech sector today.

The comparisons involved, however, usually leave unstated how much of the accomplishment rests on the prerogatives Israel has wrested for itself as an occupying power (not to mention the many billions of dollars through the years of U.S. assistance to Israel, which effectively has shifted burdens from Israeli to U.S. taxpayers).

A section of the barrier -- erected by Israeli officials to prevent the passage of Palestinians -- with graffiti using President John F. Kennedy's famous quote when facing the Berlin Wall, "Ich bin ein Berliner." (Photo credit: Marc Venezia)

A section of the barrier — erected by Israeli officials to prevent the passage of Palestinians — with graffiti using President John F. Kennedy’s famous quote when facing the Berlin Wall, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (Photo credit: Marc Venezia)

Three years ago, presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a speech in Jerusalem that illustrated the kind of incompletely based comparisons that are typical. Referring to the disparity (which he actually understated) between the per capita gross domestic product of Israel and that of areas assigned to the Palestinian Authority, Romney’s explanation was: “Culture makes all the difference”, by which he meant that something akin to the Protestant work ethic drove Israeli enterprise but was missing from Arab culture.

He made no mention of the numerous physical, legal and resource impediments, within a few miles of where he was standing, to Palestinian economic activity that were part of the Israeli occupation, ranging from denial of building permits to prohibitions on Arab use of transportation networks. Of course, Romney’s motivation for saying what he did undoubtedly had something to do with the audience and pocketbooks to which he was appealing (he was speaking at a fundraiser attended by prominent Jewish-American backers).

Moreover, Romney is a very wealthy man who repeatedly demonstrated in other ways during the campaign his difficulty in comprehending the circumstances of those less well off. But his remarks suggested a view of Israel and the Palestinians that was both sincerely held and shared by many other Americans.

Even more to the point in understanding better the underpinnings of Israeli success are respects in which that success has benefited not only comparatively but absolutely from having conquered, and continuing to control, territory on which other people live. Israel has exploited resources in the Palestinian territories because it has the military strength to do so, with land being the most obvious and fundamental resource.

With control of the land, Israel enforces differential use of man-made as well as natural resources, to the benefit of Israelis and the detriment of Palestinians. The reserving of the best highways in the West Bank for use only by Israelis, for example, bestows an obvious benefit on Israelis in enabling them to conduct their business more efficiently, without being slowed down by any annoying Palestinian vehicles.

Think of this arrangement as HOT lanes in which who gets to use them is determined not by willingness to form a car pool or to pay a toll but instead by an occupying army that admits onto the entrance ramps only members of the favored ethnic group.

Among natural resources, water is vitally important and also involves Israelis benefiting absolutely as well as comparatively from their being an occupying power. That is why it is especially discouraging to read Isabel Kershner’s article in the New York Times about management by Israel of water resources.

Firmly in the blooming-desert tradition, the article is a laudatory piece about how through technology and shrewd regulation Israel has beaten a drought and taught the sort of lessons from which thirsty Californians could benefit. Half of the above-the-fold space on the Times front page is occupied by a picture of a sparkling blue hotel swimming pool against a backdrop of the barren Negev desert.

The article barely mentions how water has been a factor in conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and even that brief mention may leave only the impression that Israel is living up to its water-related obligations in the Oslo accords and that Palestinians are whining about the price they have to pay for water. The caption of the main picture (of an aqueduct in the West Bank) accompanying the after-the-jump portion of the article says that “Israel shares a mountain aquifer with the West Bank, and provides water to the Palestinians.”

What the article does not say is that a major factor in Israel’s ability to beat droughts and to fulfill demand from its own citizens for water is that it uses its control over the Palestinian territories to consume, heavily and disproportionately, water resources from those territories, and in so doing, to deny those same resources to the Palestinians. This involves principally, though not exclusively, aquifers in the West Bank.

Of water currently being drawn from West Bank aquifers, Palestinian residents of the West Bank use only 17 percent. Jewish settlers in the West Bank use 10 percent, and the remaining 73 percent goes to Israel proper. The water problems of West Bank Palestinians are exacerbated by Israeli restrictions on drilling new wells and repairing old pipes. The Israeli-built wall in the West Bank, which lies east of some of the most exploitable parts of the mountain aquifer, eases settler and Israeli use of the nearby wells and separates many Palestinians from their traditional water supplies.

