Separating the Waters (Part 2)


A wall of rhetoric

Initially, the wall began life in Israel as the brainchild of the “Left”, i.e. the Labour Party and Meretz. It was they who first demanded that the wall be built, and they wanted it built it rapidly. This enthusiasm was the sign of a fundamental shift of opinion among liberal-progressive Israelis, who in former times had seen themselves as belonging to the broad peace camp, since the beginning of the second intifada. While there is no single cause for this change, one major reason was the narrative Barak delivered on his return from Camp David in summer 2000, when he rejected any responsibility for the failure of the talks. In doing so, he coined the phrase: “We offered them everything, but they chose violence.” For liberal-progressives, therefore, the wall is first and foremost intended as a protective barrier against terrorist attacks. A secondary consequence, which they also see as desirable, is to reduce the number of troops required to put down the intifada. [2] Many of these early supporters thus cling to the illusion that they only need ‘enough’ wall to ensure that they are no longer exposed to Palestinian suicide attacks inside Israel. Others have even more innocent motives, hoping that it may also bring an end to their army’s notorious military operations against the Palestinian civilian population, which has seen soldiers shoot their way through defenceless villages, impoverished refugee camps and historical town centres. It is immaterial that all these expectations remain a bloody illusion, in both senses of the word and for both sides, Israelis as well as Palestinians. To date, many left-liberal Israelis still believe that the wall is an instrument of peace, and support it on that basis.

The settlers, on the other hand, were at first completely opposed to the wall, which they believed was bound to disconnect them from the rest of Israel. [3] In late 2002 and early 2003, however, the Yesha Council (the council and administration apparatus which covers most of the settlements in the West Bank) shifted its position and embraced the wall campaign. At the same time, they also demanded alterations to its route. Even before the settlers made their demands, the route of the wall did not simply follow the Green Line, but in general ran further to the east, inside the West Bank. Now, however, the wall’s route was gradually redesigned so as to incorporate as many settlements as possible on the Israeli side. Blatant annexation replaced any apparent focus on security. At the same time, the planners wanted to annex as few Palestinians as possible: as a result, the line of the wall swings back to the west each time it encounters a Palestinian village, thus separating its inhabitants from their western hinterland. In short: the land is now on the west, and the Palestinians on the east of the wall. The deep meandering curves to be seen on any map of the wall are an eloquent expression of this strategy.

A common complaint of the “moderate” opposition (i.e. those opposition groups who are close to the present government) was that Sharon was always trying to delay the construction of the wall. And indeed, their fears are not perhaps entirely unfounded: for when the wall was first proposed, Sharon did not look kindly on it. The settlements are, after all, his pet project, and his major legacy to history. Like the settlers themselves, he was worried they would find themselves isolated; to his way of thinking, the wall also constituted a dangerous precedent, since it could be seen as a first step to establishing the borders of a future Palestinian state. By thus creating the wrong sorts of ‘fact on the ground’, the wall could actually end up facilitating an end to the occupation.

However, his attitude changed. Having formed the most right-wing government in Israeli history [4], Sharon found himself under at least some marginal pressure to reopen negotiations, due to the context of the Iraq war. Necessity is the mother of invention: under pressure to accept the road map, he quickly abandoned his hostility to the wall — not because he now accepted the idea of a Palestinian state, but because he had discovered how to subvert the project so as to make it serve his own purposes.

In an advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague ruled on 9 July 2004, that most of the wall, inside the West Bank, constitutes a violation of international law — “… Israel … has the obligation to cease the(se) works of construction (and) … further … has the obligation to make reparation for the damage caused to all the natural or legal persons concerned.”
On 20 July 2004, the General Assembly, in resolution ES-10/15, called on Israel to comply with the legal obligations identified in the ICJ advisory opinion, but the Israeli High Court rejected the ICJ opinion regarding the illegality of the Barrier, holding that the Barrier may be built within the occupied Palestinian territory to protect Israeli settlements.

By this, Israel has turned an apparently defensive structure like a wall or fence into a blatantly offensive device: Israel, by ever expanding the perimeter of the fence, amasses more and more land around its settlements under the pretext of “security and protection”, thus establishing facts on the ground for a silent land grab. For the Israeli public at large, “security and protection” is the almost mythological mantra to justify any measure and silence possible criticism.

