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Israel, Arabs, and the Environment
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Israeli Arabs maintained a distinct separation in their political and cultural identities from their cousins in the West Bank and especially in the Gaza Strip, but they were certainly familiar and empathetic with their ecological plight. If anything, environmental conditions there were so much worse than those inside of Israel that they offered a moderating sense of proportion. For the most part, Israel's small circle of Arab environmental activists did not be-come involved in ecological problems over the Green Line. There was too much work to do at home and, although Arab citizens of Israel were aware of Palestinian complaints, the problems were deemed insurmountable.


Regardless of one's view about the aftermath of the 1967 War, few would view Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as a glorious chapter in the country's environmental history. The adverse geopolitical circumstances tended to dominate the ecological reality on the ground. Many commentators are content to file the entire matter under the gen-eral heading of neocolonialism.[125] Yet, the unfolding of events had little to do with a premeditated exploitation of West Bank and Gazan resources. Rather it was an unintended consequence of the tragic diplomatic stale-mate. The unnatural status of a military occupation, which was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, did not help.

Owing to Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan's powers of persuasion and the absence of feasible alternatives, Palestinian political and clan leaders in the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 were inclined to respond favorably to his appeal: “We don't ask that you love us; we ask only that you care for your own people and work with us in restoring normalcy.” This was achieved by maintaining the status quo—legally, culturally, and economically—for the one million Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel chose not to annex the territories, whose residents formally kept their passports and their Jordanian and Egyptian national affiliations. For the first years of occupa-tion, agriculture continued to be the central pillar of the local economy, and the West Bank farmers' traditional markets in Jordan were maintained (two days after the end of the Six-Day War, bridges over the Jordan River opened, and the flow of produce and people continued unencumbered).[126]

Initially the Palestinian standard of living improved dramatically under Israeli rule. Spurred by Israeli training and buoyed by Israeli markets, within five years, West Bank agricultural production increased by 100 per-cent, and per capita income was up 80 percent.[127] Even though they re-ceived the lowest wages in Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers brought home salaries that were lucrative relative to pay in Jordan and Egypt. In the Gaza Strip, 98 percent employment was reported in 1973.[128] The Israeli administration also built piped water systems for hundreds of villages and initially allowed the drilling of some forty new deep wells. It even imported water from Israel's National Water Carrier to expand water supplies for Palestinian cities, leading to initial increases in per capita water usage in the West Bank.[129]

Yet as the occupation stretched on, the population swelled, and requests for new well and irrigation permits from the civil and military authorities were rarely granted. Water became a security issue. The amount of irri-gated land in the West Bank remained static.[130] The Israeli civil adminis-tration did little to change previous Jordanian and Egyptian policies that

had discouraged a serious Palestinian industrial base in the West Bank and Gaza. From an environmental perspective, the lack of industry may have been beneficial. Still, before long, water contamination involving sanitary rather than industrial wastes was a problem that could not be ignored.[131]

Most West Bank and Gaza homes were not connected to a sewage system in 1967. As the Palestinian economy stagnated, the sanitary infrastructure was the first thing to go, creating an exaggerated parallel to the situation in the Israeli Arab sector. The few sewage systems that were installed discharged the collected wastes without any treatment at all.[132] With water in short sup-ply, many Palestinian farmers chose to use sewage as an irrigation source, health risks notwithstanding. Severe contamination became widespread,[133] and associated illnesses reached epidemic levels. In 1994 scientist Karen Assaf reported that waterborne diseases, in particular diarrheal illness, were second only to respiratory diseases in causing mortality and morbidity among chil-dren, who make up over 50 percent of the Palestinian population.[134]

As Jewish settlement expanded across the territories, the political as well as the environmental atmosphere soured. Although the settlers usu-ally installed reasonable sanitary facilities, they brought with them the polluting habits of Israeli industry. The government supported an envi-ronmental protection unit to service the Jewish settlements in Samaria, run by a conscientious former NRA ranger, Yizhak Meir. Like most of the local environmental offices, however, its influence was limited. For instance, in the West Bank's largest industrial park, Barkan, fifteen of the ninety factories required sophisticated treatment of wastes. But a study in the 1990s showed that in practice, effluents streamed through a disabled treatment facility, polluting Wadi Rabba and the surrounding ground-water.[135] But it was not only the chemical contamination that bothered the Palestinians; they perceived the rectangular Jewish architecture as alien, another form of pollution on their landscape.[136]

