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Israeli-palestinian Strife Continues, but Sides Cooperate on Water Issues

March 5, 2003
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Despite a winter of heavy rains and new desalination plants that are expected in the near future, water supply remains a contentious issue for Israel and the Palestinians.

But as the intifada rages on, water is one of the few areas where the two sides still manage to cooperate.

Palestinians continue to dispose of their sewage improperly, say Israeli officials, who also accuse Palestinians of drilling illegal wells in the West Bank.

At the same time, aid workers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip complain that Israeli restrictions have made it difficult for the Palestinians to access clean and plentiful water.

“In terms of water cooperation relations are not good, but they are reasonable,” said one Israeli official, pointing out that since the intifada began more than two years ago Israel has “no way of knowing” whether illegal well drilling by Palestinians in the West Bank is damaging the water table.

Palestinian officials, and a number of Israeli water experts, see the situation optimistically.

Speaking at a December conference on desalinization at the Haifa-based Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, the Palestinian Authority’s water minister, Nabil Sharif, surprised some Israeli officials who had become accustomed to Palestinian grumbling on the issue.

“The only area in which Israelis and Palestinians are continuing cooperation, in spite of 25 difficult months of intifada, is water,” Sharif said.

“It was very interesting to hear that from the water minister,” said Rafi Samiat, a desalinization expert at the Technion. “This is not what they claim all the time.”

The spokesman for Israel’s water commissioner, Uri Shor, said the Palestinians are “not dealing with” sewage problems and pirate wells, both of which could have devastating effects on Israeli water sources.

Sharif denied that the Palestinians are drilling any illegal wells and said efforts to improve sewage management are “ongoing.”

In a survey conducted by a group of nongovernmental organizations last year, 16 out of 101 Palestinian communities in the West Bank were found to be consuming less than 30 quarts of water per person per day, an international standard for hygiene and health.

But hundreds of millions of cubic meters of desalinated water are expected to come online in the next decade in six planned Israeli desalination plants, making questions of water management easier for Israel and the Palestinians to agree on than refugees, the status of Jerusalem or the final borders in a two-state solution.

Since the intifada began, consecutive Israeli water commissioners have joined with Sharif to urge the two sides to leave precious water resources out of the conflict.

“Palestinian and Israeli water and wastewater infrastructure is mostly intertwined and serves both populations. Any damage to such systems will harm both Palestinians and Israelis,” wrote Sharif and Noah Kinarty, then Israel’s water commissioner, in a joint statement in February 2001.

A 1995 accord signed in the Egyptian resort of Taba included a clause that recognized “Palestinian water rights in the West Bank” and calls on the two sides to cooperate on water issues.

Since then, and even since the violent intifada began in fall 2000, cooperation efforts include regular meetings to discuss water problems along with constant faxes, e-mails and phone calls to coordinate efforts, water experts on both sides said.

Deliveries of spare parts for water facilities have continued, despite closures in the West Bank.

Cooperation is most critical in the West Bank, where both Palestinians and Israeli settlers rely on a fragile and depleted underground aquifer.

Before the intifada, officials jointly monitored West Bank water use and illegal drilling.

Now, said Uri Shamir, founding director of the Technion’s Stephen and Nancy Grand Water Research Institute, the same bilateral group — known as the Joint Water Committee — receives applications from West Bank residents on either side for well-drilling approval, and continues to operate by consensus.

“In the end, there are no boundaries for water,” Sharif told JTA.

Israeli water expert Hillel Shuval said illegal drilling by Palestinians in the West Bank would be of only “minor importance” since only very deep wells, which are expensive to drill, could threaten the aquifer.

After years of drought, an above-average rainy season this year has raised the level of the Sea of Galilee by more than two meters, adding 335 million cubic meters of water. The lake is still underfilled by more than 500 million cubic meters, officials estimate.

According to Sharif, Palestinian areas, with much poorer infrastructure, face a similar deficit of 400 million cubic meters of water a year, a shortfall met each year by Israel.

But with security closures and roadblocks affecting the movement of tanker trucks in and out of the West Bank, the cost of water supplied to West Bank towns had risen by 80 percent compared to pre-intifada prices, according to Richard Cook, a U.N. relief official in the West Bank.

Gaza faces even more serious problems. There is massive depletion of underwater wells, and over-pumping of Gaza wells has allowed seawater to intrude into many wells there.

According to Sharif, 95 percent of the water from aquifers in Gaza is poor.

He added that 200 wells for agriculture and two drinking wells — a small fraction of the thousands of wells that dot Gaza — had been damaged by Israeli military action.

An Israeli military source said the two drinking wells were damaged in a January shootout during an operation to protect the Shalev settlement in the Gush Katif bloc after a terrorist attack.

During the exchange, Palestinian gunmen took cover in a building that was built above the two wells, the source said.

An Israeli army spokesman had no comment on damage to the other wells, but said fighting terrorism sometimes leads to “unintended damage.”

Desalinization plants along the Mediterranean coast, working on a new, cheaper method of desalination, should dramatically alter the water balance for Israel.

A plant under construction in Ashkelon, due to be completed in 2004, will supply 100 million cubic meters of water per year. Desalination plans continue, despite the heavier rains this year, Israeli officials have said.

A desalination plant in Gaza has been in the works for some time but remains delayed, Sharif said.

Some on Israel’s left have looked at the possibility of surplus desalinated water as a strategic advantage that could be used in peace negotiations.

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