Israel, Palestinians deadlocked over issue of control over West Bank water


JERUSALEM -- Even as it prepares to pull its troops out of West Bank towns and villages, Israel has infuriated the Palestinians by insisting that it will not relinquish control over the area's critical water resources.

So serious is the dispute over water that both sides say they may not be able to resolve it in time to meet their July 25 deadline for signing an agreement expanding Palestinian self-rule to the West Bank. Israel says there will be no deal until the Palestinians agree that Israel will retain control of the water.

"The basic fact is that this area is suffering from a very severe shortage of water," said Yaacov Tsur, Israel's agriculture minister. "We are using all the water we have. We cannot give the Palestinians more."

The aquifers feeding Israel and the territories are growing dangerously depleted, and in another decade, Mr. Tsur predicted, the two sides will be forced to cooperate anyway to build desalination plants to make sea water potable.

In the meantime, if the Palestinians want to increase their supply of water, he said, they will have to increase conservation and capture more rain water.

In the West Bank, "we and the Palestinians share the same pot of water," Mr. Tsur said. "If one takes more, he is taking it from the other. So the agreement we reach with the Palestinians is not going to reshare the water. It must keep the existing system."

He spoke after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin held a high-level strategy session earlier this month with Mr. Tsur and several other senior Cabinet ministers to decide Israel's final position in the current negotiations on land and water, the two most sensitive issues.

The ministers reportedly agreed that Israel will allow some drilling by Palestinians in the southern part of the West Bank, where there is some unused water in a partly brackish aquifer. But control over water resources will remain in Israel's hands, and the current division of three-quarters of the West Bank's annual aquifer draw for Israel and one-quarter for the Palestinians will be preserved, the ministers said.

Palestinians reacted bitterly to the hard-line public stance the ministers took after that session.

"The Israelis are not recognizing the water rights of the Palestinians," said Dr. Riyad el-Khoudary, head of the Palestinian water delegation. "The Israelis are allocating for us a quota regardless of our needs."

"It's disgusting," said Faisal Husseini, a minister-without-portfolio in the Palestinian self-governing authority. "It is not just. They are not the masters, and we are not the slaves."

Palestinians say that self-rule is meaningless unless they control the use of water and land on the West Bank. Since Israel occupied the area during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Palestinians have not been allowed to dig wells.

As a result, many Palestinian towns and villages suffer frequent water shortages, according to Palestinian water experts.

"Whoever controls the natural resources holds in his hand the sovereignty over the land," said Khader Shkirat, general director of the Land and Water Establishment for Studies and Legal Services, a Palestinian legal aid office in Jerusalem.

"What the Israelis are proposing is that the water resources will be under Israeli authority and that the Palestinian national authority will collect payment on the bills that [Israel] will issue."

Each year, Israel allocates about 120 million cubic meters of water from the West Bank aquifer for use by the Palestinians living there. About half of it is used for agriculture and the rest for residential use, Palestinian water experts say. Each Palestinian uses about 40 cubic meters of water annually.

In contrast, Israel draws 450 million cubic meters more from the West Bank aquifer, most of which is used for drinking by Israelis living in the densely populated coastal plain. Mr. Tsur said the West Bank aquifers provide one-third of Israel's annual water use. Each Israeli uses about 100 cubic meters of water annually.

Dr. Khoudary said that Palestinians living on the West Bank need at least 350 million cubic meters of water to alleviate shortages, meet their residential needs and provide for growth in agriculture and industry.

"The fact is that the Israelis would like to continue allowing Israelis to consume five times as much water as Palestinians do," Dr. Khoudary said.

It is particularly grating for Palestinians that the more than 100 Jewish settlements in the West Bank -- home to about 140,000 Israelis, according to the settlers, although the latest census figure is 121,900 -- suffer no water shortages.

Some Israeli hydrologists believe that when Israel and the

Palestinians negotiate the final status of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Israel will agree to sell the Palestinians a greater allotment of water.

But until those talks begin, Israel is determined to freeze the current situation.

It is equally determined never to relinquish control over the aquifer.

"The issue is the danger of precedence and the possibility of loss of control," said Saul Arlosoroff, a senior adviser on water issues at Hebrew University's Truman Institute.

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