Israeli Hydro-Hegemony and the Gaza War

  • Peter Seeberg

    Dr. Seeberg is associate professor emeritus, Center for Modern Middle East and Muslim Studies, Department of Language, Culture, History, and Communication, University of Southern Denmark.

This article analyzes the vicious cycle of Israel’s control of water resources in Jordan and the Palestinian territories, the development of a one-state reality in the region, and geopolitical changes driven by the Israeli occupation and the war in Gaza. Israel no longer suffers from water shortages, but its domination of Palestine and the conflict sparked by Hamas have increased the yawning water deficit. This has played a role in the decades-long move away from the two-state solution promised by the Oslo peace process. This article examines regional security through the lens of water resources. It shows that Jordan is left with few options but to accept its dependence on Israel and muddle through. In addition, the Palestinian territories, which face not just Israeli military rule but also the expansion of settlements, experience major water shortages. The article concludes that the increasing water hegemony reduces Israeli incentives for a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians that could resolve the resource crisis and enable two states to live side by side.

The place of water in the relationships among Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian authorities has usually been accorded a one-dimensional analysis, focusing on the Israeli overexploitation of the water resources of the Jordan River system. This was especially the case after the 1964 completion of the National Water Carrier of Israel, which transfers water from the Sea of Galilee to the populated centers and the arid south of the country for drinking water and agricultural purposes. Israeli usage frequently went beyond the limits of sustainability.1Four phenomena have changed this situation. First, with reclamation and recycling, and with the construction of enormous desalination facilities, Israel no longer suffers from shortages. These plants use advanced filtering processes and huge amounts of energy from fossil fuels to convert sea water from the Mediterranean into potable resources. Second, despite talk of a two-state solution, Israel has increased its control over the occupied territories and over the regional politics of the issue, resulting in what appears to be a one-state reality.2 Third, Israel holds a dominant position over Jordan in their agreements on water supplies. Fourth, the war in Gaza has created significant shortages of water for the Palestinians there and in the West Bank in what can be described as an already existing crisis worsened by violent conflict.3

A recurrent theme in scholarly analyses of water as an important aspect of power balances is the question of how transboundary river basins affect the interactions of states. A central example from the Middle East is the Jordan River Basin, an important component of the relations among Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. The sources of the river to the north consist of streams running into the Sea of Galilee and to the northeast of the rivers Yarmouk and Zarga, originating in Syria and Jordan. From the Galilee, the Jordan River flows in a southern direction and on the way forms the borders between Israel and Jordan, as well as between the occupied Palestinian territories and Jordan, finally discharging into the Dead Sea. Disputes related to the river and the water resources in aquifers in the area constitute important dimensions of the overall struggle for dominance in this region.4

The Middle East has for decades suffered a freshwater crisis. Some scholars have begun to warn of the “disappearance of the Fertile Crescent” as a possible future scenario for the Levant.5 Behind this dramatic metaphor we find a complex reality. As a result of increasing climate change, water flow from rivers in the Middle East has not only declined, but supplies are also diminishing due to receding surface sources, overuse of groundwater resources, and decreasing amounts of precipitation.

Mark Zeitoun and Jeroen Warner employ the concept of hydro-hegemony to emphasize that—especially as the climate changes—the control of water is increasingly sparking political battles.6 This article examines how water sources and uses are shaping the relations among Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians. The analysis shows that the technological breakthroughs of desalination and solar-energy generation have fundamentally altered the balance of power. The article further illustrates how the lack of a legal framework for water issues across the three parties is changing the security picture. Indeed, as Martina Klimes and Elisabeth A. Yaari show, water is only briefly mentioned in the 1993 Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).7 Some bilateral agreements acknowledge the need for cooperation on the development of new sources, but the concrete measures are inadequate to solve the increasing problems.

The article analyzes the different national contexts, arguing that the authorities are part of an asymmetrical power relationship in which Israel is dominant. This appears to be creating a vicious circle, which is perpetuated and even strengthened due to technological innovations like desalination and the presence of significant offshore gas resources in the Mediterranean Sea. The evidence is drawn from scholarly research, reports from think tanks, and interviews with representatives of state ministries, media, and nongovernmental organizations. The article first explores the water-security nexus and puts it into historical context. The three sections that follow analyze water and politics at the national level in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. A concluding section discusses security issues among the three actors, focusing on cooperation and conflict—especially the consequences of increasing settlements in the West Bank and the war in Gaza after Hamas’s brutal October 2023 assault.


