THE concept that religious and ideological differences stand at the centre of this conflict are quite wrong, writes Paul Younger
Once again, the world looks on in paralysis as the latest Gaza crisis limps through an uneasy ceasefire. You would need to be some optimist to hope that this may be the prelude to a lasting peace.
After all, have the Israelis and the Philistines (the old word for Palestinians) not been at war since the days of David and Goliath? Or since Samson became the first recorded Israelite to forcibly demolish a building in Gaza, with reckless disregard for the safety of its occupants? Haven’t the counter-prophets of our age, such as Dawkins and Hitchens, explained how this conflict is just another tawdry example of how religious fanaticism can lead to destruction?
As usual, the roots of the conflict are far more complex, and also far more mundane.
We’ve all heard about the tunnels bringing goods and weapons into the Gaza Strip, and received with alarm the latest reports of tit-for-tat missile bombardment.
What is less well appreciated is that some of the deepest the roots of that conflict lie even further underground, in a water table heavily depleted by pumping on the Israeli side of the border, and polluted by surface activities in both countries, exacerbated by the induced inflow of sea water.
The desperate shortage of clean water in Gaza is one of the main reasons that the Palestinian population there is even more desperately poor than that of the West Bank.
It is from poverty, enforced by chronic water shortage, that the most powerful engine of the modern Palestinian-Israeli conflict draws its fuel. Of course it suits demagogues on both sides, and indeed in Washington, to give an ideological and religious gloss to affairs.
I first went to Israel/Palestine in 1993 to train Palestinians on water issues, so that they would have some hope of negotiating a reasonable deal on sharing water resources. After two weeks of experiencing life as lived by Palestinians – with arbitrary and interminable hold-ups at Israeli army checkpoints, verbal and physical abuse by soldiers, and only intermittent water and power supplies – my sympathy fund was running thin.
While water is not the only shared resource unjustly arrogated by Israel, it is the most fundamental.
Living in Scotland, it’s too easy to forget just how dependent we are on water, not only for sustenance, but as the guarantor of hygiene – the front line in the battle against disease. And given the devotional practices of Islam, which (just as in Judaism) demands scrupulous washing before prayer and a thorough commitment to bodily hygiene, deprivation of water is also a humiliating blow to dignity. So when your tap only flows a few hours per week, it’s more than just thirst you suffer.
The scale of the inequitable appropriation of water resources by Israel is breathtaking. While most of the rain in the two territories falls on the mountains of the West Bank, almost all of it soaks into the ground and flows westwards in aquifers that extend beneath Israeli territory towards the Mediterranean. By locating its wellfields along the pre-1967 border, Israel has always been able to lower the water table “upstream” in the West Bank. Since 1967, illegal Israeli settlements within the West Bank have sunk their own wells, usually going much deeper than the old Palestinian wells and under-draining them. The more productive Palestinian wells have been confiscated for Israeli use, and Israel also dictates limits on how much water the Palestinians can pump from their remaining wells. And the recently completed “peace wall” has followed a circuitous route which has ensured it annexed some 50 Palestinian wells on to the Israeli side. The net result is that Israelis receive 83 per cent of the water drawn from the West Bank aquifers, and Israelis use almost four times more per person than do the Palestinians. While Israeli farmers are able to irrigate 50 per cent of their land, 90 per cent of their Palestinian counterparts can practice only rain-fed agriculture. Even the celebrated Jordan River, so central in Judaeo-Christian symbolism, has been reduced to a saline trickle, as almost all of its natural flow is diverted into the Israel National Water Carrier.
In the Gaza Strip the water situation is even more desperate. There are no springs of any size, and rivers only flow immediately after storms.
Hence the only local water source is groundwater, but this groundwater flows into Gaza from Israel. Decades of heavy pumping by Israeli have ensured that nothing more than only trifling amounts seep beneath the border. As the pumping continues, sea water is starting to invade the Gaza aquifer from the west, joining sewage seeping down from sewers shattered by aerial bombardment. The water in most of Gaza is already too salty or otherwise polluted for drinking or irrigation, and the UN estimates that there will be no potable water left in the Gaza aquifer by 2030. Already Palestinians are largely reliant on water vendors – often selling them at exorbitant prices, groundwater pumped in Israel that would have otherwise flowed naturally into Gaza. Try to imagine what it would feel like if all of the above were re-written with “English” in place of “Israeli” and “Scot” in place of “Palestinian”, then ask yourself: would you really need to commit to a minority reading of the Koran before you would be up in arms?
Until hydrological justice is made an urgent priority, there will be no prospect of lasting peace in the Holy Land.
l Paul Younger is Rankine professor of engineering at the University of Glasgow, and author of Water: All That Matters (Hodder & Stoughton). More information at www.allthatmattersbooks.com