by Malcolm Lowe
The supporters of the Palestinians think that by alleging a higher per capita use of water in Israel they are accusing Israel, but instead they are emphasizing the failures of the PA (here as in many fields). And while the Israeli spokesman thinks that he is defending Israel with his lower per capita figure, he is actually defending the PA against the charge of incompetence.
The obligation upon Israel to supply water to the PA from aquifers in Israel has nothing to do with whether the Palestinian population is two million or four million or a hundred million, if that is what the Palestinians want. That obligation derives from the amount of rainfall in the mountains of the West Bank, and from nothing else.
Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, is a phenomenon that Israelis should appreciate: a leading European politician who is a fervent admirer of their country. As such, he accepted an invitation to address the Knesset, Israel's parliament, on February 12, 2014. The Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett, however, reacted with demonstrative fury to a sentence in that speech which referred to the water usage of Israelis and Palestinians. Quite naturally, the media pounced on that reaction, with the result that his praise of Israel went to waste and the whole matter continues to be surrounded by confusion.
Martin Schulz (left), President of the European Parliament, addresses Israel's Knesset. (Image source: Knesset handout)
In what follows, we shall be partly involved in establishing the facts of the case, but only in small part and without, say, going out to measure water usage ourselves. Rather, the emphasis will be on showing that there is generally no logical relationship between the facts alleged and the conclusions drawn from them for propagandistic purposes.
The Perils of Schulz
First, here is exactly what Mr. Schulz said, quoting some Palestinians that he had met in Ramallah: "One of the questions of these young people, which most moved me, was: How can it be that Israelis are allowed to use 70 liters of water per day, but Palestinians only 17?" ("Einer der Fragen dieser jungen Menschen, die mich am meisten bewegt hat, war: Wie kann es sein, dass Israelis 70 Liter Wasser am Tag benutzen dürfen und Palästinenser nur 17?" Here we have translated word for word from the German rather than use the official translation, which is freer.)
In the current English version of his speech, posted on the official site of the EU Parliament Presidency, the following disclaimer has been inserted into the sentence: "although I could not check the exact figures" ("wobei ich die genauen Zahlen nicht nachschlagen konnte" in the official German version). At the time of writing, however, the sentence without the disclaimer is still available in the version of the speech on the website of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and probably elsewhere, whether on internet or in printed newspapers. Moreover, he can be heard saying it in that form in the Knesset, without any disclaimer, in video clips here and (behind the Hebrew voice-over) here.
It was understandable that Mr. Schulz or his aides wanted to put the matter straight by making that admission in the versions preserved for posterity. By doing so, however, the fury of Mr. Bennett and his party has been made less understandable. They were upset because organizations such as Amnesty International have used such comparisons of water usage to make outrageous claims against Israel. Yet Mr. Bennett's party was wrong to accuse Mr. Schulz of lying: the latter had truthfully said that a Palestinian has asked him that question.
Moreover, Mr. Schulz was a double victim: he was both actively misled by Palestinians and passively misled by Israelis. Between his visit to Ramallah and his appearance in the Knesset, he was invited to a dinner hosted by Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the EU Ambassador to Israel. As reported in Israel Hayom "Among those in attendance was Naomi Chazan, a former Meretz MK and deputy Knesset speaker who is now a director in the left-wing NGO New Israel Fund; Yossi Beilin, former Meretz leader and cabinet minister and one of the architects of the Geneva Initiative; Ron Pundak, who helped draft the Oslo Accords in 1993 and is a former director-general of the Peres Center for Peace; Akiva Eldar, former Haaretz correspondent, and Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee at the Council for Higher Education. Labor MK Hilik Bar was the only politician at the event. No government or right-wing representatives were invited."
Mr. Schulz, wrote the newspaper, "said that he had just visited the Palestinian Authority, where he had been told that Israel did not distribute water fairly. He also said he was told of infringements on Palestinian freedom of movement. No one in the audience challenged Schulz on the facts or tried to set the record straight."