A similar pattern of use prevails with Jordan River water. As Kershner’s article notes, Israel extracts much of the water from the Jordan River system by moving it from Lake Tiberias to drier parts of Israel. Even though only a very small percentage of the Jordan River itself abuts Israeli territory and most of the river forms the boundary between the occupied West Bank and the kingdom of Jordan, Israel denies Palestinians any access to the river water.

The situation for residents of the Gaza Strip is even worse, and not only because of the damage to water infrastructure from Israel’s military assaults and blockade. Gaza depends for water on a coaster aquifer that straddles the boundary with Israel and in which the underwater flow is from east to west.

Israel has significantly reduced the amount of water that reaches the Gaza Strip by constructing a heavy concentration of deep wells on its side of the border. That Israeli upstream exploitation and the Palestinian drawing of what remains of the aquifer in the Gaza Strip have lowered both the level of the water table and water quality for Gazans, with much encroachment of saline sea water.

That swimming pool pictured on the front page of the Times is kept full not only because of Israeli ingenuity, although that is part of what is involved. It is full also because Israel uses its power over Palestinian resources to exploit them for the benefit of Israelis without regard for the deleterious effect on the Palestinians themselves.

The passionate American attachment to Israel has several roots, including well-founded admiration for Israeli accomplishments. But a further root is ignorance of many of the ways in which what may be admirable in what Israel has accomplished is based in part on policies and practices that are not. Management of water resources is but one example.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

15 comments for “Israel and the Water Card

  1. Mark
    June 10, 2015 at 08:46

    The six day war amounted to another land grab when it began with Israel’s surprise attack on Egypt’s Air Force.

    Deemed illegal by the Geneva Conventions, Israel’s land 1967 grabs included Syria’s Golan Hights, Egypt’s Sinai, the West Bank with East Jerusalem and Gaza.

    Israel has always been the aggressor taking land from the Arabs — the conflict would not exist otherwise.

    And with Israel’s continuation of illegal land grabs in the WestBank and Jerusalem since 1967, there has been no such thing as jerusalem being “a capital of religious freedom” as you claim.

    Your comment amounts to nothing more than typical Israeli propaganda.

  2. traducteur
    June 5, 2015 at 15:15

    Well, well. The Zionists have been hoping all the Palestinians will die of thirst, but they keep finding ways of staying alive:

    And the Zionists keep killing them, but no matter how many Palestinian children they shoot, there are always more of those pesky goyim afterward than there were before. The long-term outcome is not in doubt. Vive la Palestine !

  3. Morton Kurzweil
    June 2, 2015 at 15:36

    Genocide is a term that describes negro slavery in the US, the Nazi genocide, the genocides of the Catholic Church, and the Shiite and Sunni genocides since the beginning of the third Caliphate.
    There is only one Earth with limited resources of air, fertile land and water, and we spend our lives blaming each other and making moral statements based on mythical beliefs.

    • Mark
      June 2, 2015 at 20:13

      One of the longest running s l o w and deliberate genocides, physically and psychologically brutal, still in the process of being committed today after nearly 70 years, is the genocide Zionists are committing against the Palestinians. Here is a legal definition of genocide and a discussion of the reality concerning Israel and the Palestinians:

  4. traducteur
    June 2, 2015 at 06:39

    Zionism has always been, and (we see yet again) continues to be, an ideology of mass theft and genocide. Spare us the “well-founded admiration for Israeli ingenuity”; it is pure evil.

  5. Jeff
    June 2, 2015 at 00:19

    Yes folks it’s frustrating waiting for elected officials to bring Israel into line. It just isn’t going to happen. Boycotting this uncivilised and illegitimate state is the way forward.

  6. Zachary Smith
    June 1, 2015 at 21:09

    I agree that keeping calm is a problem, for there is plenty to be outraged about.

    Water in Palestine

    In Madama village 50km north of Jerusalem settlers from Yizhar settlement have repeatedly vandalized the villager’s only source of water. They have poured concrete into it, vandalized the connecting pipes and even dropped disposable diapers and other hazardous waste into the springs. Three villagers have been attacked by settlers while trying to repair the water source [3].

