Peter Hibberdine on the role of water in Israeli settlement policy

A television documentary in 1995 that contrasted Jewish settlers in Kiryat Arba cavorting in swimming pools against the parched fields and empty water faucets in nearby Hebron caused outrage in some sectors of Jewish society. Prime Minister Rabin responded with an order that water be trucked in; a magnanimous total of 27 cubic metres was duly transported the following day. 14 years later, in 2009, the World Bank published a report stating that Israelis use 240 cubic metres of water per person each year, against 75 cubic metres for West Bank Palestinians. This disparity is a direct result of the Israelis actively blocking Palestinians from developing new production wells in the occupied territories for over 40 years, a violation of international law. Why are they doing this? Many historians maintain that the control Israel gained over West Bank aquifers is the chief reason it refuses to cede the land it has annexed since the Six Day War. While this is surely true, its control of regional water resources has very little to do with money (agriculture makes up just three percent of Israel’s gross domestic product) and everything to do with expanding into the occupied territories and ensuring that the Palestinians are too poor to fight back.

Israel’s intransigence only starts to make sense if you take its unique recent history into account, along with its methods of establishing a presence in Palestine: The nation was born in a sea of blood. 10,000 Palestinians killed and 700,000 displaced in 1948 alone. It was difficult for Israelis not to notice that many of those who had been forced out of their homes were slightly miffed at what they saw as gross injustice and brutality on the part of an invading colonial power; the Israelis knew they had a fight on their hands. Their response, borne out of fear, was to expand as quickly and thoroughly as possible throughout the territory by establishing settlements in areas with Arab majorities, as well as in peripheral regions. Saul Arlosoroff, a prominent Israeli water expert, explains that, “The whole philosophy of the Zionist movement was that you maintain control of the land, over your country, by working there and being there… if they move out of the border with Lebanon, somebody else will be there, and that somebody is Arabs.” Agriculture, and therefore water, played a dominant role in this philosophy. Water became “the blood flowing through the arteries of the nation,” as Israel’s third Prime Minister Levi Eshkol put it.

Agriculture and the kibbutzim hold a special place in the narrative of Israeli nation building, not only in terms of reclaiming their ancient homeland “flowing with milk and honey” but also in the image of the tough settler working the land and, by extension, forcing out the Palestinians. This image persists, even though the first part of it is now somewhat mythical; only four percent of Israel’s population currently work in agriculture. Most of the country’s food staples are imported from the US and the industry is maintained through generous water subsidies. It would be significantly cheaper to import fruit from Europe rather than grow it in Israel if the true cost of water was factored in. Which tends to suggest they are maintaining the farming sector for reasons of “nation building”. The rollout of new settlements in the occupied territories has continued unabated under both Labor and Likud since the internationally condemned occupation began in 1967.

If the issue of continued West Bank occupation was just about water for new settlements however, the numbers still don’t add up. According to Saul Arlosoroff, “The whole issue is about 100mcm in the foreseeable future, and 100mcm desalinated from the sea is $100 million… when Israel’s GDP is already $100 billion. That makes it 0.1 per cent of GDP.” That is the price of peace if water is the main sticking point, as it seemed to be during the Oslo II Agreement, where it was finally agreed between the Israeli state and an ex-pat Palestinian from Tunis that Israel would retain complete control over all shared water resources, as well as veto power over any proposed Palestinian infrastructure projects. Reflecting on the Accords a year after Oslo II, Shimon Peres remarked rather candidly to a journalist that “we screwed the Palestinians.”

On the ground in Ramallah in 2003, John Berger condensed the unfortunate narrative of Israel “screwing the Palestinians” into the image of a man scooping water from the bottom of a patched up 500 litre plastic barrel: “The man explains that this is how he repaired the barrel after a gang from the settlement of Halamish, the one with red roofs, came one night, when they knew the water containers were full of spring rain, and slashed them with knives.” One is left with the feeling that the region is stuck in some 19th century time warp; a group of white people colonising a poorly armed indigenous population and treating them as if they were merely part of the local fauna.


Peter Hibberdine is an Auckland-based playwright and actor.