x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A wet land, a parched land

In a lush Jewish settlement the grass is always green while Palestinian farmers and their crops go thirsty, resentful of the Israeli water pipes that cross their land.

Elisha Zurgil, an adviser to the Israeli Fruit Growers' Association, ties up lush acacia trees on a kibbutz, front, while an empty water tank is left in a barren field in the Jordan River valley, above.
Elisha Zurgil, an adviser to the Israeli Fruit Growers' Association, ties up lush acacia trees on a kibbutz, front, while an empty water tank is left in a barren field in the Jordan River valley, above.

Water flows plentifully in the Jewish settlement of Eli high up on top of a hill in the heart of the West Bank. An abundance of trees and plants - towering palm trees and magenta bougainvillea, even maples, firs and poplars - spill around the spacious, red-tiled roofed homes of the 700 families that live here. Eli's Olympic-size swimming pool is crowded with laughing mothers and children. A peacock strolls across one of many swathes of mostly luxuriant green grass, stopping to preen its brilliant tail feathers.

Despite a summer drought that has parched the Palestinian villages dotting the valley floor below, the lush panorama is entirely fitting for a patch of land its residents believe was deeded to them by God. "We should take care of ourselves first," says Tamar, who has lived in Eli since 1996. As for the Palestinians' proper share of the water from the underground reservoirs that lie under the West Bank and make this bounty possible, they will just have to wait, says the 36-year-old mother of five children, who asks that her last name not be used.

"We should take care of the foreigners here, and give them running water and help them survive and live the proper way," she says firmly, like a schoolmarm. "But we should do this only after they understand we are the rulers of this country. Until they deserve it, they can't have the best conditions." The Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers up many lessons: the brutality of military occupation, the clash of nationalisms and ethnicities, the mendacity of political leaders, the rank cynicism of outsiders. As Tamar and other West Bank settlers attest, it also is a lesson in the politics of water - who gets it, where it comes from, how it is distributed.

For years, scientists, academics and technicians from both sides have argued that unlike the thorny issues of Jerusalem, borders and refugees, the issue of water is easy to resolve. Both sides depend upon it for their survival, the logic went. Both sides share the freshwater aquifers that stretch like seas under the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel. Both sides have an interest in saving those reservoirs from irreversible contamination by human sewage, salt water and fertilisers.

Today, the notion of wiser heads sitting down around a table, prevailing over the politicians and settling the problem of water, is almost quaint. Each side now sees water, as it views these other issues, through the prism ? and the prison ? of its own grievances and greeds. Israel, in particular, has gone about creating not only facts on the ground but - where water is concerned - facts under the ground, as well. Like land, it views water as a bargaining chip to be conceded only in a final peace accord.

"We do not let the Palestinian Water Authority drill into the [West Bank] aquifer because we want to freeze the current situation as the starting point of future negotiations," says Eilon Adar, explaining the Israeli government's position. "This is the strongest card we have now," says Mr Adar, a hydrologist at the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. For its part, the current Palestinian leadership has inherited what many Palestinian officials privately admit was a deeply flawed water deal struck between Yasser Arafat and Israel in the 1995 Oslo II Accords.

Under the interim agreement, which was intended for renegotiation after four years, Israel has the right to draw 483 million cubic metres of water a year from the shared Israeli-Palestinian reservoirs, while the Palestinians are permitted to draw only 118 million cubic metres. Fourteen years later, the arrangement remains in place, even as demand and population increase. Palestinians must depend for any additional water on the largesse of Israel, which meets its own water demands first.

The result is that Palestinians will have neither the amount of water they crave, nor - in the case of the West Bank - rights to the water underneath their feet. The sight of water trucks in the streets of Palestinian cities has become so familiar that the hulking, rusting vehicles are caustically referred to as the "national animal" of Palestine. Palestinian farmers, who depend on water for their livelihood, go thirsty, too, their resentments irrigated drip by drip by drip at the sight of Israeli water pipes criss-crossing their parched land.

Sadiq Nazzal is one Palestinian who has not let his anger fester. Standing in a tree-shadowed corner of the 15-dunam plot he farms in Qabatiya, on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Jenin, Mr Nazzal raises his hand theatrically to his right ear and asks, "Hear it?" When nothing interrupts the gentle whoosh of hundreds of almond-tree saplings bending in the wind, he says impishly: "It's right under you."

The object of Nazzal's barely concealed pride is an underground pump that draws 70 cubic litres of fresh water from the ground each day to nourish his 50,000 saplings. To a passing Israeli soldier or Palestinian policeman, it is undetectable. It is illegal to drill a well in the West Bank without Israeli authorisation. Yet under nearly all interpretations of international law with the notable exception of Israel's, the Israeli occupation and Jewish settlements are illegal. That has bred a kind of defiant lawbreaking among Palestinians when it comes water.