    There is nothing I can do. Both Indiana Senators and my House Representative are totally in Israel’s pocket. And why shouldn’t they be? Besides the easy money, the fundamentalist “christians” in my region devoutly believe that Israel is entitled to anything they want. You see, it’s all leading up to the Second Coming. Praise Jesus.

    • abbybwood
      June 2, 2015 at 02:02

      The roots of “Christian Zionism” video:

      This video should be watched by every “Christian” pastor in the United States.

      After seeing it, if they are truly “Christians” they will start singing a different tune to their congregations.

      • dahoit
        June 2, 2015 at 11:27

        Yes,the silence from the alleged Christian churches in America regarding Palestine is criminal,and a sign of the collapse of Christianity into idol and manna worship.Jesus would be appalled.

      • Mark
        June 2, 2015 at 20:27

        I’ve been wondering how that came about and am not surprised to see the evidence in the video pointing directly back to Zionists in the US and England. Ironically Christian teachings often refer to the great deceiver and it appears many have allowed themselves to be deceived. Knowing how they’re involved in corercive political campaign funding in the US while influencing the media as well, I’d be curious to know how much money Zionists have given to those Christian ministers that supported Christian Zionism.

  7. James
    June 1, 2015 at 19:02

    If you want to feel outraged then you are in luck, thanks to Israel I don’t have a shortage of things to be outraged about. Follow the links below to infuriated yourself or you could just go bird watching and try to forget that Israel exist. After reading about Israel’s water scandals and Isabel Kershner’s cover-up story from the nytimes I would recommend a short walk to calm your nerves.

  8. JWalters
    June 1, 2015 at 17:52

    More information on Israel’s profiting from its water theft.

  9. Blake
    June 1, 2015 at 14:28

    And now the facts:

    “It is not only in dubious ancient mythology that Israel is founded. A state so founded had to create its own modern mythology from the start. One such piece of modern mythology which has become well rooted in western perceptions is that Jewish pioneers “made the desert bloom” , that by their know how and hard work, they transformed an uncultivable, mountainous, swampy and arid land into fertile and productive fields. Dr Moishe Saltiel, a highly qualified and experienced engineer, agronomist and water engineer, who emigrated from Greece to Palestine in 1932, has shown the facts tell a different story. Dr Saltiel’s researches show that in 1945, according to British Mandatory statistics, the cultivated area of Palestine was 920,000 hectares while, according to a survey in 1946, there were 60,000 cultivable hectares in the Golan Heights. By the 1980’s, the total cultivated area of the same land – Israel, West Bank, the Gaza strip and Golan – was 650,000 hectares – a third less than at the time of the establishment of Israel.

    Exactly contrary to the mythology, cultivated land in the Negev [desert] has actually been turned into desert. Before the establishment of Israel, the Bedouin had for centuries cultivated land wherever water was to be found, in even the most arid areas of the Negev desert. Forty years after the establishment of Israel, less than half the previously fertile land in the Negev was under cultivation. The Bedouin had been displaced and the area became a major base for the Israeli army, for large industrial zones, including the site of the huge complex where Israeli nuclear arms are manufactured, and a dumping ground for toxic waste.”
    “Palestine An Inescapable Duty” – David Watkins

  10. Bill Bodden
    June 1, 2015 at 12:21

    With control of the land, Israel enforces differential use of man-made as well as natural resources, to the benefit of Israelis and the detriment of Palestinians.

    And they make the segregationists of our Deep South appear to be a relatively benign institution.

  11. Zachary Smith
    June 1, 2015 at 11:15

    Stealing the Palestinian water is of course a keystone of Israeli policy. But it’s also an important tool of “Palestinian Removal”. Make life hellish enough,and they’ll have to leave. Or finally explode in a fashion which will justify Nakba 2.

    The author of the NYT piece is writing propaganda. That’s her job.

    Another New York Times’ reporter’s son is in the Israeli army

    The New York Times published the propaganda. That’s what they do too.

    Israel wants even more water. The only real place for getting it is in the north. Lebanon and Syria. Keep that in mind when you read stories about that shitty little nation’s activities in the north.

Comments are closed.