A 2018 World Bank report on water security declared, “Nowhere is the challenge of water security greater than in the Middle East and North Africa region, which is the world’s most water-stressed region.”8 Taken together, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories hold, on average, less than 150 cubic meters of water per capita available for all purposes. The commonly used Falkenmark indicator for water stress defines countries with annual supplies of fewer than 500 cubic meters per capita as suffering from absolute water scarcity; the three nations have access to less than a third of this low mark.9 And their populations are growing rapidly, as can be seen in Table 1.

TABLE 1. Population, growth rate, and water consumption in 2023
Country Population Growth rate (%) Est. consumption (per capita per year) in m3
Israel 9.2 million 1.49 140
Jordan 11.3 million 1.25 90
Gaza 2.1 million 2.02 60
West Bank 3.2 million 1.69 80
Israeli settlements 500,000 2.9 150

Note: Water consumption is understood as the total use of water for agriculture, industrial production, and domestic purposes. Data from The Middle East Population 2021, World Population Review,; and Europa World, Global Reference Resource, 2023,

Issues of water in the context of relations among Israel, Jordan, and Palestine should be analyzed through the framework of what Barry Buzan labels the Middle Eastern regional security complex.10 While water has often been excluded or seen as a nontraditional security issue, the resource question across the three entities should be seen as creating a “hydro-political security complex.” We should therefore examine “those states that are geographically part ‘owners’ and technically ‘users’ of the rivers and, further, as a consequence, consider the rivers as one of the major national security issues.”11 Water is a strategic commodity, Marcus Dubois King asserts, and the challenges related to ensuring safe and sufficient water across the globe are considerable. The challenges include issues like health, poverty, food security, immigration, and interstate politics.12 Water stress can thus be seen as a security threat, King says, similar to climate change and pollution.

Pressures of this kind are nonmilitary and transnational, able to threaten the development or even survival of the involved states.13 Israel, Jordan, and Palestine have fundamental conflicts over the right to water.14 However, the region has few ratified treaties that can secure a just distribution. The Jordan River system is in principle shared by the three entities, plus Lebanon and Syria, but the actual use of its water is governed by bilateral agreements signed by only a few of the riparian parties.15 For instance, a water-sharing agreement between Israel and Jordan can be found in Annex II of their 1994 treaty, but this excludes Palestinian downstream usage.16 Indeed, Israeli authorities have issued military orders stating that Palestinians cannot construct new water infrastructure without permits from the army—and such waivers have proved nearly impossible to obtain.17

Bilateral deals between the Israelis and Palestinians were conceived as temporary measures on the road to normalization and final-status negotiations over a two-state solution. The 1995 Taba accord—formally the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—demonstrates how vague are the rights, commitments, and time frame:

1. Israel recognizes the Palestinian water rights in the West Bank. These will be negotiated and settled in the Permanent Status Agreement relating to the various water resources.2. Both sides recognize the necessity to develop additional water for various uses.18

The agreement is also long past its termination date. It outlines a transition period of five years. However, in reality the peace process had stopped by 1996, partly as a result of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In addition, the agreement is simultaneously hopeful and unclear, stating that parties should recognize the necessity to “develop additional water.”

After the Reagan administration announced support for direct dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), ambitions for founding a new state increased. But it was difficult to create an ideal formula for talks that would benefit the Palestinians of both the occupied territories and Jordan.19 The peace process that resulted not only established new terms for interactions between Israel and Palestine, it influenced the relationships between Israel and Jordan, and Jordan and the PA. King Hussein of Jordan was skeptical about the agreements, indicating that he was not kept well informed by Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres or Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO.20 Hussein feared that a bilateral Israel-Palestine deal through the Oslo process could negatively affect his relations with Tel Aviv. However, the United States was able to facilitate a Jordan-Israel accord, in part by helping Amman improve its connections to international financial institutions.21 This led to an official deal in 1994.22 The treaty contains a relatively detailed section on water, Annex II, and includes agreements related to the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers. It includes language on cooperation, operation and maintenance, protection of scarce resources, and how the two parties manage groundwater resources.

