A Thirst for Sanity: Alon Tal on Israel, Palestine, and Water

Haim Watzman

Half a year ago, Amnesty International published a report on Palestinian access to water called ”Thirsting for Justice,” in which it largely blamed Israel for the Palestinians’ water woes.

Now Alon Tal, one of Israel’s leading environmentalists, has come out with a reasoned but impassioned critique of Amnesty’s victimization narrative, along with sober recommendations for a regional water policy that can serve the very real needs of the inhabitants of this increasingly dry area of the world. It’s called “Thirsting for Pragmatism: A Constructive Alternative to Amnesty International’s Report on Access to Water,” and it appears in the new issue of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. It’s a 16-page, well-written read and I recommend it in its entirety on all levels—as fine policy analysis, as scathing attack on those for whom Israel is always the villain, and as an example of how, even in the midst of the conflict, Israelis and Palestinians can and must address vital environmental problems that will bury us all if we don’t cooperate.

But I offer a few selections for the rushed. First the basic facts:

Thirsting for Justice contains so much arbitrary, biased, and anecdotal disinformation that it is easy to lose sight of a basic truth about the region’s water conditions that is contained in the report: The amount of water available to Palestinian communities is inadequate, and its quality is frequently unacceptable. Recognizing this intolerable situation is an important point of departure for all parties when considering solutions. At the same time, the low level of Palestinian access to water is a symptom of a complex reality….

And the best way of dealing with it:

For years, Israeli water experts have tried to focus discussions on actual water “needs” (which presumably can be agreed upon), rather than water rights, which remain disputed. Ultimately, the transformation of water into a commercial commodity that can be produced through industrial processes based on brackish or sea water and sold across national borders is an excellent development for the Middle East. A dispassionate, economic “optimization” of water resources is a constructive response to the pervasive scarcity. Privatized or public water sales can go a long way toward diffusing what Professor Hillel Shuval calls the region’s “hydro hysteria,” which characterizes the local water discourse but hardly serves either side’s interests….

Israel is hardly blameless, but the Palestinians share responsibility:

There are surely cases in which Israeli military and civil authorities have been draconian about granting permits for water infrastructure projects. At the same time, concerns about Palestinian hydro-anarchy are not without foundation. It is hard to understand how Amnesty conveniently avoided any mention of the well documented lawlessness and appalling level of compliance with Palestinian water regulation in the West Bank and Gaza….

We’re all in this together:

The Jordan River Basin, like the rest of the region, has seen a precipitous drop in rainfall. This no longer looks like a protracted drought, but rather a new and drier equilibrium. Israel’s Water Authority reports an average drop in water resources of over 10 percent during the past two decades. Traditional rhetoric demanding water rights assumes a level of water resources that is no longer valid. Sustainable water management for both sides requires immediate additional sources of water—be they from desalinated seawater or recycled effluents….

And in conclusion:

This litany of critiques of the Amnesty report in no way exonerates Israel as part of the problem associated with poor water conditions that many Palestinians face. Yet, it also suggests that the Palestinian government and its Water Authority share responsibility for finding a solution. Reports like “Thirsty for Justice,” the primary purpose of which appears to be blaming Israel for Palestinian water woes, are not only substantively inaccurate but tactically foolish. If Palestinians do not begin investing in retrofitting urban water delivery, desalination plants, modern sewage infrastructure, as well as shutting down unlicensed wells and controlling population growth, no reforms and new allocation schemes will be sustainable.

15 thoughts on “A Thirst for Sanity: Alon Tal on Israel, Palestine, and Water”

  1. Last I checked the Palestinians in Gaza are under a blockade which rules out the importation of machinery and construction material relevant to “retrofitting urban water delivery, desalination plants, modern sewage infrastructure”. As to ” controlling population growth” with regards to the Palestinians the IDF seems to handle this well during its ‘security’ operations.

    Let me try to be clear as to both my intent and perspective. I’m neither pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel, if both groups were to wipe themselves from the face of the planet, I would consider that a kindness to the rest of the species. Seriously 60+ of this nonsense, aren’t you fellows ashamed to call yourselves humans? Monkeys seem more rational than both groups.

    That being said, your best course of action is to actually use your minds and hearts for once. Putting the Palestinians in squalor will not get them to bend to your will, rather it will explode their population and ensure that the Israelis will never breathe an gulp of peace. My nation is fervently pro-Israel, but the faction that is pro-Israel are the bible thumpers who hope that all Jews migrate to the “Jewish” state and then get slaughtered in the end times. Seriously, if you don’t believe me watch their sermons. Eventually my nation will dump your ethnic enclave when the costs significantly outweigh benefits. It will happen overnight, it won’t be a drifting trend, one day the system will sell you out when the price is right. If you were smart you’d cut a peace deal well before then.

