The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict over Water Resources
If, after 49 years of bloody conflict between Israel and its neighbors, we are approaching the conclusion of hostilities, there will undoubtedly be renewed attempts to solve the problems of water in the region. Below we briefly review the geopolitical background that frames the discussions on water. We scrutinize the partial agreements between Israel and the Palestinians and try to evaluate the next steps.

Negotiations and Agreements since the Madrid Conference:
Chronology of Events

The collapse of the Soviet Union created a new geopolitical reality in the world, the existence of a single superpower. This was the setting for the opening on October 30, 1991, of the Madrid Conference where, in the presence of representatives of the world powers and other states, delegates of Arab states and of Israel met openly for the first time. As a consequence of the Madrid resolutions, bilateral talks opened between Israel and each of its neighbors on the subject of arrangements towards peace, and multilateral talks opened also on questions of international and regional interest, including water. This subject was thus discussed in both the bilateral and multilateral frameworks.
Numerous rounds of multilateral talks, starting in Moscow in 1992 aimed to create a positive atmosphere among former enemy states, at least regarding water.
On April 27-29, 1992, agreement was reached between Israel and the Palestinians that the question of water rights would be discussed in the bilateral framework. On September 15, 1993, an agreement in principle was reached between Israel and the Palestinians which, among other things, included the establishment of a Palestinian Water Authority. The agreement contained a clause stating the future control of water sources and administration would be determined in the final stage of discussions, because this issue was connected with prior determination of the permanent borders between Israel and the Palestinians. As part of the implementation of stage 1 of the agreement, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and the Jericho enclave. In the withdrawal document, there is a clause dealing with the administration of the water regime in these two places.
On October 26, 1994, a peace agreement was signed between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan, containing a separate clause devoted to water. On September 18, 1995, an interim agreement was signed between Israel and the Palestinians on additional withdrawals of Israeli armed forces from West Bank cities. This agreement refers to the distribution and use of water in the interim stage. The critical question of responsibility for the administration of the water regime in the West Bank was postponed by the parties to the final stage of the agreement. This was supposed to begin in mid-1996, but it has not yet occurred. From the Madrid Conference to the time of writing, there have been secret negotiations (with interruptions) between Israel and Syria and Lebanon. The subject of water heads the agenda.

The Agreement on Gaza and the Jericho Enclave

On May 4, 1994, a document was signed on an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the Jericho enclave. A few days later Israeli troops evacuated these areas, except for the Jewish settlements in parts of the Gaza Strip (as agreed). The document has a special clause dealing with water. The geological structure of these zones and their water potential facilitated withdrawal from them: geologists estimate that the Gaza coast aquifer is a closed system with no connection to the northern aquifers. They likewise believe that there is no groundwater flow from east to west, that is, from Israel to the Gaza Strip territory (Gvirtzman, 1993). 9ther researchers hold that there is a connection between the Gaza aquifer and the Israeli aquifers in the north and east, but it is minor (Zohar & Schwartz, 1991). If the latter assessment is correct, then the Gaza aquifer is an international body but, even so, this has no implications for the agreement as Israel agreed that the Gaza aquifer would be Palestinian property. Israel's sole demand in this matter was the right to pump water from this aquifer (under Palestinian inspection) for military facilities and the Jewish settlements remaining in the Strip (until the permanent accord).
The first clause of the document states that all the water systems, from water pumping and sewage water, will be administered and developed by the Palestinian Authority. From the start it was clear that ultimately Israel would be obliged to transfer water to the Strip (Table 1). Therefore, it is stated in the document that the Mekorot company, the Israeli water supplier, will transfer water to the Strip for payment.
Regarding the Jericho enclave, it was determined that Mekorot would be responsible for the network of water pipes passing through the territory of the enclave to other parts of the West Bank. Other clauses in the document deal with ecology and the protection of the quality of the water in the Gaza Strip and in the Mediterranean (Gaza-Jericho agreement, May 4, 1994).

