Israeli Water Interests in the Occupied Territories by Ze'ev Schiff

Israeli Water Interests
in the
Occupied Territories

written by

Ze'ev Schiff

Published in

Security for Peace: Israel's Minimal Security Requirements in Negotiations with the Palestinians.

Policy Paper #15 from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1989, pages 17-24.


In addition to the human factor, military assessments of Israel's security requirements in the West Bank and Gaza rarely focus on the need to defend the country's water sources. Except for several passing references, this subject has not been treated seriously by military analysts. Despite the vitally important role water plays in Israel's overall security, Israel's political echelon has paid little attention to this sensitive subject. Instead, discussion of water has been relegated to Israel's water experts, who have periodically produced secret reports on the issue. But there is no real need for secrecy on this matter; it is impossible to conceal the facts.

In the arid Middle East, water is a more valuable strategic resource than oil. Water is the proverbial source of life, without which there is no chance of economic or social development. When water resources are limited, it is possible for one state to "dry out" a rival, either by seizing complete or partial control of the former's water sources, by limiting their flow or by causing their salinization.

A survey of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict reveals that water disputes have been one of the main causes of war. As early as the 1950s, conflicts over Israeli construction projects next to the Jordan River resulted in exchanges of fire between Syria and Israel, and eventually led to American pressure on Israel to suspend work on the projects. The recommendations of Eric Johnston, the American "water mediator," did not calm the area for very long, and Arab attempts to divert the sources of the Jordan River provided the background for one of the triggers that led to the 1967 war. It should be recalled that the Arabs made the decision to begin these diversion works at the Arab summit conference in 1964, after Israel had begun to transfer water from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev via the "National Carrier." It was that summit conference which also established the joint Arab military command and founded the PLO.

The question of West Bank and Gaza water resources poses especially complex and difficult security problems. Water has no boundaries. Subterranean flows, reservoirs and aquifers cannot be dealt with in the same way as geographic landmarks or artificial border demarcations. Israel must protect against the threat of uncontrolled drilling in the West Bank. Such drilling could have a direct effect on the water balance of Israel's most populated area and could result in the saliniznation of the reservoir that supplies water to the coastal plain.

The water problem is concentrated primarily in the thin strip of Israel's coastal plain, known as "the narrow waist." The security of this region was a constant concern for Israel's military planners prior to the 1967 war, who were fearful surprise attack from the east might split the country into non-contiguous parts. An identical water problem exists in the Gaza Strip, although the roles of the players are reversed. There overdrawing of water by Israel could affect Gaza's overall level and lead to its salinization.

In other words, water must be viewed as an additional dimension of the terrain. To disregard this sensitive question is to ensure a future casus belli between Israel and the Palestinian entity that would be established in the territories. At the time, correct treatment of the water question makes cooperation between Israel and its eastern neighbor possible. This cooperation would be a more positive contribution to peaceful coexistence than any joint action in the military sphere. As King Hussein has said, water can either be the cause of conflict or the source of peace in the Middle East.1

Water Interdependence

Approximately 30 percent of Israel's water source through the West Bank.2 Since Israel already exploits than 90 percent of its own water resources, a total cut-off these West Bank sources would expose it to grave danger.

There are two subterranean water reservoirs common to Israel and the West Bank. The smaller one, the nothern reservoir, extends into the Gilboa-Beit She'an area. Approximately 110 million cubic meters are drawn annually from this source, of which approximately 25 million cubic meters are drawn by Arab residents in the northern part of Samaria.

The second and more important reservoir is the Yarkon-Taninim Stream, located along the coastal plain of Israel near the slopes of Samaria. This reservoir extends from the southern slopes of the Carmel range in the north to Beersheba in the south. To underscore its importance, one need only note that the 340 million cubic meters of water drawn annually from this underground stream is close to the amount that is drawn from the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest reservoir. Of that amount, Israel draws approximately 320 million cubic meters and the Palestinians living on the western slopes of Samaria in the West Bank draw approximately 20 million cubic meters.