The fact, that the barrier by no means is intended as merely a temporal structure, has turned into an open, albeit well-guarded secret inside Israel. In December 2005, Tzipi Livni, then Israel’s Justice Minister, attracted angry responses, when she said that the fence would serve as “the future border of the State of Israel.” In fact, she said, “by means of its rulings on the separation fence the High Court was sketching the borders of the state.” (“State to Court: Fence route has ‘political implications,’” Haaretz, 14 June 2006, by Yuval Yoaz).

The real agenda is the future

Throughout this process, no one paused to ask the Palestinians their opinion; though their answer, of course, was hardly likely to have been positive. For the northern section of the wall alone, 83 square km of land have been expropriated, including valuable agricultural lands and large parts of the natural hinterland of many villages in the wall strip. Sixteen villages (13,386 people) will find themselves locked into the sort of no-man’s-land that is being created west of the wall. Two-hundred-thirty-eight square km of agricultural land have been cut off from the farmers who used to work it. In addition, 53 villages will lose almost 142 square km of farmland to the wall. Furthermore, 8.4 square km of olive groves and orchards have been or will be uprooted. The barren hills the olive trees will leave behind may be an open wound in the land, both for its inhabitants, and from an ecological point of view, but they represent a precious real estate resource for Israel and an unexpected gift to its urban planners, who are looking for ways to alleviate pressure on the densely populated coastal plain. The lands expropriated so far to make way for this one section of the wall alone already constitute two percent of the surface area of the West Bank. And with the loss of this land, many thousands of people have lost their only source of income.

My main concern here, however, is with water. Water is clearly a major issue for both the builders and the victims of the wall. The section built to date between Salem and Alkana has isolated 47 wells (in the area between Tulkarem and Qalqiliyah) on the western side of the wall, where they are either partly or wholly inaccessible to the Palestinian population.

Many Palestinians, as well as many journalists writing in the foreign press, now suspect that it was the conscious intention of the Israelis to incorporate these wells into their territory and take over their production for their own use. However, this argument does not really stand up to close inspection. Indeed, the location, use and technical infrastructure of these wells suggest otherwise:

  • First of all, the West Bank wells that now lie on the west side of the wall are less deep and less productive than the neighbouring Israeli wells, because they are located in less favourable production areas than their rivals.
  • Secondly, the quantity of water directly ‘annexed’ by the wall only comes to some 5 million cubic metres per year in total. If we assume that, as in Gaza, Israel will declare a 1km-wide strip to the east of the wall as a restricted “security” area, then another 60 wells, amounting to some 10.3 million cubic metres in annual yield, would be added to the above figure. Yet even then, these 15 million cubic metres per year only represent four and one-half per cent of the current annual Israeli production rate, and thus lie far below the existing range of seasonal/annual fluctuations in pumping rates, which can extend from dozens up to hundreds of millions of cubic meters. Their potential contribution to Israeli water needs is therefore marginal, at best.
  • It should not be forgotten that most Palestinian wells were built for irrigation purposes. As a result, and unlike most Israeli wells, they have no underground connection to a water network, which would allow the water to be pumped to more remote areas or fed into the National Water Carrier. Indeed, it is precisely for this technical reason that the Palestinian well owners may well in time abandon the water in these wells completely. Even if the wells can be kept operating on the other side of the well, they will have no way to get the water out.
  • Finally, we should remember that Israel does not need the Palestinian wells to access the water they contain. Technically, they can already get at most of these 15 million cubic meters simply by increasing the pumping rates of their own wells to the west of the Green Line. Thus they could extract the water “invisibly”, without having to lay a finger on the wells in the West Bank.

    For the Palestinians, on the other hand, the annual loss of 5 to 15 million cubic metres is very significant, since it represents between 23 percent and 75 percent of their long-term average production from the Western Aquifer. These losses will therefore be painfully felt, and will drastically reduce agricultural production in villages and towns directly adjacent to the wall.