Water in the West Bank

At the time of writing, there is still no agreement on the control and administration of water sources in the West Bank. It is true that an interim agreement was signed on September 28, 1995, but no compromise was found regarding water, and the matter was postponed to the final stage of the negotiations.
The major questions on the agenda are: (a) Who will control the highland aquifer? (b) What are the rights of the Palestinians over the River Jordan? (From the latter question derives that of the rights of the Palestinians to the Yarmuk River and the Sea of Galilee/Lake Kinneret) (Map 1). As stated, the issue concerns three main aquifers, all of which traverse the Green Line: the eastern, the northern and the western. Even though the Green Line is a cease-fire line and not an international boundary, the aquifers are international. The northern and eastern aquifers drain into the Jordan River and, therefore, whoever controls them will naturally be a partner in the Jordan Basin. Even if Israel remains in the Jordan Valley and the river itself remains Israel's security border, the West Bank inhabitants have rights to the Jordan River.

The Claims of the Parties

The Palestinians claim almost all the water in the territory of the West Bank on the basis of the principle of full sovereignty over what they possess on the ground or under the ground. They claim 500-560 million m3 of water on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and in addition they claim rights to the Jordan River amounting to 150-200 million m3 (Tables 1, 2). In their view, this volume is theirs by virtue of the Johnston Plan. It is recalled that the Johnston Plan was published in 1955 when all Palestinians, on both sides of the Jordan River, were under the rule of the Kingdom of Jordan (Assaf, et al. 1993; EI-Hindi, 1990; Zarour & Isaac, 1991).
In contrast to the extreme Palestinian position, Israeli experts argue that Israel has historical rights to the water of the West Bank: formerly the water of these aquifers surfaced as springs in Israeli territory and Israel was the first to develop and use them (before 1967); these are the most important water sources for the coastal cities, and they supply two million citizens in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, Jerusalem, and elsewhere (in 1998). The Israeli specialists also argue that if Israel does not control these sources of water, they are liable to be polluted and, eventually, all the rivers entering Israel will be polluted (Zohar & Schwartz, 1991; Gvirtzman, 1994, 1995). There are also compromise approaches: one of these begins with the assumption that it is impossible to administer a joint water regime, and an aquifer cannot be divided. On the basis of this assumption, two alternatives are offered:
The first is Israeli control over all three aquifers. This has a clear advantage for the Israeli water regime, but with a heavy demographic and political price.
The second alternative is to concede the Nablus-Jenin aquifer, above which lives a large Palestinian population, and keep the western and eastern aquifers in Israeli hands. The advantage to Israel is obvious: water for the inhabitants of the Coastal Plain would remain under Israeli control, as would water for the Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley. The demographic price would be tolerable. With this alternative, the Palestinians would retain control over the water at their disposal as in 1998, and a further 120 million m3 from the Nablus-Jenin aquifer, a total of 250 million m3 of water, which would suffice for them as drinking water for a long period.
A third alternative is to leave the western aquifer in Israeli hands and to transfer the other two aquifers to the Palestinian Authority. Israel would thus forgo 360 million m3 of water out of the 670 m3 existing in the Judean mountains. The Palestinians would receive 300 million m3 (Gvirtzman, 1995).