International law prohibited the imposition of Israeli environmental legal norms on the local Arab population. This produced an extreme man-ifestation of the underlying paradox of environmental versus political rights. In contrast to political rights, which rely on a fundamentally pas-sive government posture, the realization of environmental rights requires active government intervention. In the occupied territories, Israel's role was reversed. For the most part, Palestinians wanted to see the Israeli au-thorities as little as possible. Yet the environment, for some, was an excep-tion, and Israel was resented for not imposing pollution standards.[137] Once the Intifada mushroomed into a full-fledged revolt in the 1980s, however, it was difficult to think about environmental oversight or progress. Still,

in 1998, regulations were finally passed that allowed Israeli authorities to enforce environmental norms on the occupied West Bank.[138]

After the 1977 elections, the Likud government began expanding Jewish settlement exponentially, and the resource gap became an embar-rassment. Twenty years later, Palestinian hydrologists claimed that 37 per-cent of the West Bank's Arab population still had no water piped to their homes. Ad hoc solutions such as rainwater collection, delivery by trucks, or rural wells presented their own health problems.[139] Even if their con-sumption was only half that of Californians (with a similar climate),[140] the 280 liters of water that Israelis used each day was four times higher than that allocated to Palestinians in the territories. During the summer months many West Bank cities experienced acute water shortages.

The image of “thirsty” Palestinian children, many of whom were with-out running water, staring resentfully across a valley at swimming pools in a neighboring Jewish town, was a powerful weapon in the ongoing propaganda war.[141] Meir Ben Meir, Israel's crusty two-time Water Commissioner, stressed Palestinian responsibility for such crises, citing the 40 percent loss of water to leaky pipes in cities such as Hebron. But many Israelis were embarrassed by such a callous technocratic response in the face of human privation.[142] Israel invariably responded to specific short-ages on a humanitarian level by temporarily upping allocations.[143] The Israeli government, however, did little to assuage the Palestinian sense of injustice and resentment at the inequitable allocation of resources.

Comparisons to the quality of life inside Westernized Israel may have been inappropriate. But the state of the environment in the Gaza Strip was deplorable in absolute as well as relative terms. The wells that serviced the Strip in the southern tip of the Coastal Aquifer already suffered from alarmingly high salinity rates in 1967, because of chronic overpumping and saltwater intrusion during the years of Egyptian rule.[144] (Israeli stud-ies suggested that the sustainable yield was 70 million cubic meters per year, but actual pumping exceeded 120![145]). But the squalid situation grew worse as the population doubled. With open sewage ponds festering in the center of refugee camps, dangerous nitrate levels rising in drinking water, withering aquifers, and ubiquitous litter, conditions became unbearable.[146]

Following the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, the Middle East peace talks included special working groups for the environment and for water. The discussions produced a tentative optimism among observers that Green issues would offer a win-win basis for rapprochement. Yet progress with the Palestinians was slow. Figures collected by Meron Benvenisti documenting the enormous asymmetry between the parties explain why:

Two million Palestinians (one-third of Israel's population) controlled only 8 percent of its water resources and 13 percent of the land; they generated 5 percent of Israel's gross domestic product, with industrial production equivalent to that of a single medium-sized Israeli plant. Palestinian per capita income was one-tenth that of Israelis.[147] With little to lose, it is no wonder that the Palestinians were inflexible.

Much of the tension in negotiations centered around control of the Mountain Aquifer. Hydrologically, the aquifer includes three distinct units that offer the sole source of water for Palestinians on the West Bank and supply one-third of Israel's drinking water.[148] Together the subaquifers can produce a safe annual yield of roughly 630 million cubic meters of water. The problem was that as much as 90 percent of this recharge water origi-nates as rainfall in the West Bank. The largest and highest-quality sub-aquifer (Yarkon-Taninim) then flows in a westerly direction, where it is most easily tapped in wells that spread throughout the central region of Israel.[149] By 1967, Israeli hydrologists knew that most of the aquifer's po-tential had already been tapped. Additional wells threatened to lead to massive salination, because of the aquifer's karstic limestone/dolomite ge-ological composition. To the consternation of Palestinians, Israeli authori-ties drilled additional wells after 1967. These wells, however, added only 50 million to 65 million cubic meters per year, and most were located in the unexploited, saline eastern subaquifer.[150]

Israel claimed historical rights to wells in its territories under one the-ory of international law, while the Palestinians claimed riparian rights to the water under another.[151] Indeed, the Palestinian negotiators even de-manded financial compensation for the years past when Israel utilized the groundwater. Yet most Israelis did not believe they should be expected to make any payment for resources they had won in a war started by past Arab aggression.[152]

The conflict provided material for countless academic gatherings and ar-ticles, as well as joint (and sometimes conflicting) reports.[153] The basic prem-ise was easy to agree on: The hydrological interdependence between Israelis and Palestinians made “divorce” impossible.[154] A joint management strategy seemed inevitable. Yet academics had little influence on the zero-sum-game dynamic that characterized official rhetoric about water allocation.

