Exploring Palestinian-Israeli Water Issues on the West Bank of the Jordan River
My initial trip only skimmed this turbulent surface. The January 28, 2020 Kushner “vision” and related economic outline released at the June 2019 Bahrain meeting change the context significantly. On this side of the Atlantic, 5 years after my trip, I’ll limit changes to those that the Kushner process affects.
The Kushner “vision” document scrambles the politics significantly. But many of these points remain the same. CONTROL is the crucial aspect of the water issue at this point; the Kushner “vision” would extend Israeli control over the fertile lands of the Jordan Valley.
Plumbing is destiny. The water supply network that extends from Galilee to the Negev also reaches all of the cities that we visited — Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron and Nazareth. Israel’s expanded desalination capacity is a “game changer” that significantly modifies water issues throughout the Jordan River watershed in Palestine and Jordan, as well as Israel. The Palestinian-Israeli agreement on a “Red-Dead” pipeline as revised in July 2017 and embodied in Kushner’s economic vision is strongly supported by Jordan, international donors and the Israelis. Israel’s plan to store desalinated water in Galilee would in effect use that massive lake as a storage tank that could benefit Jordan, Israel, and even Syria and the Palestinians. A revived effort to recycle sewage in the Kidron watershed between Jerusalem and the Jordan River will gather attention.
From the Palestinian perspective, a major “Red-Dead” project could provide a significant increase in water sold to Palestine, probably based on exchange agreements involving Israeli desalinated water. Historically, Israeli enviros have vigorously opposed the Red-Dead project. The July 2017 proposals indicate that 22 Million Cubic Meters of additional Israeli water could be sold to through existing plumbing, mostly to Hebron and Bethlehem, without waiting for the increased Jordan River flexibility that a Red-Dead project would allow, A larger amount of water has been provided for Gaza as well. Water users in Jordan would be the main project beneficiaries.
The tougher issues are in the villages particularly in the Jordan Valley. Water can be a tool of the occupation, but also can draw water users together. The devils are in details and long term administration of any agreement.
Existing distribution and arterial plumbing draws Palestine closer into the existing Israeli network, and tends toward a “one state solution.” Governance is the tough part, and it appears that the January 2020 Kushner vision is based on Israeli/Mekorot control of the urban water systems.
Likewise, “sewage carries no flag.” Wastewater and recycling projects make economic and hydrological sense on a watershed basis. Such projects have been stymied by the mosaic of jurisdictional complexity on the Kidron and other rivers, but the Kushner vision suggests it will move forward.
Palestinian irrigation can benefit from integrated management of three mountain aquifers, particularly in the mountain areas of the northern West Bank. With recently expanded water supply, Israeli use of these aquifers could be curtailed to allow expanded Palestinian use of springs and wells. In 2015, I did not visit the northwest part of the West Bank, where Palestinian wastewater flows affect down-gradient Israeli uses of the aquifer.
Through the Obama years, U.S. taxpayers paid about $100 million per year for water infrastructure improvements in Palestine. The annual USAID budget for Palestine has been as much as $400 million, or one-eighth of U.S. military subsidies to Israel. Israeli interests in the U.S. have quietly support US funding not only for Palestinian security cooperation with Israel, but also for some of these projects. That funding has been put on hold by the current U.S. administration. The “regime change carrot” that Kushner’s vision offers includes funding to improve the distribution system.
Since the 1992 Oslo/Madrid process began, water professionals have suggested de-linking water from the big four issues – borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees. Jerusalem was partially delinked with the 2017 embassy decision. Borders in Golan were delinked in 2019. Area C borders of the West Bank, including the crucial Jordan Valley would be delinked under Kushner’s vision.
In May 2019, Ecopeace made a presentation to the UN Security Council on transboundary water agreements for massive solar development in the Jordanian desert, tied to major desalination for the Dead Sea, Gaza, and presumably the West Bank as well.
A comprehensive updating of the Oslo water provisions will require a long term management structure that includes both relative certainty and also flexibility. Such an agreement between “asymmetric sovereigns,” like Israel and Palestine has intentionally been destabilized by Kushner’s approach. However, in the western U.S., dozens of water settlements involving Indian tribes, states and other water users have been approved since the 1980s, each of which has its own unique way of dealing with “asymmetric sovereign” issues. Some suggest that the West Bank borders will come to resemble the fractured jurisdictional mess in and around major reservations in the northwest states and New Mexico. The “Bantustan” enclaves in South Africa during the apartheid period are a more extreme model.
Neither Palestinian nor Israeli political leaders have been motivated to pursue a separate and comprehensive water agreement, albeit for very different reasons. However, in January 2017, the Joint Water Committee was reactivated after a 6 year hiatus. While this is not a comprehensive agreement, it allows some 97 Palestinian water projects to proceed, particularly in Area C, which is the zone of Israeli military control in the West Bank. This very low visibility development has allowed some projects that benefit Palestinians to move forward. It is unclear how this will be treated under the Kushner vision.
The U.S. presence in the West Bank is massive. A result is that “The road to Jerusalem often lies through Washington D.C.” As U.S. citizens we can help this region by learning more about it. As taxpayers, a core U.S. national interest is to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli dispute, which draws us into religious conflicts in which the U.S. has little stake. As a “secular christian” singer I urge U.S. Christians to visit, sleep in Bethlehem, Nazareth and East Jerusalem, wade in the shallow waters of Galilee and the Jordan River, and then sing about it.