Water under the bridge: how the Oslo agreement robbed the Palestinians
Ian Black: ‘Cooperation’ with Israel over West Bank water supplies helped consolidate illegal settlements and undermine the two-state solution, a new study shows.
Oslo, the landmark 1993 agreement between Israel and the PLO, has had a bad press for the latter part of its (nearly) 20-year life. The deal between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin has turned out to be more about process than securing a viable peace. Over that period Israel has continued to expand settlements in the West Bank while the Islamist movement Hamas has taken control of the Gaza Strip and Israel has shifted to the right. Negotiations on a final accord have got nowhere slowly. Many believe that a two-state solution to the conflict is now no longer attainable.
Settlements are a wearily familiar issue. But a new academic study shows that what has been billed as bilateral “cooperation” over water resources is much more like domination — in which the Palestinians not only acquiesce in Israeli demands but effectively “consent to their own colonization.”
Using the records of the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC) Sussex University’s Jan Selby demonstrates that Israel made approval of improvements to Palestinian water supplies conditional upon Palestinian Authority (PA) approval of new water facilities for settlements, sometimes explicitly so. Palestinians face serious water shortages and an underdeveloped supply system but have given their approval in almost every case. Settlements are not only illegal under international law but are one of the major impediments to Palestinian statehood.
Building settlements means that one side is steadily eating the pizza while negotiations are continuing on how to divide it up.
The Oslo water regime was created in 1995 — the year Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli. The PA applied for four times as many water projects as Israel but their character differed, JWC records show. The Palestinian ones were for small distribution lines within and between Palestinian communities. The Israeli ones were for larger water transmission networks between settlements — and to connect settlements to Israel’s national water network, raising questions about Israel’s long-term intentions. PA projects also faced far longer approval times than Israeli ones.
Oslo reflected Israel’s priorities — to restrict Palestinian water consumption and maintain its hegemony over the mountain aquifer. But the agreement excluded the Gaza Strip and the Jordan river as well as the 60% of the West Bank (Area “C”) that remained under Israel’s direct security control. The water issue was emblematic, Selby argues, of the PA’s role as “subcontractor” — practiced most visibly for internal security. “As in the peace process more broadly, the Oslo water regime effected a disarticulation of power and responsibility — enshrining Israeli power over decision making and key resources, whilst delegating to the PA responsibility for local water supplies and lesser value resources.”
The overall inbalance of power was reflected in hard facts on the ground: Palestinians certainly constructed wells and cisterns without licences — 50 were destroyed by the Israeli military between 2010-11 alone. But unilateral Israeli actions have been government-implemented and remained beyond the reach of the PA. If Israel cared, there was “continuous and truly Kafkaesque micro-coordination.”
As Amnesty International has said:
Swimming pools, well-watered lawns and large irrigated farms in Israeli settlements stand in stark contrast to Palestinian villages whose inhabitants struggle even to meet their essential domestic water needs. In parts of the West Bank Israeli settlers use up to 20 times more water than neighbouring Palestinians who survive on barely 20 litres of water per capita a day, the minimum amount recommended by the WHO for emergency situations response.
Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas have been criticised by their own people for the structural shortcomings of Oslo as well as the role played by the PA over settlements and other issues. Both men were aware of the PA’s approval of settlement water infrastructure.
The Palestine Papers published by the Guardian and al-Jazeera in 2011 revealed the extent of concessions offered by the Palestinians in the last meaningful talks held with Israel in 2008. PLO negotiators were exposed to the charge of betraying their people’s cause – not so much because of the substance of their offers as the friendly tone and pragmatic approach they used in private. The PA looked embarrassingly encircled and dependent.
“None of the parties emerge very well from these findings,” Selby commented. “Israel has been exploiting Palestinian desperation for improved water supplies. The Palestinian Authority has been pressured into consenting to its own colonization, and has not contested Israel’s cynical tactics as forcefully as it might have done. And international donors have variously stood by or been complicit in activity which is contrary to international law, and contrary to their own policies on the peace process, and which has helped to undermine the possibility of a two state solution.”