After the speech in the Knesset, Mr. Bennett demanded an apology from Mr. Schulz. But it is rather Mr. Bennett who should have apologized for an impetuous and churlish reaction to a friendly speech that praised the return of the Jews to their homeland, hailed the achievements of the State of Israel, and affirmed: "Acting responsibly means for us a clear avowal of Israel's right to exist and the right of the Jewish people to live in security and peace. The European Union will always stand at the side of Israel" ("Verantwortliches Handeln, das bedeutet für uns: ein klares Bekenntnis zum Existenzrecht Israels und zum Recht des jüdischen Volkes, in Sicherheit und Frieden zu leben. Die Europäische Union wird immer an der Seite Israels stehen.").
In the meantime, Mr. Bennett took the opportunity of a visit to Brussels to ask for a meeting with Mr. Schulz. Water was not discussed, according to reports, but "a positive atmosphere prevailed" ("während des Gesprächs herrschte eine positive Atmosphäre"). Although neither made any apology, they agreed on the need for continued cooperation and Mr. Bennett gave Mr. Schulz an ancient coin. Thus much Mr. Bennett made amends for his and his party's behavior. To expect an apology from the dinner guests is probably too much.
The European Ambassador, by the way, is in a different class. According to another report in Israel Hayom, he wields both a big stick and a big carrot at Israelis and Palestinians alike, offering to shower upon them financial benefits it they reach peace and threatening them with penalties if they do not. He adds that if the EU decides to cut its vast subsidies to the Palestinian Authority (PA), "I think there is a great likelihood that Israel would have to provide far more." But he is new on the scene: he has only just presented his credentials to Israeli President Peres and has time to learn. Israelis will not sacrifice their security, however big the stick. Palestinians, whether in Ramallah or in Gaza, will not abandon their ultimate aim of engulfing Israel in a unitary Palestine, however many carrots are thrown at them. The Hamas regime makes no secret of that aim; in the PA it is expressed in numerous petty ways or by demands for the "right of return."
Figures and Propaganda
Everyone is agreed, says the Jerusalem Post, that the figures mentioned by Mr. Schulz were wrong. Friends of the Palestinians say that 70 liters of water per day is the Palestinian figure (or rather 100 liters, of which 30 liters go to waste in faulty infrastructure), while Israelis have 250 liters a day, so the ratio is still close to 4:1. Uri Schor of the Israel Water Authority counters that the figures are more likely 110 liters per Palestinian and something under 170 liters per Israeli. Since January 2012, a 36-page study of the issues by Prof. Haim Gvirtzman has been available online. One can also consult almost thirty briefs on water in the Middle East produced by CAMERA since 1995.
But this battle of ratios is not merely bewildering; it is irrelevant to what the spokespersons for each side are trying to prove. Behind the battle is the assumption is that a high ratio proves Israeli injustice to the Palestinians, whereas a low ratio shows that Israel is better than you thought. The conclusions for the propaganda war, however, should be the other way round.
Over 95% of the Palestinians live in Gaza and the officially termed "Areas A and B" of the West Bank, which were turned over to Palestinian rule in 1995 (the differences between Areas A and B are immaterial here). Since Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, of course, the PA is now directly responsible only for those Areas A and B. Israel is responsible for its own pre-1967 areas and for "Area C" of the West Bank. Note that Jewish settlers live only in Area C, where they outnumber the resident Palestinians.
In the meantime, however, the settlers have been connected to the Israeli water grid; they do not draw water from the Palestinian grid. Consequently, if Israelis, be it in Israel or as settlers in Area C, enjoy much more water per capita than Palestinians, the relevant implication should be that the State of Israel is doing a much better job than the PA and Hamas in supplying water to the populations under their respective rule.
So the supporters of the Palestinians think that by alleging a higher per capita use of water in Israel they are accusing Israel, but instead they are emphasizing the failures of the PA (here as in many fields). And while the Israeli spokesman thinks that he is defending Israel with his lower per capita figure, he is actually defending the PA against the charge of incompetence.