Unwilling to embark on a drastic curtailment of Israeli agriculture,[155] Israelis argued that efforts had to focus on “expanding the pie,” not just di-viding it up. As things stood, water resources were already inadequate and would only become more scarce. Palestinians, whose baseline water qual-ity and quantity were so much poorer than those of the Israelis, rolled

their eyes as Israelis again brought up expensive high-tech options such as desalinization[156] and importation schemes.[157] It seemed that rather than make sacrifices for peace, Israel wanted to have its cake and eat it too.

At the same time, even those Israelis inclined to make concessions were worried that Palestinian control could lead to massive contamination. After Israel left the Gaza Strip to Palestinian control in 1994, there was a rash of unauthorized well drillings. These further exacerbated not only water contamination there but also Israeli concerns about Palestinian commitment to sustainable water management.[158] When Palestinians con-tinued to blame deterioration of the Gaza aquifer—which is either a closed system[159] or only marginally connected to Israel's groundwater[160]—on external Israeli activities, it seemed especially disingenuous.

In the original 1994 Cairo accord that granted autonomy to Jericho and the Gaza Strip, negotiators had basically dodged the water issue.[161] So the 1995 “Oslo B” Interim Agreement surprised skeptics on both sides by tak-ing meaningful steps toward compromise:[162]

  • Israel recognized Palestinian water rights in the West Bank (al-though postponed defining them until negotiations over its perma-nent status). In the meantime Israel acknowledged future Palestinian needs to be 70 million to 80 million cubic meters annually and im-mediately made available an additional 28.6 million cubic meters each year for domestic use.

  • Palestinians recognized the need to develop additional water re-sources for various uses as part of an ultimate solution.

  • A Joint Water Committee, composed of Israeli and Palestinian rep-resentatives, was formed to coordinate management of water and sewage resources on the West Bank. In addition, joint supervision and enforcement teams were set up to monitor, supervise, enforce, and rectify problems arising from unauthorized drillings and con-nections as well as inappropriate water use.[163]

This spirit of optimism quickly diminished in 1996. As the peace process stalled, implementing the water agreement was not a priority for the new Netanyahu administration or Yasir Arafat's Palestinian National Authority. The joint committees ceased meeting, oversight was termi-nated, and the two sides began to exchange charges of intentional pollu-tion and environmental mismanagement. Palestinian environmental negotiators became increasingly disenchanted when they faced one indignity after another as they made efforts to meet with Israeli coun-terparts or even cross from the West Bank into Gaza.[164] In December

1996 the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information held its third annual conference on bilateral environmental issues in Jerusalem. Practically no Palestinians were in attendance. Many had been denied permits to enter Israel.

Consequently, several Israeli proposals for joint projects were often ig-nored, deemed a marginal concern in the larger debate over territorial con-cession. For example, Israel's Ministry of the Environment was especially disappointed when an opportunity to receive funding from Germany for a West Bank sewage project fell through because the use-or-lose money went unutilized due to lack of Palestinian interest.[165] The only binational cooperation appeared to be between pirate smugglers of illegal toxic waste for dumping in the West Bank.[166]

Palestinian leaders were left with their daunting list of ecological prob-lems and insufficient international aid to address them. Under the circum-stances, it was still easiest to fall back on blaming Israel for ecological delinquency. For instance, in a 1998 summer symposium, Dr. Imad Sa'ad, a senior Palestinian official, blamed Israel for lack of infrastructure, the major obstacle to Palestinian environmental protection (of 648 Palestinian villages, 153 were still without drinking-water networks[167]).

Even when the broader political barriers are removed, a shared sense of priorities is likely to remain elusive. As the Israeli economy flourished, the Palestinian economic profile retreated.[168] For the foreseeable future, Palestine will be a developing country. With their children's health in real danger due to poor drinking-water quality, to Palestinians, many Israeli environmental concerns, such as radon concentrations in schools,[169] cellular phone antennas, or endangered-species repatriation, seem downright frivolous. When per capita GNP dropped 35 percent following the Oslo accords in 1993, Palestinian resources were more limited than ever.[170] If Western nations have a difficult time reaching a common environmental denominator with Third World countries, it is hard to imagine that Israelis and Palestinians, with all their additional political baggage, will find it easy to do so.

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Israel, Arabs, and the Environment
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