However, the Israel-Jordan treaty ignores Palestinian water rights altogether.23 Unlike Israel’s bilateral relations with the Palestinians and Jordan, the occupied territories and Jordan do not share significant aquifers. While these could form the basis for conflict, they can also require negotiation and cooperation. The Jordan River is, in its lower areas, no longer a source of fresh water for the two parties. The decreased flow levels and degraded quality of this part of the river negatively affect the area’s ecosystem. In addition, the Dead Sea, which relies on the lower part of the Jordan as its primary source, is reaching a point of irreversible damage.24 Under the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace deal, Israel agreed to transfer 50 million cubic meters of water annually to Jordan. However, the accord did not include Palestine, Lebanon, or Syria, so the potential for water conflict remains.25

In the decades that followed, because of an expanding population and a rising standard of living, Israel experienced a growing need for drinking water. Technological advances such as the desalination of sea water altered this picture, and by 2018, 70 percent of Israel’s household water was provided by this innovation. Although technological development has continued, it requires significant amounts of power, mostly generated from fossil fuels. Renewable energy could help soften the climate impact, and Israel has invested in the construction of some solar plants. However, the country does not have enough available land to satisfy its energy needs. To grow its supply of renewables, Israel could connect to the Jordanian electricity grid, and thereby take advantage of the large solar potential of Jordan’s vast, sparsely inhabited desert spaces that are ideal for solar-energy production. Water-for-electricity cooperation between Israel and Jordan could be a win-win for the two states.

However, the Gaza war has significantly affected relations between Israel and Jordan. According to a report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the new conflict “has had a direct impact on Jordanian public opinion, with increasing demands that the country withdraws (sic) from all its commitments, treaties, and agreements with Israel.”26 In a country with a rapidly growing population, this is highly problematic. The long-term ambition for bilateral cooperation requires Israel to cover up to half of Jordan’s estimated annual water deficit of 400 million cubic meters.


The following subsections analyze water security and show in detail how Israel, Jordan, and Palestine are locked in an asymmetrical relationship that the Israelis dominate. The conclusion argues that Israel is using its water hegemony to increase its power in the region.


Based on a combination of five enormous, strategically distributed desalination facilities, which produce 90 percent of its desalinated water, and its highly efficient wastewater recycling practices, Israel is no longer dependent on the extraction of water from the Sea of Galilee.27 Mekorot, the Israeli water authority, has even been able to launch the National Carrier Flow Reversal Project, which sends desalinated water from Israel’s Mediterranean shores to the Galilee, the country’s largest freshwater lake and historically its primary source of water.28

Israel has recently tried to carry out a “maritime turn,” focusing strategically on activities involving the seas to the country’s west and southeast.29 This includes a dramatic rise of natural-gas production from offshore fields in the Mediterranean, an expansion of the Israeli navy, and a significant increase in desalination. By launching these initiatives, Israel aims not only to strengthen its position within the framework of the local hydro-political security complex, but it also has a broader, regional scope in mind. The security of supply is crucial and, in this context, Israel’s newly gained self-sufficiency in natural gas is extremely important. But the massive desalination capacity also has geostrategic implications. Israel sees Iran as its main opponent in the Middle East, and for that purpose it has been trying to forge informal alliances with key Arab states. Closer security cooperation with Egypt against militant groups and a gradual rapprochement with Saudi Arabia seemed for some time to be developing.30 However, the Gaza war may have made this unrealistic, at least in the short term.31

Regardless of this potential shift in partnerships, a new reality is emerging: Israel’s resolution of serious problems in providing water for drinking and irrigation has strengthened its local and regional position.32 The state has achieved a high level of efficiency in reclaiming wastewater, with 93 percent purified and most of the sewage treated and then reused for agricultural purposes.33 Adding this improvement in water recycling to its desalination capacity has allowed the state to increase its independence, strengthen its hydro-hegemony, and maintain its “original” provider—the Sea of Galilee and the national carrier—as a “reserve.”34

The use of desalination does not come without problems, as the technology creates a severe carbon footprint. In order to increase such infrastructure in a sustainable way, renewable energy is required. This does not necessarily have direct security implications. As noted, this sustainability issue could be solved through cooperation with Jordan on its provision of solar-based power.35 Such a deal would result in a tradeoff, with Jordan receiving water in exchange for its energy resources. However, due to its abundant offshore gas resources, Israel may not feel compelled to deal. It has the power to choose since it is the nearly unshakeable hegemon in the hydro-political security complex with both the Hashemite kingdom and Palestine.