That is the simple answer. It will be objected, loudly, that the situation is not so simple. Indeed, it is not. But we shall see that the complex answer is the same as the simple answer, at least in respect of phony accusations against Israel.
The Complex Answer
For one thing, it is undeniable that Israel has invested much money and expertise in expanding its sources of water. It is a world leader in recycling waste water and in desalinating sea water. Whereas just a few years ago recurrent droughts were becoming a nightmare, today Israel has ample water. Only the price of water has also gone up: everyone pays markedly more on the basic rates and there is a punitive charge for households that use more than a certain upper limit of water per capita.
With expertise come exports. Bloomberg recently reported how "North of San Diego, Israel's IDE Technologies Ltd. is helping to build what it says will be the largest seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere." That is just the biggest of Israel's overseas desalination projects.
The Palestinians have done none of that. On the contrary, wastage of water from leaky pipes and plain theft of water are rampant. The PA complains that it cannot stop all that in Area C, but what about the 95% of Palestinians who are indeed subject to the fearsome multiplicity of Palestinians security services? A friend who just came back from a West Bank town reported hearing from the locals that there nobody pays water bills or even municipal taxes. This may have been boastful exaggeration, but it testifies to an attitude.
There is, however, one major complicating factor in the West Bank. Amid all the shouting about ratios, you will rarely find it mentioned, so here it is. Rain falls predominantly on the mountain ridge running from Jenin in the north to Hebron in the south, all of which, except Jerusalem, is ruled by the PA. But most of the rain goes underground and emerges far away in aquifers in pre-1967 Israel. So who owns this water? Similar problems occur elsewhere in the world, but there is no generally accepted legal procedure for solving them. The second Oslo Accord of 1995 dealt with the issue by decreeing an annual quantity of water that Israel would supply from its own sources to the PA. Before 1967, of course, none of that water was given to the Palestinians.
Up to 1995, that is, Israel was responsible for the supply of water to every individual Palestinian. In 1995, that responsibility was transferred to the PA, except for the few Palestinians who reside in Area C. Israel no longer has any obligation to individual Palestinians in Gaza or in Areas A and B of the West Bank, but only an obligation to provide a global amount of water from within Israel to the PA, an obligation that it has fulfilled. Since 1995, therefore, the per capita figure of water available to a Palestinian in Ramallah or in Gaza is a criterion exclusively for evaluating the performance of the PA or Hamas respectively, not of Israel. The complex answer is indeed the same as the simple answer.
Thus the real mistake of Mr. Schulz was not that his figures were false but that his figures were irrelevant to any evaluation of Israeli responsibilities. To quote such figures was irrelevant in a speech made to Israelis in the Knesset. Moreover, to insert the disclaimer after the event (a dubious move in itself) did not eliminate his mistake but merely compounded the confusion.
Note that in Gaza the situation is the opposite of that in the West Bank. In ancient history, Gaza and other flourishing settlements were built where a geological formation accumulates water and dew (an important factor in that area) that fall today partly in Israel. Strangely, nobody has suggested that if Israel is obliged to send water back into the West Bank, then Gaza should send water back into Israel.
On the contrary, Palestinians have drawn so much water from legal and illegal wells in the Gaza Strip that the ancient water system has been invaded by sea water and may soon be completely destroyed. So the Hamas regime is becoming increasingly dependent on water from Israel, all the while threatening Israel with destruction.
Gaza, of course, is the one place where the Palestinians could build desalination plants. Only, say the Palestinians, Israel is obstructing it. That complaint serves to distract attention from the implications of Hamas rule in Gaza, so let us recall those implications.
To begin with, the Hamas regime is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and is clandestinely helping the Brotherhood in its struggle against the new Egyptian military regime. The Egyptian army's reaction includes the systematic destruction of houses on its side of the border with Gaza, in order to end the two-way smuggling of personnel and goods via tunnels between Gaza and Sinai.
