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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

These days, of all the problems plaguing the Middle East peace process, none goes deeper than the dispute over water. Israel and the Palestinians disagree on how water is to be shared in this arid part of the world. New maps drawn up by the current Netanyahu government would give sixty percent of the land and water of the West Bank to Israel, but Palestinians reject these maps, saying the Israeli proposal deprives them of this key ingredient toward sovereignty. Always an important issue in a desert region, water now threatens to dissolve the peace. This Fall, Living On Earth will continue to examine the politics and culture of water in the Middle East with reporter Sandy Tolan in a series of reports from Israel, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For decades, the deeply divided Middle East has slowly moved toward peace, but a final settlement keeps slipping from the grasp of negotiators. At the last minute, it seems, there's always something. These days, of all the problems plaguing the peace process, none goes deeper than the dispute over water. The talks between Israel and the Palestinians are in part snagged on how water is to be shared in this arid part of the world. New maps drawn up by the government of Benjamin Netenyahu would give 60% of the land and water of the West Bank to Israel. Palestinians reject these maps, saying without water they cannot fulfill their dream of an independent state. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan reports.

(Bird song)

KAM: Certainly at night, over that direction you can see the lights of Ashtod and Ashkelod. You can see all the way around the coastal plain...

TOLAN: The Israeli settler's face glows with a calm intensity. Mark Kam stands under a harsh sun, looking out from the edge of a cliff in the West Bank settlement of Dolev.

KAM: The view is absolutely terrific. This range here is the last range before the coast...

TOLAN: We gaze across at the terraced hills, dotted with olive trees and eroded down to bedrock. To the southeast lies Jerusalem; to the west Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean. Another Jewish settlement stands on a nearby hilltop, its orange roofs in sharp contrast to the white stone mosques and homes of the Palestinian villages below. Like the pioneers whose manifest destiny built the American West, Mark Kam, his wife and 5 boys cling to land long claimed by someone else. Their deed is found in an ancient text.

KAM: The Hill of Arik is described in the Book of Judges listing the border between the lands of the tribes of Benjamin, the lands of the tribes of Ephraim, just over here. And if you look around you, again, you've many other places, the Bet Choron, Emek Lod, the Lod Valley. All of them mentioned in the scriptures. The scriptures that talk about the land give the land a sort of ownership.

TOLAN: At stake here is not just ownership of the land but of the water beneath the land. Under the rocky hills of this settlement lies an underground lake. Most of this aquifer rests under Palestinian land in the West Bank, yet the vast majority of the water is used by Israel. Nearly half a trillion gallons a year, about a quarter of the Jewish state's annual supply, are pumped from a small tip of the aquifer that extends beneath Israel, helping Jewish farmers earn the reputation for making the desert bloom. It also helps Israelis enjoy water on par with some European nations. In theory, West Bank Palestinians could tap into this renewable supply, too, by sinking their own wells. But for 30 years, since the occupation the West Bank, Israeli military orders have required permission for new wells. Permission rarely granted. Jewish settlers, meanwhile, have drilled deep wells into that same aquifer. These facts help explain why the average Israeli uses 3 times as much water as a Palestinian. Now, under the final status map drawn up by Benjamin Netenyahu's government, this and other water-rich parts of the West Bank would be annexed by Israel. In the final settlement, Israel's hand would remain on the tap, permanently.

BEN MEIR: If we shall compete, pumping between each other, and everyone will pump deeper, to a lower level, we shall ruin this aquifer.

TOLAN: Meir Ben Meir is Israel's Water Commissioner. He says for years Israel has run a massive water delivery system, so it's the logical choice to manage the shared resource for Palestinians and Israelis. Ben Meir is speaking for his boss, General Ariel Sharon, whose hardline thinking has been crucial in drawing up the new maps. Sharon was out of power for years following the accounts of his indirect role in the massacre of a thousand Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Today, as Minister of Infrastructure, Sharon more than anyone is asserting the notion of permanent Israeli control over land and water in the West Bank. Sharon's deputy, Ben Meir, promises that even with that control Israel would not hold back water from thirsty Palestinians.

BEN MEIR: If it is for humanitarian needs, I don't see any way why Palestinians will have less water and Israelis will have more water, or vice versa. The most effective tool, of course, if one authority is responsible for managing the aquifer, an Israeli authority, and responsible for supplying water according to humanitarian needs, this is the best solution.

TOLAN: Essentially this means that Israel retains control over the water supply.

BEN MEIR: This is the best solution from the point of view of protecting the water supply.

TOLAN: Yet if Israel is such a good water manager, Palestinian critics wonder, why does it allow Israeli farmers to continue to over-pump the aquifers? Why do some Israeli kibbutzes in the desert use 20 times more water than a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza? Fadel Kawash of the Palestinian Water Authority.