This hegemonic position is furthermore maintained through a seemingly unbreakable alliance with the United States and a close, if not always uncontroversial, relationship with the European Union.36 Israel did make some progress in improving its standing in the Arab world, agreeing in 2020 to the so-called Abrahams Accords, which normalized diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.37 But the war in Gaza has sparked anti-Israeli and anti-American outrage across the region. Arab regimes have publicly shifted their positions to match this sentiment, and American pressure may be required to halt the collective punishment of Palestinians.38 Jordan’s King Abdullah condemned the Gaza bombardment and US support for it. And Israel has been denounced over its water policy, with the UN special rapporteur demanding that the state “stop using water as a weapon of war.”39


With its economy under pressure, the Hashemite kingdom will find it difficult to follow its ambitious plan for sustainable growth, “Jordan 2025: A National Vision and Strategy,” which was unveiled a decade ago.40 To tackle its water issues, the state in the 1980s established the Water Authority of Jordan, an autonomous corporate body that has financial and administrative independence but is linked to the Ministry of Water and Irrigation.41 The ministry has several ongoing projects and some in development. Most important has been the implementation of reforms to avoid uncontrolled overuse of local resources. The 1988 water authority law introduced penalties, including imprisonment, for illegal pumping of groundwater and unlawful drilling, and it cut water quotas for new wells. “These actions resulted in a 95% reduction in illegal drilling and 30–40 million cubic meters of water savings,” Guillaume Grure reports.42 To increase water security, Jordan launched initiatives like wastewater treatment plant projects and the Disi Water Conveyance Project.43 The latter was planned to pump 100 million cubic meters annually from the Disi aquifer, which Jordan shares with Saudi Arabia. It is unclear when the nonrenewable aquifer, which lies close to the Red Sea, will dry out, though the Disi Water Company claims it will last 50 years. Currently, 90 million cubic meters are pumped from the Disi facilities annually to provide drinking water to Amman and Aqaba.44

The water situation in Jordan is growing worse, due to demographics, poor infrastructure, overpumping, and theft. Shortages have increased with the rise in population driven in part by the kingdom’s hosting of 1.3 million Syrians, half of whom are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Indeed, in the mid-2010s, the population swelled nearly 12 percent year over year, though the rate has returned to historical norms.45 A study published in March 2021 indicated that Jordan is among the countries most seriously affected by climate change, not least because of the dramatic population increase. But this cannot be solved by a single intervention. It will be necessary to find multiple solutions that work in concert. The study suggested a plan consisting of five major elements: a “Red Sea desalination project, reducing water theft and physical losses, raising piped water tariffs on higher-water-use tiers, reallocating water from the agricultural to urban sector, and equalizing the distribution of piped water supply for urban users.”46

As suggested above, Jordan could benefit from a power-for-water deal with Israel. The kingdom’s most available renewable sources are solar and wind. It claims that the “share of electricity from renewables in Jordan grew from 0.7% in 2014 to over 13% in 2019, making Jordan a regional front-runner in renewable energy.”47 However, a deal with Israel would require investments that may be beyond the capacity of Jordan’s relatively anemic economy. Its 2021 GNI per capita was a mere $4,480, dwarfed by Israel’s $49,560. (Palestine’s was $4,220.) The weakness of Jordan’s economic performance shows that it will need major investment, aid, or grants from outside its borders to tap the potential of its energy resources.48 If the kingdom were to succeed in developing into a regional hub for solar-based electricity at prices that neighboring countries cannot match, it would be able to make a power-for-water deal with Israel to reduce some of its deficit.49

Despite the domestic economic picture, Jordan is a stable state with positive foreign relations. It has survived the crisis in Syria that has been underway for more than a decade, and it is not threatened by outside interventions. The Hashemite kingdom is backed by the United States and the EU, and it maintains good connections with regional powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Still, the regime must take into account the country’s demographic and political realities: Palestinians constitute a majority of the population, with 2.2 million registered as refugees and the majority with Jordanian citizenship.50 Despite the monarchy’s good relations with its neighbor, the Israeli government is unpopular among most Palestinians in Jordan. In the medium term, water issues could spark protests. It will be extremely important for the Jordanian regime to carefully handle what seems like a ticking bomb, not least because the issue often is related to Israel and its dominant position regarding water in the region.

In July 2021, Jordan was promised a doubling of the water supplied by Israel under the bilateral peace agreement.51 This move, which could help stabilize the relationship between the neighbors, was likely driven by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s style of foreign relations, which was more cooperative than Netanyahu’s.52 Further negotiations established a trilateral water-for-energy proposal—to include the UAE—that would allow Jordan to trade solar power for Israel’s desalinated water.53 The plan called for the construction of a 600 megawatt-capacity solar plant with storage in Jordan, and the export by Israel of 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water per year to the kingdom. However, the Gaza war created a rift in the relationship between Israel and Jordan and spiked the potential power-for-water accord. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi declared just after the start of the bloody conflict that regional dialogue would cease.54 This imperils the deal and makes shortages in Jordan more likely.