Gaza has thereby become totally dependent on Israel as a source of supplies, including metals and building materials. These the Hamas regime is using to create a new arsenal of rockets and a vast network of underground tunnels in preparation for its next assault on Israel (as recently reported by the Times of Israel). The tunnels included a recent one that penetrated into Israel, from which Hamas hoped to kidnap more hostages like Gilad Shalit. After discovering all that, Israel clamped down again on the supply of cement to Gaza.
If Gaza had a government genuinely devoted to the wellbeing of its citizens, then it would cut all relations with Ramallah and negotiate a separate peace with Israel. After that, besides building desalination plants, it could make its population rich by developing the natural gas field in its territorial waters.
Instead, the Hamas regime's overriding concern is to turn its citizens into an army indoctrinated with the supreme aim of "liberating" cities in Israel. Recognition of Israel, let alone negotiations, is totally excluded. It is hardly surprising that Israel does little more for the Hamas regime than suffices to keep Gazans alive.
So who pays the bills for the water and electricity from Israel on which Gaza depends? The PA in Ramallah. Only it does not pay: it owes hundreds of millions of shekels to Israel because it fails to collect bills owed to it by its own Palestinian customers.
Desalination in the West Bank, of course, is not a possibility, but recycling of waste water would be. To date this hardly happens and the Palestinians blame Israel. Let us look into their arguments.
To begin with, the PA has no money to spend on sewage treatment schemes. This is because the PA has no money to spend on anything, but depends on massive financial support from donors, principally the EU and the US. Its tax revenues consist mainly of duties on imports, which are collected on its behalf and turned over to it by Israel. Among the reasons for the recent fall of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was his attempt to introduce a fair income tax.
The money, therefore, has to come from donors, while the sewage plants would have to be built mainly in Area C of the West Bank. Here Israel demands the creation of plants to serve both Palestinians and Jewish settlements alike. But the donors reject that demand, saying that they will give money only to serve Palestinians.
Here both the Palestinians and the donors have blinded themselves with ideology. If they thought rationally, they would realize that if Jewish settlements are handed over to the Palestinians, as they demand, these settlements will need sewage plants then, so why not build them now? Almost everyone except Naftali Bennett's party anticipates that if there is ever a final peace treaty, then Jewish settlements, at least scattered isolated ones, will be evacuated.
Moreover, Israel and the West Bank are so intricately interwoven that the management of sewage will have to transcend any final border between the two. Practical reason would demand that the whole area be split into its geographical components and that a relevant scheme be devised for each of these, regardless of peace negotiations. But practical reason is constantly trumped by ideology, especially when the PA can abdicate its responsibilities to donors.
Another complaint of the Palestinians is that the Oslo Accord of 1995 was supposed to be replaced by a permanent settlement five years later, but twenty years have passed and much has changed. Agreed, but what has changed? Mainly, that the Palestinian population has doubled, or so the Palestinians say, just as it doubled in the previous twenty years.
But why is this an argument that Israel is now obliged to supply twice as much water from its own water sources? The obligation upon Israel to supply water to the PA from aquifers in Israel has nothing to do with whether the Palestinian population is two million or four million or a hundred million, if that is what the Palestinians want. That obligation derives from the amount of rainfall in the mountains of the West Bank, and from nothing else.
The Palestinians would have an argument if the rainfall had doubled in the meantime. But the last decade has been one of droughts. The winter of 2012-13 was an exception, but 2013-14 looks to be another drought year. So if "what has changed" is to be the criterion, then Israel could demand a reduction in its obligation. In fact, or so the Israelis say, Israel is supplying more water than it committed to in 1995.
A further complaint is that Israel is demanding higher standards for any new sewage plants in Area C than for many plants in Israel itself. But this is to ignore the fact that Israel is constantly raising its own standards, just as the EU is constantly raising standards for gas emissions from cars. The complainants are simply refusing to admit that Israel has developed a high culture of dealing with waste water, which is becoming a model for much of the world except, apparently, for Palestine.
