Palestinians Suffer Water Crisis as Israel Controls West Bank’s Resources
Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank are facing a severe water crisis as the Israeli occupation controls most of the territory’s water resources and supplies them unevenly to Jewish settlements and Palestinian towns and villages. The situation is especially dire in the Jordan Valley, where Palestinians say they can barely get enough water to meet their basic needs, let alone sustain agriculture and livestock.
According to interim peace accords of the 1990s, Israel has control over 80% of the West Bank’s water reserves, while the Palestinian Authority (PA) provides water to its cities by tapping the remaining reservoirs and buying water from Israel’s state-run company. However, the PA has no access to the 60% of the West Bank that is under full Israeli civil control, which includes much of the Jordan Valley. This area is home to many Palestinian farmers who depend on water for their livelihoods.
Palestinians say that Israel has reduced water supplies to their cities and villages in recent years, especially during the hot summer months, while providing continuous and abundant water to the 500,000 Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank. Therefore, Israel is using water as a tool to pressure them to leave their lands and make way for more settlements.
Israel denies any political motive behind its water policies and says that it allocates water according to agreed-upon quotas and technical considerations. It also blames the PA for mismanaging its own water resources and failing to invest in infrastructure and maintenance.
However, COGAT, the Israeli agency that liaises with the Palestinians on civilian affairs, denied any reduction in water flow, saying that “the supply is continuing in accordance with the agreements.”
But the overall supply is shrinking as the demands of Israeli and Palestinian societies outpace natural replenishment. In the majority of the West Bank where Israel maintains full civilian and security control, Palestinians cannot dig or deepen wells without hard-to-get permits. Since 2021, Israeli authorities have demolished nearly 160 Palestinian reservoirs, as well as sewage networks and wells across the West Bank and Jerusalem, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The rate of demolition is quickening: Over the first half of this year, authorities knocked down almost the same number of Palestinian water installations as they had in 2022.
Defending the demolitions, COGAT said “the allocation of water for agriculture is performed in accordance with the law.”
Unlike neighboring Jordan and other parched Mideast states, Israel has plenty of water. With a world-leading desalination network and recycled waste water, the country no longer relies on subterranean reserves as it did after it first captured the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war.
“The main motivation for Israeli actions are not so much about water anymore but about politics,” said Jan Selby, an expert on water issues and politics at the University of Sheffield.
Israel’s water network is used not only to power settlements — which most of the international community considers illegal — but also to irrigate the abundant vineyards and olive groves of Jewish outposts that are built without official authorization.
By empowering Jewish outposts to cultivate disputed land and export wines and soft dates, Israel expands authority over the West Bank, said anti-settlement researcher Dror Etkes.
“Agricultural cultivation is a much more effective way to grab land than construction,” he said.
For Ibrahim Sawafta, a member of the local council of the Palestinian village of Bardala in the northern Jordan Valley, Israeli water allocation has become a zero-sum game: Palestinian water scarcity is a result of Israeli settlement prosperity.
Over the years, he has watched his village shrink as its few available water sources have dried up, leaving dates tasteless and forcing farmers to give up their citrus and banana groves.
More than a dozen farming families have recently left Bardala for a northern town with more water, he said, and others have swapped their fields for better-paying jobs in the flourishing farms of Israeli settlements.
“They don’t want us to be farmers,” Sawafta said of Israeli authorities. “They don’t want us to be self-sufficient.”