Mr Nazzal knows that unregulated drilling into the West Bank aquifers risks contamination, but the sinewy 45-year-old with a thick moustache is unapologetic. "I only feel guilty that I haven't drilled four wells," he says. "Water is money." He holds the Israel ultimately responsible for the illegal drilling endemic in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "By forcing us to use our water and our labour to grow what they want, they save themselves both water and money," he explains.

Shaddad Attili, the head of the Palestinian Water Authority, says that his hands are tied. "I tell the farmers, 'I don't have water for farming. I only have it for drinking.'" Illegal wells are inevitable until the issue of Palestinian water rights is resolved, Mr Attili says, adding that the Authority will continue trying to enforce the law. Mr Nazzal dares it to try. "I don't believe anyone from the PA has the courage to destroy my well and let my trees die."

If the West Bank represents one vision of the deepening water crisis to come, Wadi Ghazzah is a nightmare fully realised. Well before you arrive at the narrow bridge that spans the riverbed south of Gaza City, the stench of raw sewage assaults the nostrils. Standing on the beach, where the wadi opens out into a broad estuary and empties into the Mediterranean, you are left struggling for breath. The rivulets that wind through the sand are a grey filmy stew.

Yet where this malign mixture empties into the Mediterranean, there are four young Gazan men fishing, hurling their nets into the surf when they spot the silvery backs of a bouri or gamour glinting in the sunlight. They drag their nets to the beach and retrieve their catch. Jaber Gadarwi, 20, is not oblivious to the Stygian scene. He merely insists that where he is flinging his nets, the water and the fish swimming in it are safe. "This is no good for people," Mr Gadarwi says, pointing to the pools of human sewage simmering eight metres away. "But there's no problem with the water where we're fishing."

Water experts disagree, describing an overburdened sewage system in the Gaza Strip that cannot be fixed due to the Israeli, US and European ban on experts and construction materials entering the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave. The broken system has resulted in sewage flowing directly to the Mediterranean or being dumped into sand dunes. From those sites, it leaches into the overused aquifer that supplies Gazans with most of their drinking water, through a network of tankers.

The results are staggering. About 95 per cent of the water that Gazans drink is unfit for human consumption because of contamination by salinity, chloride, nitrate and microbiological contamination, according to Yousef Abu Mayla, the deputy director of the Water Research Centre at Gaza City's Al-Azhar University. Related cancers and instances of nitrate-poisoned "blue babies" are on the rise, he says.

The political stalemate is literally killing Gazans, he says. "As Palestinians, we've been talking about our water rights for years, but nobody can answer you and nobody can hear you. You have to co-operate, to co-ordinate and work together. This is the reality." In Israel's early years, the admonition to "make the desert bloom" had the status of biblical imperative, which the founder of the state, David Ben-Gurion, did nothing to discourage. He knew that unless Jews arriving in Israel enjoyed some semblance of the lives and convenience to which they were accustomed, they would not stay. Water was essential to their comfort, if not their survival.

Today, "making the desert bloom" is being redefined by Israelis like Elisha Zurgil, an adviser to the Israeli Fruit Growers' Association. "It does not necessarily mean making the desert green with plants," Mr Zurgil says. "It means, for instance, people can still have green surroundings using natural gardens and that lawns can be green and happy when they are sprinkled with salty water." Mr Zurgil and other Israeli scientists and water experts speak, almost dreamily, of water as a catalyst for peace rather than a spark for war. For them, water also is the new oil. What oil-rich Gulf states are to petroleum, they envision Israel becoming to water - not supplying it, but how to manage an increasingly lucrative commodity.

Few if any Palestinians are listening. For Palestinians, "making the desert bloom" was a credo for colonialism, even ethnic cleansing - one prop for the idea that nothing of value existed here prior to 1948. Today, many Palestinians see water as another means to subjugate Palestinians. Restricting its distribution is one way of corralling rural Palestinians into more easily controlled towns, or forcing them to leave their homes altogether.

The key problem for any Palestinian or Israeli trying to occupy middle ground is that those intoxicated with the vision of a biblical homeland now occupy all levels of the Israeli bureaucracy; a succession of governments led by the right-wing Likud party has seen to that. Settlements such as Eli, along with their water allocations, would not survive without these allies. There also persists the idea that Palestinians do not need as much water as Israelis. "It's kind of culture ... It's a fact," Noah Kinarti told Jan Selby, the author of Water, Power and Politics in the Middle East, in 1998. Mr Kinarti is currently a special adviser to the Israeli Water Authority.

One Palestinian familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian water issue notes perceptively: "Water is not an issue that the Palestinian leadership knows intuitively the way they understand Jerusalem, refugees and territory. Further, they view it as somewhat technical, and this is off-putting for them to engage in discussions. Of course, the Israelis have no interest in playing up water because it is the one core issue where "honest" academics on both sides believe a "win-win" solution is available."

cnelson@thenational.ae