Once again, we see that the Palestinian complaints about their water situation are specious arguments based on irrelevant facts. Their arguments serve merely to distract attention from their own massive failure to provide for the needs of their population.
Read the Speech
Mr. Schulz understandably felt hurt and disappointed by the response to what he felt was a pro-Israel speech. So let us give that speech a little of the due attention that it failed to receive. Here (as opposed to the remark about water) the quotations will be taken from the official English translation, since its stylistic adjustments do not affect the essence of the original German.
The speech began with his thanks for being permitted to speak in German. Although this was his right, in retrospect it may seem to have been a mistake. Had he spoken in English, many would have understood his words immediately and doubtless applauded at appropriate places. The awkward point about water might then have been met with mere silence. What are intended as warm words do not have the same impact when one hears them in the jerky monotone of simultaneous translation.
Two main elements can be detected in the speech. On the one hand, as President of the European Parliament, Mr. Schulz was obliged, as he emphasized in later interviews, to relay views widely expressed in that body. That is, all the usual European clichés about the Arab-Israeli conflict. This element was prominent in the later paragraphs of the speech.
The other element was his own personal sympathy for, and admiration of, Israel. That was evident throughout the earlier paragraphs of the speech, but also reappeared in the later part. "The crimes committed by the Nazis," he said, "were the reason I became involved in politics," and he went on to decry the reappearances of anti-Semitism in today's Europe. So "Israel," he said, "embodies the hope cherished by a people of being able to live a life of freedom in a homeland of their own. As a result of the actions of brave men and women, Israel represents the realisation of that very human dream." He then went on to praise Israel's achievements in a paragraph that deserves quotation in full:
"Today, Israel is a robust democracy, a vibrant, open society with all the conflicts that implies, and a modern economy. The kibbutzim which once made the desert bloom have been replaced by hundreds of start-ups and high-tech research centres in which work is being done which will lead to the inventions of the future; minute microchips and robots, computer tomography and ultrasound scanners. Israeli researchers are world leaders in many areas. Israel has only eight million inhabitants, but it can boast seven major research universities, including the Technion in Haifa and the Weizmann Institute in Revlion [sic], and 12 Nobel Prize winners!"
"Israel," he proclaimed, "has built a society founded on the values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Israel and the European Union share these values." On this basis he surveyed the recent developments in neighboring countries, especially the "ever more brutal escalation of violence" in Syria, "The Assad regime would rather massacre its own population than give up power! Even children are being tortured and killed. The opposition is also guilty of perpetrating appalling massacres and recruiting child soldiers." He expressed understanding for Israel's fears about Iran and for "what it means for parents in Sderot and Ashkelon to live every day with the fear that their children may die in a rocket attack on their way to school."
Only after all that did Mr. Schulz come to the EU clichés about the two-state solution, the Israeli settlement program in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and so on. But he also firmly emphasized that "the EU has no intention to boycott Israel. I am of the conviction that what we need is more cooperation, not division."
It was here that he quoted the young Palestinians in Ramallah, then made a second remark that prompted Mr. Bennett to lead a walkout of his party: "The blockade of the Gaza Strip is your response to attacks on Israeli civilians and I can understand that. But it is stifling all economic development and driving people to despair -- despair which in turn is being exploited by extremists. The blockade may in fact undermine, rather than strengthen, Israel's security." The last sentence, of course, is another irritating European cliché.
What pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli reactions to his speech have alike overlooked is that those two remarks were almost the only expressions of sympathy for Palestinians in a speech that was otherwise overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel. (He said, of course, that Palestinians like Israelis "have the right to fulfil their dream of creating their own viable democratic state," but that is another habitual cliché.) So when the pro-Palestinians claim that "Schulz dared to tell the truth," they are, albeit inadvertently, recommending his encomium for the Zionist enterprise. And pro-Israelis have denounced a speech that, studied in the Israeli education system, could serve to counter "post-Zionist" skepticism in Israel itself.