KAWASH: What they are doing is a big mistake here. If they don't understand that people cannot live without water, they put themselves -- I have no words to say in English -- but it will be a very difficult future in the area. If they want really to live here in peace and to respect the right of the other people, water is a life. Without water, no life.

(Goats bleating)

TOLAN: Mohammad Barakat Daoud Laoul tends his goats from his back yard in Hebron. Face burnt by the sun, dark, neatly trimmed beard, flowing headdress, he could pass for Joseph in the Bible were it not for his gold watch and filter-tipped cigarettes. His father owned land in old Palestine, but now that's part of Israel. And so Mohammad's 70 goats are crammed onto this half-acre urban lot. In the summer he spends $150 a month just to water his goats. All the more important, he explains, to tell his children to save water.

LAOUL: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: Every day it's like a lesson in school. Don't waste water. Because we won't find any more to drink. If my sons spills a glass of milk, I won't scold him. But if he spills a glass of water I say, "What are you doing? Where I can water for you?" I ask my family, "Open the tap very slowly so we don't waste one drop."

TOLAN: The family catches the rain and stores it in barrels. They recycle their laundry water and use it on their plants. Even so, some of the garden is dead this year. The family is down to one bath a week in a place where summer time temperatures can reach 100 degrees. Mohammad Barakat says it's getting frustrating.

LAOUL: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: It's not because there's no water in Palestine. But this water is in the hands of those who don't want us to live. They save it for themselves. I have either to accept and keep my mouth shut, or leave my land looking for another place. The aim is to pressure me with all means to leave my land.

(Goats bleat)

TOLAN: In the interim agreement to the Oslo Accords, designed to guide both parties to a final settlement, Palestinians were supposed to get some relief. Israel pledged to supply additional water to Hebron and other parts of the West Bank and Gaza through additional wells and pipelines. The US Agency for International Development put up $50 million toward the projects, but those wells are yet to deliver any water. US and Palestinian officials say despite the Oslo agreement, Israeli officials have delayed final approval.

KAWASH: And they know very well that the Americans have the money. The Americans have the contractor. He's sitting waiting now 6 months to distribute the documents for tendering. They cannot, because no permits.

TOLAN: Fadel Kawash of the Palestinian Water Authority says by stalling in Hebron, the Israeli government and its Minister of Infrastructure, Ariel Sharon, have shown contempt for the Oslo Accords.

KAWASH: Now, because of the political, maybe international atmosphere, they cannot say we are against the agreement, the Oslo. But what they are doing now, in the implementation, it's a translation of what their position regarding these agreements. They are against totally.

TOLAN: In public, American officials are more diplomatic. Christopher Crowley is director of the US aid mission to Gaza and the West Bank.

CROWLEY: The agreement that was reached under the interim accords should be implemented. And we would hope that all of the parties would facilitate our ability to do that implementation in as quick a manner as possible, so that we can address this issue of insufficient water resources in the Palestinian territories.

TOLAN: In private, other American officials are more pointed. They say Ariel Sharon is trying to undermine the peace process. Sharon's spokesman says that's not the case. Israeli officials cite technical reasons for the delays, and they now say they'll grant the necessary permits for the Hebron wells. It's possible tensions over water there will ease in the coming months. The Israelis are withholding permission for another key well in the north. With peace talks broken off now between the 2 sides, no comprehensive water settlement is in sight. Scores of Palestinian villages will pass another summer without running water. And now, through its new plans to annex more than half the West Bank, Israel may be trying to change the Mideast bargain of land for peace, instead offering water for land. If the Palestinians would agree to give up half the West Bank and control over the joint water supply, Israeli Water Commissioner Ben Meir says his government would open the taps.

BEN MEIR: And then Israel, a firm, a rigid obligation to supply water according to humanitarian needs.

TOLAN: But Palestinians insist they will never accept such a shrunken reservation-style version of their territory as proposed in the Israeli maps, nor give up control over their share of the water. To do so, says Palestinian Water Authority Nabil Sharif, would be to give up the dream of an independent state.

SHARIF: You cannot say that we cannot, the Palestinians cannot control the water. The area is Palestinians and they are occupying us. They are in our land. Others want to propose that this land will go. It means there will be no peace.

TOLAN: Sharif says the dream of a sovereign nation called Palestine must include within it another dream: the use and control of enough water to prosper. At the moment both dreams seem like shallow ponds quivering in the distance, ready to evaporate like a desert mirage. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

CURWOOD: In the coming months, Living on Earth will take a closer look at water in the Middle East. Sandy Tolan will have a series of reports from Israel, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank, on the politics and culture of water in the lands that are holy for Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. That's Troubled Waters this fall on Living on Earth.



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