Water and international law

With the increasing scarcity of water, both as a result of natural causes and population growth, the issue of water is becoming a more and more significant component of the Arab-Israel conflict in general, and the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli struggle in particular. Indeed, in the peace process that was initiated in the beginning of the 1990s, water was recognized as one of the most significant final status issues together with Jerusalem, borders, settlements, and security.

The water issue has more than one dimension. It is a question of sovereignty affecting territorial and border issues. One reason behind the Israeli drive to modify borders away from 1967 lines is water. It is also at the core of the settlement issue simply because one of the many considerations behind the location and building of settlements is water: Israel has been concentrating its settlement expansion policy over the water reservoirs in occupied Palestinian territories.

Moreover, Israeli practices concerning the issue of water in occupied territory have been in violation of international law in more than one way: on the one hand, Israel is illegally stealing water that international law prevents occupiers from using for the purposes of its own citizens, and on the other, Israel is restricting the indigenous population, the Palestinians, from being able to use and enjoy the water that legally belongs to them.

Israeli water policy in the occupied territories is also an illustration of the racial discrimination inherent in the occupation. Studies show that Israeli settlers, with no restrictions on their usage of water, on a per capita basis use 20 times more water than the average Palestinian individual.

So there are two levels to this issue. One has to do with the current situation, which needs to be dealt with in accordance with international law. International law clearly allows the occupied people the right to enjoy whatever scarce water resources they have under territories legally considered as occupied and also prevents the occupiers from using them. The second is the way this issue should be dealt with in final negotiations. In this regard, the Palestinians will insist on their full rights rather than negotiate over the use of water from these resources, i.e. the complete control over and consequent use of water aquifers under Palestinian territories.

There is, of course, some complexity arising where reservoirs lie under the borders, meaning the two states will share the same reservoirs. But even in such a situation international law has specific regulations to be followed.

A recent example of the problems generated by the water issue appeared when Israel and Jordan wanted to negotiate the implementation of a study sponsored by the World Bank on a potential Red-Dead or Med-Dead canal, to bring water to the Dead Sea to offset the decline in water levels there and to use such a canal to generate electricity along the way. The World Bank considered Palestine as a legal partner, not only for the project itself but for the study. The project has been shelved for now because of Israel’s refusal to acknowledge Palestinian rights in this regard.

Similar to all other issues in this conflict, the water issue can be solved only when Israel is willing to recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people according to the relevant stipulations of international law. The refusal to adhere to international legality on the water issue is an indicator of a continuing Israeli unwillingness to replace the current conflict with normal and peaceful relations between the two peoples.