THE WEST BANK is the most important of the territories captured in 1967. The Judean Hills provide Israel with security — and with water. Beneath their barren surface, the winter rains collect forming underground reservoirs which emerge from the ground as springs and rivers.
For centuries, these natural water sources have been the life-stream of the people living on the West Bank. Today seven hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs and twenty thousand new Jewish settlers are locked in a conflict over control of this most vital resource.
For its settlers, the Israeli govemment has drilled two dozen wells — most of them reaching down 2,000 ft into an underground reservoir which had never previously been tapped. So the Israelis say that this is ‘new’ water and deny that it has been taken from the Arabs.
But because over-pumping can ruin the underground reservoirs, the Israelis won’t allow the Palestinian Arab majority to sink their own wells.
Implementing this policy is a tough task for the Arabs who staff the Military Government’s water department. Their job is to check the levels of all Arab wells — to stop over-pumping — and to tell Arab farmers that there is no hope of obtaining licences to drill new wells.
‘They see the drilling rigs and wells being used and water coming out and the land being cultivated — no wonder they feel bitter’ says Mustapha Nuseibeh, Head of the Hydrology Division in the West Bank Water Department. Those who owned wells in 1967 didn’t actually lose anything. But you can’t stop life in 1967 and say that’s it. Since 1967 there has been no more drilling, no more development, no more nothing — we stopped at this point’.
Israel’s Water Commissioner, Meir Ben Meir, claims that West Bank farmers are no worse off than their Jewish counterparts inside Israel, who have also been allowed no extra water since 1967. This seems even-handed but in fact enshrines a profoundly unequal status quo. Fifty per cent of Israel’s cultivable land is irrigated, compared with four per cent of the West Bank’s.
In the valleys between the terraced hills of olives, Arab farmers’ fields thirst for water. Without irrigation only one crop a year — of wheat or barley — can be grown. With irrigation, two crops a year of much more valuable vegetables or fruit could be cultivated. The potential for agricultural expansion is immense — with water.
As a result of international criticism of the government for giving its own settlers preferential treatment, official policy is now 'no new water for Jewish agriculture except from inside the old Israeli border'. So plans are now afoot to pipe water 80 miles from the Sea of Galilee (‘which’, says Meir Ben Meir ‘is totally our resource’) to serve Jewish settlements on the West Bank. It is an expensive, ambitious project.
By contrast, Israeli investment in Palestinian drinking supplies has been positively niggardly. In Arab eyes, this offence is compounded by repeated examples of official delay in approving water schemes which cost Israel nothing, but which depend on permission to bring in funds from abroad.
Israeli hands on the West Bank taps, say the Arabs, is delaying their development, limiting their future, leaving them forever in second place.
But even if the extra water was granted, the benefits of any expansion of Arab agriculture would still be in Israel’s hands. For while Israeli farmers have free access to the West Bank market, exports from the West Bank to the Israeli market are strictly controlled. And the only alternative export route for West Bank farmers is the unpredictable one over the Jordan River bridge to neighbouring Arab countries. Meanwhile Jewish settlements, originally established as a defence line, now flourish on land which Arabs used to cultivate and with water which Arabs can’t touch.
As thousands more settlers move into the region, they reinforce Israeli claims to sovereignty over the West Bank. And, as the settlements take root, they underline Israel’s need to control the West Bank’s water.
West Bank Palestinians have seen what that control has meant. They distrust Israeli talk of Palestinian autonomy because they know the outcry any Israeli cabinet would face if it exposed Jewish settlements in the West Bank to the danger of having their water cut off by a Palestinian government. And they see Israeli water policy as evidence of an underlying intent to integrate the territory into the Israeli economy, or at the very least to control its lifelines.
‘There is no question of giving water into their hands’ says Israeli settler Daniella Weiss. ‘If they control water, they control everything’. It is Daniella’s vote, and the votes ot many others like her which has placed the balance of power in Israel in the hands of the least compromising parties. And there is no doubt in her mind: ‘In my eyes, I’m living on Jewish land, on the land of Israel. Whoever lives here now or will ever live here doesn’t change the basic historic fact that this place is the birthplace of the Jewish nation; it has always belonged to the Jewish nation and it always will’.
‘In the land of Israel there is one boss, there is one sovereign and there will be one kingdom, the Jewish kingdom. All other people are more than welcome to take part in the life that is here. But ruler — there will be one’.
David Elstein and Sharon Goulds produced and researched the UK Thames Television documentary ‘Whose hand on the tap?’ about the waters of the West Bank.