ISRAEL MUST REALISE that the water insecurity of its neighbours is part of Israel’s own national security concerns,” declares Gidon Bromberg
Bromberg, Israeli Director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East, a Jordanian-Israeli-Palestinian environment group, made his remarks at the opening of a conference in Tel Aviv on last week, which was co-sponsored by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), with the support of the German Embassy.
During the conference on January 11, entitled, Praying for Rain or Advancing Water Diplomacy? the sponsors also released their most recent report, Israeli Water Diplomacy and National Security Concerns, which details the history of negotiations between Israel and its neighbors over water and discusses the current situation.
The title of the conference was a clear reference to the public prayer vigil called for by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel. At the same time, however, Ariel’s party, The Jewish Home, together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) and Avigdor Lieberman (Israel is Our Home) are calling for tough civilian measures against the Gaza Strip, including restrictions on water and electricity.
In contrast, EcoPeace and the INSS emphasise what they refer to as water security and water diplomacy, which entail recognising water as an essential part of security and cooperation to resolve water challenges as a way to improve diplomatic relations.
However, in the case of both Gaza and the West Bank, Bromberg said, “narrow, military, punitive and final status territorial considerations are given too often sole consideration by Israeli policy makers without sufficiently considering their implications on broader water security and national security concerns.”
These issues are particularly critical at this time, the organisers emphasised, because of the drought in the region and the escalating humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Giora Shacham, Head of Israel Water Authority, told the audience the current drought is the worst in 50 years. This is a situation that cannot be prepared for, “because no country can reasonably prepare for such rare situations, just like countries cannot prepare for earthquakes that register 10 on the Richter scale.
In 2017, the sewage flowing from Gaza forced Israel to close its desalinisation plant in Gaza twice. Only then did the Israeli authorities even begin to realise that Gaza’s water security and our water security are tied together.
“Israel has a very advanced water system. We are a leader in water reuse, and we have five major desalinisation plans that provide two-thirds of Israel’s water usage needs. But the environmental and economic price of building more and more desalinisation plants for extreme situations is not tolerable.
“In Israel,” Shacham continued, we can manage this situation, by increasing water costs, imposing restrictions on water usage, public education campaigns for water conservation, and so forth.”
In Gaza, however, Shacham warned, the situation is “dramatic. About 95 percent of Gaza’s water is already undrinkable. Due to the absence of any governmental control, Gazans are drawing from the Coastal Aquifer, which is becoming increasingly saline. Once the aquifer is overrun by salt water, it is irreversible,” he warned.
Moreover, according to Shacham, Gaza dumps hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of raw sewage into the Mediterranean every day, and, pulled by the currents, much of this is reaching Israeli shores.
However, Shacham noted, the attitude of the Israeli authorities has been, “If they [the Gazans] are firing rockets at us, then we won’t give them water or electricity. In 2017, the sewage flowing from Gaza forced Israel to close its desalinisation plant in Gaza twice. Only then did the Israeli authorities even begin to realise that Gaza’s water security and our water security are tied together.”
In his address at the conference, Dan Shapiro, former US Ambassador to Israel, told the audience that Palestinians related to water in terms of rights, ownership, sovereignty, and breaking free from Israeli oppression.
“The Palestinians,” he explained, “want to restore full Palestinian control and access to all of the water sources. Israel, on the other hand, insists on retaining control and promises to provide enough water to the Palestinians. These opposing attitudes create a significant psychological barrier to any advancement towards peace agreements.”
In their report, EcoPeace and INSS contrast the agreements with Jordan with the situation with the Palestinians. “Jordan and Israel share fewer common resources than the Israelis and Palestinians. Israel and the Palestinians share three main water bodies, Mountain and Coastal Aquifers and the Jordan River, without any recognition of Palestinian water rights to the Jordan River, which has additional border implications as well.
“In addition, both Israelis and Palestinians are directly dependent on the shared mountain aquifer and are impacted by each other’s consumption and pollution.”
Thus, Bromberg said, “We need a dramatic change in mindset. The Palestinians must acknowledge their shortcomings in water management and waste treatment, Israel must recognise that water insecurity in Gaza contributes to the overall demise of the humanitarian situation to increasing radicalization of the population.
“We have to stop this rhetoric of blame and recognise that Palestinian water insecurity, especially in Gaza, is a national security concern for Israel.”
Instead, he said, Israel has engaged primarily in punitive action. According to Palestinian data cited in the report, since 2000, Israel has been unilaterally deducting directly from the taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority the cost it incurs for the treatment of Palestinian sewage that crosses the Green Line and Must be treated in Israel. By the end of 2017, Israel had deducted over half a billion NIS.
As the current situation reveals, the policy has been ineffective in preventing cross-border pollution. Furthermore, it creates a disincentive for Palestinian municipalities to invest in treating Palestinian sewage, since the Palestinian national economy pays the price. Israel has also restricted the electricity provided to Gaza, so that they cannot operate even the inadequate desalinisation and waste-water treatment facilities that they do have.
[Earlier this week, Minister Yuval Steinitz instructed the Israel Electric Corporation to increase the supply of electricity to Gaza back to maximum capacity, after more than half a year of a 40% reduction after the Palestinian Authority intentionally decreased payments to Israel.]
Bromberg concluded: “This is a crisis situation. And yet, while the advance of Israeli-Palestinian water diplomacy will not alone produce peace, it would help build trust and confidence between the two parties and between Israel and the region – and it would contribute to Israel’s own security. Water, sewage, and disease do not recognise the Green Line or man-made borders.”
Photo: Pixabay CCO