For and Against a Different Approach

A different approach, which has adherents among Israelis and Palestinians, envisages the possibility of joint administration of the water regime on the West Bank. Joint administration requires prior agreement on the method of water division between the two populations. A proposal exists for allocating water only for domestic use with a little farming around the house. This method of allocation is called Minimum Water Requirement (MWR) (Assaf, et al., 1993). It is based on the assumption that the amount of water available will, in any case, not be sufficient for all needs, so all the water of Palestine would rightly be used for domestic purposes. With this approach, every inhabitant would receive 125 m3 of water yearly, and each population would receive a quota according to its size. In 2008, the Jewish population would get 963 million m3 of water and the Palestinians 475 m3, a total of 1.438 billion m3• In 2023, total domestic consumption would be 1.875 billion m3, namely the full water potential of Palestine (excluding recycled water). In each of these years, the Jewish population would receive about 66 percent of the potential and the Palestinian population about 34 percent. For the sake of comparison, in 1995 the Jews received 90 percent of the volume of water that was exploited, and the Arabs of Gaza and the West Bank received 10 percent (Assaf, et al., 1993).
The adoption of this approach would oblige the government of Israel to embark on the drastic curtailment of Israeli agriculture. This would sound the death knell for the branch, apart from some crops irrigated with recycled water. In this context, several grave problems arise: the State of Israel would be obliged to transfer to the Palestinians good-quality water in increasing quantities and to pay for this with radical changes in its economy. Furthermore, there is no answer about what would take place if the Palestinians realized their right of return and absorbed half a million to a million refugees. In such a case, Israel would have to gradually transfer most of its good water to the Palestinians. When the potential of natural water was exhausted, it would be necessary to move to the stage of desalination. The question remains as to who would fund the desalination - both populations or the Jewish population alone.
It is difficult to conjecture that Israel will adopt this approach, which it will consider one-sided generosity. The agricultural lobby in Israel would be unlikely to support it. The environmentalists, too, would oppose the desiccation of the country, as would important political elements. It is hard to believe that Israel will be willing to hand over its water resources to the Palestinians as full partners. On the other hand, it is equally hard to assume that the Palestinians will agree to Jewish control over the water of the West Bank. Likewise, a joint administration of the water resources would probably not function properly for long.

A Compromise Framework

In recent years, more ideas have been put forward for the division of the aquifers, particularly by Western scholars who advise Israel to allocate more water to the Palestinians, without dealing with the internal problems in Israel and the implications of these concessions for Israel directly and indirectly.
Along these lines are the three documents published by Feitelson and Haddad, entitled Joint Management of Shared Aquifers (1995; 1995; 1997). Another approach to the water problem, which is usually raised in academic circles, tends to see water as tradable in all respects. By such an approach, so the researchers believe, water will be traded like any other product that has a price, and its use will be rational (Brown, 1997; Beecher, 1997). According to Arlozoroff, it is still possible to save a great amount of water in Palestine, up to 10-15 percent, or immediately in Israel up to 80-120 million m3, and thus to put off crises and desalination (Arlozoroff, 1996).
The most acceptable solution seems to be territorial compromise inside the area of the West Bank. In such a compromise framework, the most logical and fair alternative appears to be the transfer to Palestinian hands of the northern (Nablus-Jenin) and eastern aquifers. Israel would then remain with 350 million m3 of good quality water, sufficient as drinking water for all the Israeli Coastal Plain, and the Palestinians would receive 300 million m3 from the other two aquifers. With such an arrangement, Israel would concede 100-150 million m3 of water annually. A simple calculation shows that the volume of water that the West Bank receives would supply drinking water to a population of four million, even if the living standard rose and the water requirements at stage 1 reached 50 m3 per annum or more. The allocation of water for the West Bank would steadily increase until it is fully exhausted.
The significance of this is that, in the first stage, the administration of the water regime would remain in Israel's hands, and only after 2010 would the administration of the eastern and northern aquifers pass to the Palestinians. An evident political conclusion arises from this: Israel's boundary with the Palestinian Authority must run east of the Green Line, so that the entire western highland aquifer remains in Israeli hands, or at least its drilling zone. Regardless of the approach that is selected, it is clear that natural water is running out quickly, and alternative sources of water have to be sought for both the Palestinian and the Jewish populations. If the Northern Plan to transfer water to the Dead Sea is adopted, the residents of the West Bank will be able to desalinate water for themselves along this carrier. Alternatively, they will desalinate water on the Gaza coast and transfer it to the West Bank.