According to experts, the importance of the Yarkon-Taninim reservoir stems from the quantity and quality of its water. It supplies drinking water to Jerusalem and the entire coastal plain as far south as Beersheba. In addition, this underground reservoir functions as a seasonal regulator, collecting winter water for use during the summers, and as a long-term regulator between dry and rainy years. With its enormous flow, the underground Yarkon-Taninim water reservoir--called the "spinal column" of the Israeli water system--can actually be considered Israel's second national carrier.

Any damage to the Yarkon-Taninim reservoir is liable to undermine the country's entire water system.3 This danger was underscored in a secret 1977 report by the Israeli water commissioner that warned that overdrawing from the reservoir could tap an already existing "hole" that leads directly to the Mediterranean, thereby threatening salinization. The report said that unsupervised drilling in the West Bank, especially on the western slopes of Samaria, is liable to cause serious damage to the reservoir.

In comparison, similar unsupervised drilling and over-drawing of the northern reservoir would only damage that reservoir at its peripheries. This would reduce the amount of water available to Israel but it would not permit sea water to penetrate the reservoir and damage the water quality. The danger of over-drawing from the northern reservoir, therefore, is not critical. But experts agree that uncontrolled overdrawing of water on the western slopes of the West Bank--either intentionally or accidentally--would very quickly damage the northern portion of the Yarkon-Taninim reservoir, threatening the quality of approximately two-thirds of this vital reservoir.

Before 1967, the Palestinians drew only about 20 million cubic meters annually from the Yarkon-Taninim reservoir. Palestinian agriculture was primitive, and the first drilling activities on the western slopes of Samaria only began in the mid-1960s. On the eve of the Six Day War, the Jordanian government prepared a plan to draw additional water from the area and transfer it to East Jerusalem and Ramallah. Since then, Israel has grown acutely aware of the danger of over-drilling. It prohibits Palestinians in the West Bank from drilling new wells except for drinking purposes and does not permit any increase from the 20 million cubic meters drawn in 1967. While it safeguards the minimal drawing rights of the Arab residents, as determined by the 1976 Water Census, Israel does not permit the drawing of additional water to meet the needs of Arab agricultural development in the area. There is no doubt that the Jewish residents currently enjoy much larger quotas than the Arab residents.

Any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would require cooperation between the two parties on sharing water resources. Palestinians would certainly demand a greater quantity of water from the Yarkon-Taninim reservoir. This is a demand Israel cannot disregard if it hopes to build close cooperation with the Palestinian entity in order to prevent uncontrolled drilling.

In the Gaza Strip, mutual dependence on water resources poses a greater danger to Palestinians than Israelis. Israel is the party sitting "up-river" and excessive drawing on the Israeli side could affect the quantity of water available to residents of the strip. Gaza already suffers from overdrawing and its water has become considerably salinized. Israel erred when it permitted Jewish settlements in the area to draw water from local sources instead of supplying them with water from inside the Green Line. In doing so, Israel accelerated the exploitation of Gaza's meager reservoir and will be at least partially responsible for future water shortages. Finally, in 1988, the Israeli government decided to lay a special water pipeline for the Jewish settlements in the Katif bloc.

Security Implications

Israeli-Palestinian interdependence on water resources, especially on the West Bank, has created a Gordian knot which cannot be artificially severed. The answer certainly does not lie in annexing the territories to preserve control over water resources. This would only perpetuate the conflict with the Palestinians.

On the contrary, Israel should seek to adjust the border within the framework of a peace agreement and gain a commitment to full cooperation on water issues from the Palestinian entity. Without a guarantee of such cooperation, and without specific adjustments on Israel's eastern border that would allow it to secure a portion of its water sources, Israel should not agree to any withdrawal from the West Bank. This is the sine qua non condition of any peace settlement. No government would permit the loss of what water experts estimate would be about one-fifth of the state's overall water supply.4

This threat underscores the danger of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. In such a move, Israel would voluntarily sacrifice any hope of eliciting a Palestinian commitment to cooperate on water issues. With no Israeli role in the supervision of drilling, the Yarkon-Taninim reservoir is sure to suffer. Israel could only avoid this situation by refusing to withdraw from the area from which a significant amount of water flows into its own reservoirs. (In, Gaza, however, Israel can withdraw unilaterally without jeopardizing its own water sources, even in the absence of cooperation between itself and the Palestinian residents.)