    However, while the present loss is great, the future indirect losses which the wall will cause will be even more drastic. For the loss we need to calculate is not simply the 47 or 107 wells that will be lost this year or next, but all future well development in this area which has effectively been made impossible, even should there be successful peace negotiations. The strip of land west of the wall, which will be annexed by Israel de facto, coincides with what is, from a hydro-economic point of view, the only area where abstraction from the Western Aquifer could potentially be expanded through future drilling. The areas further to the east are situated on the slopes of the West Bank and fall outside the basin’s productive area. In hydro-geological terms, they belong to the transition zone between the recharge area which lies in the mountains and the production zone in the plains below. In the upland areas, the water table is only encountered at great depth, and the groundwater-bearing layers are only partially saturated. Thus, at best, any new wells drilled here would be very weak in flow, and the water level would be liable to sudden huge drops under operation. As a result of the wall, then, the Palestinians stand to lose not only three quarters of their present well production from the Western Aquifer, but also the whole of the basin’s future potential for groundwater development, which is confined to this narrow productive strip along the Green Line.

    It seems likely, then, that Israeli planners were not so much concerned with annexing present resources when they designed the route of the wall, as they were with expropriating their neighbours’ future. Already under Oslo, Israel had shown itself particularly intransigent every time the Western Aquifer came up for discussion. And while the Palestinians managed to obtain drilling permits for additional wells in the Eastern and North-Eastern Aquifer (for a modest total of about 70-80 million cubic metres for the Oslo interim period), Israel always insisted that they should not be allowed to develop even one more drop of water from the Western Aquifer.

    By the mid ’90s, long before Camp David, Israeli hydrologists had already drawn up so-called “maps of water interests,” on which those areas that are now located behind the wall were marked as zones of strategic interest for Israel. It was in these areas that all future Palestinian groundwater development had to be prevented. It is therefore hardly surprising that the route the wall has taken in these areas appears to have been dictated by these maps. Of course, for Israel, there are other strategic factors that have to be taken into account — the most significant of which is the constant drive to expand the settlements, even though this policy is illegal under international law. Nor is the approach to settlements and water the same. While what matters with the former is their continuous growth, in the water sector, or at least in the Western Aquifer, Israel’s main preoccupation would seem to be to maintain the injustices already enshrined in the status quo.

    The main water objective of the wall, then, is not to steal a handful of wells, but to prevent any future expansion of Palestinian capacity to mine the Western Aquifer. That is the purpose of the facts on the ground currently being created. Once those facts have been created, they will make it impossible for Palestinian society in the fertile regions along the former Green Line to know any form of development, or even a return to something like their former ‘normal’ life. Among all the reporting of harassment and the grief of immediate losses, amid all the talk of political and human rights, we should not forget that the Israelis have their eye firmly set on the hydrological and economic future. Even if a political settlement is one day achieved, Israel’s annexation of this vital undeveloped resource will continue to undermine the lives and hopes of millions of Palestinians, both now and in generations to come.

    Clemens Messerschmid has been living and working since 1997 as a hydrogeologist in Ramallah. His assignments include work at the German Water Supply and Sanitation Development Projects Palestine (WSSDPP), by GTZ (1997-2001) and as Research and Co-ordination Advisor in PWA for the project “The Sustainable Management of the West Bank and Gaza Aquifers” (SUSMAQ), funded by DFID and in collaboration with University of Newcastle upon Tyne and the British Geological Survey (2001-2004). He currently works as a freelance water consultant in the Middle East.

    The article was originally published in the German quarterly inamo # 34: “Israels Mauer und die Wasserressourcen” (2003).

    [1] In addition, changes to the already built stretches of the barrier will amount to roughly NIS 900 million, according to Akiva Eldar (Ha’aretz, 21 December 2006).
    [2] A “leftist” variant of this argument regards the wall as the first step towards a Palestinian state and continues to claim that the numerous deviations from the Green Line eastward are only “microscopic corrections.”
    [3] This did not worry the original proponents of the wall very much, since they had little sympathy for the settlers.
    [4] Sharon’s coalition partner, Shinuii, which is the legitimate sister of the European Liberal Parties, made no serious attempts to oppose the former Prime Minister’s more strictly right-wing ambitions in the Knesset. Thus, for example, part of the responsibility for the extreme intensification of IDF repression in Gaza under Sha’ul Mofaz lies with these “liberal” members of government, who have allowed this process to unfold unopposed.

    Related Links

  • BY TOPIC: Israel’s Apartheid Wall