    Cut a deal with Tehran, it’ll probably bring you Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas as frosting. Give up the Golan, the wine taste like crap, the security issues are a joke considering nukes and satellites. Give up the couple of hectares on the border with Lebanon, seriously is it worth it? Arrange a workable agreement with the Palestinians; one state, two states, 23 states, you guys figure it out. But if you can’t, don’t expect the US to bail you out when it comes time to pay the bill….and the Chinese? HAHahA Dude, they will so rock you guys if you give them the chance. Peace!

    P.S. In case you guys want to leave everything up to god….think real hard, remember the last time a bunch of Jews decided to leave everything up to god? It made for a moment in history whose only redeeming quality was inspiring a bunch of Italian sexplotation films involving guys with totenkophs nailing everything in camera shot. Try to be proactive or my grandkids will be forced to watch bad Italian films with tittles like “Sheik your booty”, “Hamid, Haifa and the Whores” and “Shalom Sharon, Sianara Shlomo”.

  2. The thing that bothers me about Tal’s response is that he doesn’t discuss the most egregious abuse listed in the Amnesty report – namely that unlawful Israeli settlements have access to vast amounts of water (illustrated with photographs of swimming pools and the like), yet their Palestinian neighbors do not. Or rather, he acknowledges at the start of the article that this is one of the criticisms that Amnesty made, but he never discusses whether the criticism is unfair or if in this important respect the criticism of Israel is justified.

    This makes the paper appear frankly evasive: the fact that in his initial acknowledgement he puts “unlawful” in quotation marks likewise suggests that this is a matter that he would prefer not to confront directly. A paper with such a weakness at its heart can hardly be “recommended in its entirety”, as you do, Haim, even if he makes some pertinent points along the way.

  3. “and controlling population growth”:

    If Palestinians frame everything as consequent of the conflict with Israel, can I say they are so different than Israeli policy if framed as ever consequent of Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust?

    Since formation of the Authority, Palestinian politics in their nascent government has been framed by the Conflict as a largely zero sum game. Blame and its allocation are the only currency. How can any objective socio-eonomic process like water availability or population growth be articulated? Both are inherently framed as part of the larger zero sum game: less water for Palestinians, plus for Israel; more people for Palestinians, plus for them, loss for Israel. Political advancement or just survial, in both arenas, Israel or West Bank or Gaza, requires one mostly, I suspect, to mouth a zero sum world, and act on that.

    Even so, I submit my bias: When Bibi, upon election in, what, about 1996, froze the tax stream to the Authority (Israel was collecting taxes from Palestinian day immigrants which were, under Oslo, to be tranfered back to the Authority for State income) a zero sum world was all but insured. But nor do I believe Arafat really wanted a pluralist economy wherein alternatives to Fatah might emerge; Arafat was zero sum at home.

    Obviously a dwindling water supply makes population growth a central problem. Without economic development, known the major natural control on population growth, how can the problem be addressed? And how, in the ubitiquous currency of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can one ever get sustained growth? Instead, we burn one another in fires of righteousness.

  4. 1. Tal is not supporting the settlements. He’s saying that the water issue can’t be held hostage to a political settlement–the crisis is too dire.
    2. Readers of the entire article will see that population growth–of everyone, not the Palestinians in particular–is one of the causes of the crisis. Water is a limited, diminishing resource in the region, and the more people there are the less water there is for each individual. He writes: “If per capita water access is a priority, then countries should adopt sustainable population policies. (This critique is no less valid for Israel, which, for a long time now, has needed to reconsider its unsustainable, pronatal policies.)”

  5. If the water issue cannot be held hostage to a political settlement, perhaps it can become that which breaks the zero sum impass of both “parties.” (There are more than one party in both “States.”). By forcing the same realization on both sides, the zero sum prison is broken. But the tools for addressing population growth will not be identical. The West Bank and Gaza need sustained development. I do not know what the “pronatal policies” of Israel are, but I suspect they are designed to some extent to curtail the demographic transition of development.

    Both sides sacrifice to the same end. If Israeli policy change could be linked to Palestinian economic growth (which requires anti corruption policies in the Authority), one could link internal issues to a common goal. On both sides, the goal could be framed as primarily internal. But as water flows where it can, an external link breaking the enemy defintion might also be foraged.

    Then how to frame this issue in terms of pratical policy which politicians and experts on both sides could advocate with at least some hope of rational success? Ideally, one would like to say “we should do this even if the other side will not, but look at the benefits if they do so too.” BOTH sides must be able to make this argument to their own.

    You want to use an ecological zero sum game to break a political zero sum game. Wonderful thought.

  6. and controlling population growth

    Ah, I see: eighty per cent of the water is sluiced off for the benefit of Jews exclusively, the Palestinians are going thirsty, therefore the obvious solution is for there to be fewer Palestinians. Self-evident. Properly considered, it’s all a matter of a demographic problem. Where have I heard that term before?