The Investigations of Prof. Gvirtzman
In January 2012, Prof. Haim Gvirtzman of Bar-Ilan published a study entitled "The Israel-Palestinian Water Conflict: An Israeli Perspective" under the aegis of his university's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. In response to the speech of Mr. Schulz, he also issued a long summary of his earlier findings.
The main focus of his study was on the West Bank, where he sketched the role of the British and Jordanian administrations before detailing the immense improvements to the Palestinian water situation implemented by Israel after 1967. He explained the nature of the various aquifers and the post-1995 developments, then listed the ways in which the PA fails to live up to its responsibilities.
Critics have fastened upon the fact that he refused to use the official PA figure of 2.4 million for the Palestinian population of the West Bank, preferring the figure of 1.4 million given in another study made by his university. Such a discrepancy seems incredible. Still, Prof. Gvirtzman has a point if the PA figure includes, as he claims, 250,000 Palestinians living under Israeli rule in Jerusalem and 150,000 who moved to Israel under family unification schemes. All such draw water from Israel, not from the PA.
His supposition was, of course, that a more favorable per capita Palestinian water usage would reflect to the credit of Israel. As was pointed out above, this is a misconception: it is the PA that would then deserve more credit. The lower the amount of water available to the average citizen of the PA, the greater the manifest inability of the PA to fulfill its duties.
So, on the one hand, Prof. Gvirtzman published an outstanding collection of facts, which others have widely used. On the other, by taking sides in the controversy over the correct size of the Palestinian population, he encouraged the false idea that Israel continued to be responsible for per capita usage of water in places like Ramallah even after 1995. That false idea reappeared in the speech of Mr. Schulz.
It would be helpful to rewrite the study of Prof. Gvirtzman so as to make unambiguously clear what are the responsibilities of the respective governments. This could be done by recasting the study in a different sequence of sections.
The first section would describe the main aquifers. As it is, only near the end of his study does Prof. Gvirtzman explain the nature of the mountain aquifer, although this is crucial for determining Israel's responsibilities in respect of Palestinian water. The second section would cover earlier history: the situation on the eve of the British Mandate, the developments introduced by the British, and the various performances of Israel, Jordan and Egypt between the end of the Mandate and the Six Day War of 1967. The third section would describe the improvements during the period when Israel had sole responsibility for the entire area west of the Jordan River (1967-1995).
The fourth section would explain that the principal issue facing the negotiators in 1995 was how to share the water of the mountain aquifer. It would emphasize very strongly the central fact: that the water falls mostly in areas assigned to the Palestinians, but appears mostly in areas of pre-1967 Israel. Therefore, when sovereignty was divided between Israel and the PA, Israel had no further direct obligations to individual Palestinians living under the PA, but only an obligation to the PA itself. This obligation, it should also be emphasized, is determined exclusively by the amount of rainfall in the mountains; it remains the same whether the PA rules over one hundred Palestinians or one hundred million Palestinians.
The fifth section would record the revolution in water management in Israel since 1995. The sixth and last section would expose the poor performance of the Palestinians since then. It would need to have two subsections: before and after the seizure of power in Gaza by Hamas in 2007. If he wants to, Prof. Gvirtzman could mention somewhere the dispute over the size of the Palestinian population; he ought in that case, however, to give per capita water figures for both of the claimed sizes. But he should emphasize that the bigger that population, the greater the failure of the Palestinian governments to meet their responsibilities. As it is, Prof. Gvirtzman starts arguing about the size of the Palestinian population near the beginning of his study, so the reader gets the impression that it is upon this issue, not the mountain aquifer, that everything hangs.
Put it this way. According to the PA, the population of the West Bank doubled in the first two decades of Israel rule and has doubled again since. If the population had remained stable, then – other things being equal – the Palestinians would today enjoy four times as much water per capita as they do.
If the Palestinians want to pursue a hectic increase in their numbers, they must bear the consequences. They may be persuaded by the extravagant promises of the new EU Ambassador to imagine that the EU will always shower upon them the needed extra money and food. What the EU cannot do is shower more rain upon them from the heavens.
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