The highland aquifers on the West Bank give rise to a complex situation unprecedented in international law and international relations. There can be no doubt that any agreement between the partners to the aquifers will have to provide answers to issues of control of the water, supervision of its quality, and the method of its distribution. Israel at this stage has agreed to recognize only "rights to quantities of water," but not Palestinian control of it. Territorial compromise in respect of the aquifers will be of great importance in determining the border between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
It is not by chance that the location of most of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank is on land over the western aquifer. It was clear to the Jews from the outset that a problem would arise regarding the aquifer. The Jewish demographic picture serves to reinforce the Israeli claims that will be made: claims for water and claims to thicken Israel's "narrow waist" in the Qalqiliya- Tulkarem area. What about Palestinian demands regarding the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee/Lake Kinneret and Al-Himma? It is unlikely that Israel will treat Palestinian claims to the latter two seriously. Since the Jordan water is completely used, no water remains to be given. A solution to the Palestinians' water problem in the coming years will emerge from the territories of the West Bank themselves and, in the more distant future, through desalination. In the Oslo II agreement, statements may be found on this subject. The agreement affirms that the Arabs have "rights to water on the West Bank," but there are no statements regarding rights in the Jordan Basin (Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, September 28, 1995).
At this point, several issues are important from an Israeli point of view:
Israel is the only developed state in the Jordan Basin. On this account, demands are being made on Israel to be the first to enter the age of desalination and to revolutionize its economy. Indeed, on May 30, 1997, the Israeli Water Commissioner stated that preparations were under way for desalination of seawater as soon as 2005. According to the plan, by 2040 the supply of desalinated water would stand at 800 million m3, at a cost of $0.65-1.00 per cubic meter (Ha'aretz, May 30, 1997). Natural water, therefore, will be shared increasingly with the Kingdom of Jordan, as already noted, and with the Palestinians, as we saw in the list of various alternatives.
As a consequence of the water agreements between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, the Syrians will almost certainly demand that Israel sign similar agreements with them. At the end of such a process, Israel is liable to find itself in the following situation: giving 150 million m3 of water to Jordan; giving at least 250 million m3 of water (140 m3 more than in 1995) to the Palestinians on the West Bank; giving 10-50 million m3 to Gaza to overcome urgent human distress; giving in the near future 77-100 million m3 at least to Syria-Lebanon following the Johnston Plan. In sum, this means that Israel will give away 500-550 million m3 of good-quality water, which represents 25 percent of all Israel's water sources.
This conclusion has implications for Israeli domestic politics. In Israel, voices are heard claiming that there is no precedent in the world for such open-handedness with national resources, that it is not worth gaining a peace in return for which Israel gives the other party such a wealth of land and water resources. If Israel agrees to this arrangement in return for full peace, already in the present decade (1995-2005), it will have to acquire this amount of water by desalination in order to satisfy the water requirements of its population. There will be a heavy cost for desalination in the economic and the ecological spheres.
It is a mistake to think that an agreement will solve all the problems between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Agreements improve relationships and try to transform the atmosphere, but they are incapable of providing water that does not exist. The Palestinians, who are at this moment fighting for an entity, a state, and their own agriculture, will, in the future, be obliged to come to terms with reality and move on from a mythical posture to a pragmatic one.

Table 1: Supply and Demand in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (in million m3).
Gaza Strip 1995
West Bank
"Business as Usual"
"Business as Usual"
Palestinian Demands
Minimum Water Requirements
To Israel
Demands in West Bank
To Arabs in WB
(from Israel)
To Jews in WB
(from Israel)

Sources: Gaza Water Department 1994, Civil Administration 1993, West Bank Water Commission 1996, Gvirtzman 1993, 1995; Assaf et al. 1993, Soffer (in press).

Table 2: Water Consumed from the Aquifers of the West Bank (in million m3)
For Jews
For Palestinians
Western Aquifer
340 (to Israel)
115 (to Israel)
Eastern Aquifer
Sources: See Table 1


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