  7. For years, Israeli water experts have tried to focus discussions on actual water “needs” (which presumably can be agreed upon), rather than water rights, which remain disputed.

    But there is a discrepancy in the standard of living between the two sides (which should not be static). On one side currently there is need for water for swimming pools and watering lawns, and on the other side need drinking, cooking, and bathing water. Right?

    If Palestinians do not begin investing in retrofitting urban water delivery, desalination plants, modern sewage infrastructure, as well as shutting down unlicensed wells and controlling population growth, no reforms and new allocation schemes will be sustainable.

    Doesn’t occupation not allow this? These then are responsibilities of the state in charge (Israel). It seems Israel’s responsibilities especially if it keeps hanging onto the territories.

    If there were two separate sovereign states, there could be cooperation ( would have to be) on this vital issue and then internal solutions to population growth: in-migration and birth rates.

    At the moment this issue seems intertwined with the conflict: the lack of sufficient water is seen as part of oppression and collective punishment on the part of Israel. At the same time there is a “war” for demographic superiority which exacerbates water problems.

  8. Make up a fictional Israeli political party. How would if frame this issue, in the context of other issues from the occupation to social growth policy in Israel proper? How could it attract votes? Why would people stop voting for present Labor, Likud, Katima? Or how could these parties, one or more, absorb some of the policies of your fictional party AND improve their electoral standing?

    You have convinced me, Haim: let us say good things about Israel, let us watch Israelis do good things, let us not just bash what has been done.

  9. Haim- I am, at your recommendation, reading the Tal report and am halfway through at this writing but it impresses me as a defense against the Amnesty report. So one has to also read the Amnesty report- and then I find that there are facts ( you have to compare apples with apples not oranges) and these are very interesting issues and problems having very much to do with who holds the power. Accusations and defenses about water usage, allocation, lack of conservation, population control- all are colored by the fact of occupation even though there are attempts at working water issues out as if Palestine were headed for sovereignty at some point. The now of it is what Amnesty’s report is about. Apparently the “mountain aquifer” in the West Bank is being drained by Israel and used mostly by Israeli’s- and Palestinians don’t think this is fair.

    Tal is not saying that Israel is being fair either, he is saying that Amnesty is not being fair in it’s report which is an apple to Tal’s orange response and I presume supposed to make Israeli’s not feel so bad about efforts that are being made while there is in fact a metaphoric “thirst” on the Palestinian side which effects development.

    The comparisons to water availability in Jordan and other countries help the Israeli case- it’s worse elsewhere- the same case is generally made about Palestinian living standards in general. But if you look at the situation within Israel and the OT, you have a hard time seeing fairness with regard to water and development about which Palestinians are of course completely to blame as if no heavy foot has been on them for their resistance.

    I can’t get away from the bottom line-the conflict about which Israel’s leaders think they can maintain some status quo.

  10. Suzanne —
    Neither Tal or I deny the inequities, nor are we apathetic about the political problems. But the problem is not going to be solved by arguing over rights because water doesn’t follow borders. There needs to be a regional solution that will change water use, reuse, and production practices for all of us. Israeli and Palestinian water professionals agree on this point, no matter what their opinions about the ultimate political solution.

  11. Haim- Thank you. Yes- agreed that there needs to be a regional solution- to water and security for that matter. But Tal’s really reads like a very strong rejection of the Amnesty report ( who else is pointing this inequity/problem out?) at the same time that he is giving the glass half full defense ( which I appreciate).

    Tal himself agrees that this water issue is part of the conflict.

    Amnesty says that Israeli’s use 80% of the water from the Mountain Aquifer and that it’s the main source of underground water in Isreal and the OPT and that Palestinians are restricted to 20%. The mountain aquifer is in what has been designated to be a Palestinian state though it
    s waters mostly flow westward. It is also, I being pumped out by Israel, from what I understand.

    Either that is true or not. This is a legitimate issue for Amnesty to call attention to since many in Israel could not care less about hurrying a solution to the political conflict.

    Statements like :

    Israel says that it uses only (my bold) twice as much water per capita as Palestinians, not the 4 times it has been accused of.

    After a month of furious warfare in Gaza only $6 million [that’s 24 million NIS right?] was reported only confirms the high level of caution exercised

    leave me cold. How do we verify this figure and other claims made by either report? Another report says that Israeli’s only use 3 times as much water as Palestinians.

    and this phrase, not wanting an “unproductive fencing match” of which Tal here is also guilty in my opinion.

