The Water Cycle: Inequality in Israel, Jordan, and the Occupied Territories

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

A new article in the journal explores Israel’s use of water control as a weapon against Gaza and the West Bank and a tool for negotiation with Amman. 

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In Gaza, war has meant more than the loss of life and property: it also appears to be a dismal turning point for the region’s environment. While the extent of the damage remains undocumented, satellite imagery and reports from the ground show major destruction of land, contamination of water, and declining air quality as a result of Israel’s ongoing campaign.  

The scale of the environmental desecration has been termed by some as “ecocide,” potentially permanent damage done to the environment by deliberate or negligent actions. Ecocide can be considered a war crime under the Rome Statute and Geneva conventions, although neither the International Criminal Court nor the UN have raised such an accusation. 

Among the most critical issues facing Gazans currently is a complete lack of not only clean water, but access to water at all. Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West Bank, are dependent on Israel to provide drinking water, and after October 7, the supply has been significantly reduced and the fuel necessary to transport the remaining water has been restricted. What water remains is increasingly contaminated by untreated sewage, weapon-based pollutants, and salinized after the shutdown of desalination plants. 

Across the Jordan River, the government in Amman is also facing the reality of politicized water resources. Despite early refusals to renew a water supply deal amid vocal criticism of Israel’s attacks on Gaza and intense domestic pressure, Jordan’s water issues remain too severe to not cooperate with Israel. The Hashemite kingdom requested an extension of the deal, but Jerusalem only agreed with the condition that Amman “tone down its anti-Israel invective and return its ambassador to Tel Aviv.” 

Meanwhile, as both Palestine and Jordan suffer, Israel has maintained its capacity to provide sufficient water to its own citizens throughout the war. This reality is at the center of Peter Seeberg’s new Middle East Policy article that examines how, over the last few decades, “the water crises facing Jordan and, especially, Palestine are growing more acute due to Israel’s hydro-hegemony and the attendant power imbalance.” 

Seeberg analyzes decades of water issues in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine, and ultimately notes that the latter two are deeply dependent on Jerusalem for their water access and face a “hydro-political security complex.” 

Jordan has worked diligently to manage its limited water resources, but a weak economy, rising population, poor infrastructure, over-pumping, and climate change are putting the state in a precarious position. A decades-long deal with Israel that has helped its situation, but shortages are still imminent, and the government must consider future deals, leaving it in a weak negotiating position with Jerusalem. 

Palestinians continue to face major water restrictions by Israel, who manages nearly all water and can withhold the materials necessary for improvement at any given time. In Gaza, not only has the IDF pumped thousands of cubic meters of seawater into Hamas’ tunnel network that contaminated the already-limited clean water supply, but the state has also demolished a majority of wastewater and desalination plants. Israel’s weaponization of the resource has repeatedly been denounced, “with the UN special rapporteur demanding that the state ‘stop using water as a weapon of war.’” 

Gaza is not the only place affected. Israeli settlements in the West Bank use three times as much water as Palestinians, who often have very little and face additional shortage in times of political strife. This whole “vicious cycle…makes cooperation between the occupying power and the occupied territories increasingly difficult,” Seeberg writes. 

As both Jordan and Palestine struggle, however, Israel’s water situation remains unchanged, if not improved. Jerusalem’s hydro-hegemony has been advanced by decades of technological advances in wastewater treatment, recycling, and desalination while it strained its neighbors. Seeberg argues that this hold over regional water is only furthering the emerging one-state (of Israel) reality for Palestine and increasing Jordan’s dependence on its long-antagonistic neighbor. 

Among the many consequences of natural resource dominance is the reality that Israel has very few incentives to deal with the Palestinian issue. The war in Gaza is only one of many instances where Jerusalem has utilized water as a weapon, and an enduring political solution is not yet on the horizon. 

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Peter Seeberg’s Middle East Policy article, “Israeli Hydro-Hegemony and the Gaza War”: 

  • Israel, Jordan, and Palestine share the Jordan River Basin, but a growing power imbalance has significantly reduced Jordan and Palestine’s capacity to obtain sufficient supply. 
  • The three players are locked into a “hydro-political security complex.” 
  • Israel’s water situation: 
    • Israel has developed advanced water technology in reclamation, recycling, and desalination so it no longer suffers from shortages. 
    • Sufficient water supply paired with ongoing natural gas innovation are placing it into a position of power within the region and enhancing its security. 
    • Israel’s policy of utilizing water “as a weapon of war” and oppression has continued to be criticized. 
  • Jordan’s water situation is increasingly difficult and the relationship with Israel is wrought with issues. 
    • The population growth, notably in Syrian and Palestinian refugees, have put pressure on Jordan’s already insufficient water supply. 
    • Amman does not have the economic strength to make the necessary progress on water or power self-sufficiency. 
    • Jordan has historically had successful water agreements with Israel, but its access to water is still limited by Jerusalem’s control. 
    • There was hope that Jordan’s potential for solar energy could be traded with Israel for water, but the Gaza war has soured relations significantly. 
  • Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have faced significant water shortages for decades. 
    • The primary source for fresh water in the West Bank is the Mountain Aquifer, but Israel has around 90% control over the aquifer and 80% of all water sources and pumps a significant amount into its own settlements. 
    • The Palestinian Authority must manage severe scarcity with Israel’s refusal to grant licenses for additional wells. 
    • In Gaza, the water situation is even worse. The primary Coastal Aquifer is over pumped, contaminated, and saline, and for years Israel extracted massive portions of groundwater from the source. 
    • Jerusalem’s imposed blockage that began in 2007 has blocked necessary water-improvement and upkeep materials, leaving Palestinians able to access only 60 liters per day, well below the WHO’s minimum standard of 100 liters. 
    • The war in Gaza has decimated the little water infrastructure that existed and 95% of Gazans have no access to clean water. 
      • The pumping of seawater into the Hamas tunnel network and destruction wastewater treatment plants have contaminated groundwater. 
    • Israel’s hydro-hegemony paired with the impacts of the Gaza war have placed Jordan and Palestine in difficult positions and enhanced Israel’s one-state reality. 
      • Jordan struggles to manage its pro-Palestine politics alongside its need for water-security, enforcing dependence on Israel. 
    • The climb to water security for Israel and severe insecurity for Palestine have reduced Israel’s incentive to deal with the political issue.  

You can read “Israeli Hydro-Hegemony and the Gaza War” by Peter Seeberg in the Summer 2024 issue of Middle East Policy. 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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