One way to safeguard Israeli water security is to establish a joint Israeli-Palestinian water committee. This committee would supervise water resources, establish water quotas and oversee their distribution in accordance with internationally accepted criterion. Israel must also insist that, even if a Palestinian entity is established, the committee would continue to meet.

Regional cooperation on water issues will also be essential. Without Egyptian help, it is clear that the Gaza Strip would face enormous difficulties regarding its water supply. In this respect, Gaza cannot rely on Israel alone. Egypt could make a significant contribution to the peace settlement by channelling water from the Nile River to Gaza in the context of the Egyptian plan to bring Nile water to the Sinai coastal city of el-Arish, which borders the southern end of the Gaza Strip.

Cooperation with Jordan is even more important. Jordan cannot sever itself from the West Bank geographically. Just as water sources in northern Jordan are connected to Syria and Israel, so also is the West Bank connected to the kingdom's Jordan River development plans. It must be remembered that as far back as the Johnston Plan, the West Bank was always viewed as a recipient of water resources from any development of the Yarmouk River. Jordan's role is essential to ensure that the West Bank benefits from Yarmouk River water projects and from the underground and wadi water that feeds the Jordan River.

When the final borders are drawn between Israel and the Palestinian entity, Israel must insist on adjustments on its eastern frontier. These adjustments would greatly restrict the degree to which Israel's water system could be damaged in the event of a future misunderstanding with a Palestinian entity.

The danger to the large Yarkon-Taninim underground water reservoir stems mainly from drilling on the western slopes of Samaria. According to Israeli water experts, the critical strip in this regard extends to the foothills of these slopes, and penetrates as far east as the vicinity of the village of 'Anabta, in the Tulkarm-Qalqilya area. It has been estimated that this critical strip extends for a distance of 2 to 6 kilometers east of the Green Line.5 Israel must retain this strip in order to limit the possibility of acute friction over water resources.

It is appropriate to note that Israel would need to adjust its eastern border in this area in order to widen "the narrow waist" left by the pre-1967 frontiers. The difficulty is that a border determined on the basis of water sources would not be a straight line, but would twist and turn around the foothills and penetrate different wadis. Nonetheless, this difficulty must be dealt with in negotiations. Therefore, it is important that water experts, not just military planners, play a decisive role in the determination of Israel's final borders.

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1. Speech by King Hussein, FBIS/Near East and South Asia, Oct. 8, 1986, p.4.

2. Avraham Tamir, A Solder in Search of Peace (Tel Aviv: Idanim Press, 1988), p.35.

3. Information in this section was obtained through private discussions in 1987 and 1988 with Israeli water experts.

4. In private discussions, Israeli officials estimate the potential loss to be between 16.4 percent and 18.4 percent of the state's water supply.

5. Saul B. Cohen, The Geopolitics of Israel's Border Question (Tel Aviv: Westview Press, 1986), p.124.

About the Author

Ze'ev Schiff is the veteran military editor of the Israeli daily, Ha'aretz, one of Israel's leading defense commentators and the author of many books and articles on the Israel Defense Forces and the Arab-Israeli conflict, including Israel's War in Lebanon and A History of the IDF. Israel Shahak considered Ze'ev Schiff "probably the most knowledgeable in Israel" about the Israeli strategy of breaking up the Arab countries along internal ethnic lines as described in the Zionist Plan for the Middle East.

Research for this paper was funded by a generous grant from the Koret Foundation of San Francisco.

Web Editor's Note
Other than the insertion of a title, the renumbering of footnotes, and an added sentence regarding the author, no changes to the text have been made.

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