    6 months ago from a Doctors without Borders report a year after the war:

    The water system is also extremely fragile and 90 percent of the water provided to Gaza residents fails to meet WHO safe drinking water standards. Every day, approximately 80 million liters of wastewater go untreated and are discharged into the Mediterranean, posing risks to health and the environment – particularly fishery products. Water-related illnesses, such as acute diarrhea, are increasing. No major reconstruction or repair of this public infrastructure has been performed to date.


    For anyone interested I find this map of water sources in the area extremely interesting:


    Again- If we read the Tal refutation/glass half full response, we also must read the Amnesty Report, or read that first.

    Thank you for bringing up the issue- it’s especially relevant with climate change happening ( less rainfall) in this entire region.

  12. The appeal that Haim is making, I think, is to bubble an issue away from direct (rather primitive) political dogma (on both sides), using science as a shield. It may be impossible to do so, as, short term, both “sides” can claim victory points by condemning the other.

    So, I suppose, there are two issues:

    1) Can such insulation work for even awhile; if it can, could it act not just on the water issue, but as a protected ground which might expand to other common problems over time.

    2) If insulation is acheived, can it yeild ecological results?

    I have absolutely no doubt that Israel takes way too much of West Bank available water (Gaza is quite different, being blockaded technologically and significantly ocean front). ANY dominating power will do this. Yet the science critique remains: EVEN IF you shifted allocation equitably (assuming a neutral defintion is possible) the region is heading towards crisis. Both Israeli and Palestinian scientists (and UN scientists too) can make this point to their ever hurting political leaders. These leaders will recite much as Suzanne (I am sure some Israelis can think up counterpoints in the same spirit). The scientists can just say IT DOES NOT MATTER. REGARDLESS OF ALTERED ALLOCATIONS A CRISIS LOOMS. Only population control and water conservation can delay matters significantly. Both sides can conserve; both sides can address population growth (Note that address growth in Israel is quite painful, as its population expanded by [I think] 50% in the post Soviet collapse immigration.)

    There is immediately political spillover. Assume, somehow, God descends on both Israeli and Palestinian leaders: they truly absorb the problem and want a way out. Quickly they must listen to such as this:

    1) Social science well knows that economic development is the only way to curtail population growth, unless you want to follow the Chinese (and, for a while, India)–and the latter is not going to happen. So Israel, on an internal issue MUST actively promote economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza. A blockade will not allow this (and, effectively, the WB is also blockaded).

    2) Water management crosses territorial boundaries, so a technocratic cooperative council will be necessary, with power to recomend changes in future development if, e.g., water source areas, etc.

    3) Israel, which has sought greater population to realize Zionism (keeping that word neutral) and State protection in a perpetual war economy cannot continue to do so–even if its current percentage of water from the WB remains as now. Moreover, water desperation in the WB will fuel more anger, so violence, which will continue Israel’s lock into a war economy. Ultimately, for the good of the State, Israel will be forced to zero sum its INTERNAL water allocation. The war economy will expand in outcome.

    “Break their bones” Rabin, I was once told, switched to accomodation with Arafat via Oslo becuase he came to the depressing conclusion that ultimatley Israel would become isolated. You can expand that conclusion to ultimately Israel will be eating itself alive as water policy consequent of a pro population growth war economy will do exactly this.

    I do not quite believe Tal’s posture. But I think the underlying logic is straight forward and inescapable. Haim, as far as I can tell, is trying to take this necessity and make something good of it. If we immediately make everything part of the zero sum conflict we end up with convoys and more than usually senseless deaths.

    I have been obsessed with this conflict sense since the invasion of Lebanon in, what, 82 (?). The one hope that could have been had was lost via a mentally ill rightest (Gandhi was killed by a Hindu rightest, excuse me for my hero worship). Arafat and Rabin were hard ball pragmatists then. All of that has been lost for short term political gain on both sides of the common front.

    Suzanne, Haim could accept every point you make AND STILL make his plea. That is the hidden strength of his position. Do I think it will work? No. But then I didn’t think there were progressive orthodox jews in Israel either.

    I do not know a solution to this conflict. If I did, I would be in a mental institution (not to say I shouldn’t be in one right now). Only Israelis and Palestinians living in this trap of history can find a way out. All those on the sidelines can do is try to see where they are going and maybe make some suggestions.

    Finally, while I doubt Haim types will get anywhere, they can blush their educated politicians and hammer away at voicing the problem. And when Labour and Likud are best pals, with Katima candidate for the Gandhi Prize in India, you can bet their voices are going to go hoarse.

    I am grateful for this blog. I will never do anything to stop a death or a blunted life. I truly believe, incomes for their families not withstanding, our blog hosts are trying to do just that. If they think even in desperation that such and such a plan or political program would help, I say how can we help their ideas grow. Not present those ideas. Only they and other Israelis can do that. How can we help the discourse expand.

    And, Gershom, this is why I keep saying that that Israeli Arab woman MK should be interviewed for an article.

    Forgive me my overstepping.

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