Israel-PA Cooperation in Water - the One Exception

By Ze'ev Schiff
13 February 2001

Since the outbreak of the current Intifada, relations with the Palestinians have deteriorated in almost every field. The distrust between the two sides is deepening, and there is no knowing what is in store. Agreements signed in the past are openly breached, and the Israelis and the Palestinians are refraining from signing joint documents. All this is true except in one field, in which a unique relationship is being maintained even during this difficult period of military conflict: the field of water supply and the infrastructure connected to it.One week before the prime ministerial elections in Israel, a joint declaration was signed by the two sides, in the presence of the Americans, stating that the water and sewage infrastructures are removed from the circle of violence.

Not everyone in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) liked this declaration. Among those who support the use of "financial leverage" as a means against the Palestinians in this conflict, there are some who believe that water supplies must not be totally removed from the levers of pressure. But others, who view the water infrastructure as a crucial human need that must be protected even at this difficult time, gained the upper hand in this argument. Providing water for residents is not the same as transferring funds from Israel to the Palestinian Authority (PA) while the fighting continues - especially when even Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in cash collected for the Palestinians. The only countries now sending money to the Palestinians are Iraq, and to a large extent Israel, despite the fact the PA's debts are skyrocketing.

The declaration stating that the water and sewage infrastructures must not be harmed despite the military conflict was signed at the Erez Junction on January 31. This was the first meeting of the joint water committee since the outbreak of the Intifada on September 30. The move was led by Palestinian Water Commissioner Nabil a-Sharif and by the head of the Israeli delegation to the joint water committee, Noah Kinnarti. The Israeli delegation to the meeting also included representatives from the office of the coordinator of government activities in the territories, from the Finance Ministry, and a legal advisor and representatives of the Mekorot Water Company. The U.S. delegation included five officials from America's Tel Aviv embassy and its Jerusalem consulate.

In the declaration, the two sides promised to take all the necessary steps - despite the difficult circumstances - to provide water and treat sewage in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and to quickly repair malfunctions and damage to the systems. Both sides made clear in an appeal to their public opinions, that the water systems of the two peoples are intertwined and serve both populations, and that any harm done to them will cause damage to Israelis and Palestinians alike. In order to guarantee the steady supply of water to both sides, there is need for cooperation and assistance from both populations. They were therefore requested not to harm water- and sewage system technical- and maintainance workers, and to do everything in their power to avoid harming pipes, pumping stations, drilling equipment and electrical systems.

There have been examples of cooperation on this front. In the Bethlehem region, the central water line was damaged, and Mekorot workers were called out to repair it. Despite pressure from Jewish settlers, it was decided that the needs of the 150,000 residents of Bethlehem were more urgent than those of the few residents of the nearby settlements, so the line to Bethlehem was repaired first. Chlorine for purifying drinking water is manufactured in the Haifa Bay, and Mekorot workers make sure to deliver it to meeting points in the West Bank, often at personal risk to themselves. The Palestinian water officials are grateful to them for this. Recently, when the IDF trisected the Gaza Strip, Israeli water officials made sure that chlorine would be delivered to the southern part of the strip to purify drinking water there.

But despite this openness for the Palestinians' water needs, Israel is quick to respond any time the Palestinian side purposely breaches the interim agreement on water. An example of this is the situation in the Jenin area. Palestinians privately drilled in 30 spots there for agricultural irrigation without permission or coordination with Israeli authorities. As a result, Israel is refusing to approve large-scale drilling for drinking water in that area.

©2001 Ha'aretz

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