This section’s analysis is divided between the West Bank, where Palestinians must share water not just with the Israeli state but with the expanding settlements, and Gaza.

The most important source of fresh water for Palestinians in the West Bank is the large Mountain Aquifer, which they share with Israel.55 This source consists of the Eastern, the Northeastern, and the Western sub-aquifers, the last being the biggest. The West Bank has been occupied since 1967, and Israel has over the years imposed strict controls on Palestinian use of the Mountain Aquifer. The sharing of the aquifer is a frequent source of political conflict between the PA and Israel—and of local strife. There is some cooperation on the use of groundwater resources, but the starting points for the two parties are very different. Israel has generally sought to limit cooperation to technical aspects related to the qualitative deterioration of resources. While the Palestinians agree that both parties need to safeguard water, their problem is mainly political. They focus on the need for recognition of their rights to the aquifer and other possible resources in the West Bank territory.56

The PA organizes its work related to water resources through the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), which grew out of the processes leading to the Oslo II agreement of 1995. Reflecting the asymmetrical power balance between Israel and the PA, Israel dominates on issues of water. The strong Israeli economy can ameliorate a major part of the water scarcity through large-scale production of desalinated sea water. The PWA is left to manage conditions of scarcity instead of improving capacity, and Israel refuses to grant the licenses necessary to dig additional wells.57 This is part of a vicious circle: Economic disparity hampers Palestine’s ability to bolster its water resources, but without such advances and the agricultural revitalization that would follow, the PA can’t improve employment and productivity.58

Mark Zeitoun and Muna Dajani observe, “While the Israeli state doesn’t need so much water, the distribution of control over the Jordan River and associated aquifers remains a mirror reflection of the relative power between the rival states.”59 The PA is powerless to alter a West Bank infrastructure that favors Israeli settlements.60 The Oslo process divided the territory into three pieces, with areas A and B home to about 2.8 million Palestinians but accounting for less than 40 percent of the land.61 Most of the donor-funded water projects are clustered in those two sectors, but Area C contains most of the land used by Palestinians for agriculture and animal cultivation, resulting in underdevelopment.62

Area C also hosts about 146 settlements, home to around 500,000 Jewish Israelis. (In addition, about 200,000 Israelis live in settlements built in East Jerusalem.)63 A significant part of the water from the Mountain Aquifer is being used by Israel for its own domestic use and piped to the settlements in the West Bank. The Israelis control around 90 percent of that resource, while the Palestinians control 10 percent. In addition, according to Bethan McKernan, Israel manages about 80 percent of water reserves in the West Bank, and the settlers on average use two times more water than West Bank Palestinians.64 The PA annually buys 95 million cubic meters from Mekorot.65

The rapid increase of settlements further threatens water conditions for the Palestinian population. This is documented in an EU report showing that in both 2021 and 2022, the Israeli government expanded settlements in the West Bank. “The number of settlement plans and tenders advanced in 2022 was higher than in the previous year,” the EU representative for the West Bank and Gaza says. “In 2022, 28,208 units were advanced in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, compared to 22,030 in 2021, representing almost a 30% increase.”66 This tendency is likely to continue, as Netanyahu’s government has pledged to continue legalizing new settler outposts in the West Bank, where settlers constitute almost 14 percent of the total population, excluding East Jerusalem.

In Gaza, where the main source is the Coastal Aquifer, the water situation is catastrophic in both quantity and quality. The aquifer is overpumped, contaminated, and saline—and a major reason for tensions there. For long periods, before relying on desalination, Israel extracted overly large portions of groundwater from that source. In 2018, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 97 percent of the water from the Coastal Aquifer was unfit for human consumption.67 In addition, Israel—which imposed a land, sea, and air blockade on Gaza starting in 2007—has occasionally banned the materials necessary for the upgrade, and even maintenance, of water infrastructure. After the 2021 Hamas-Israel war, Gaza residents were reduced to accessing about 60 liters a day, far below the World Health Organization’s minimum daily standard of 100 liters.68 Even six months after that conflict, engineers in Gaza reported that Israel either officially or unofficially blocked items vital to the project of restoring the water system.69

Unlike in the West Bank, international donors have been reluctant to support the Hamas-led Gaza leadership. An exception is the EU’s Union for the Mediterranean, which in 2018 promised to support the construction of a desalination facility and north-south distribution system with a capacity of 100 million cubic meters. If this were implemented, it would help to address extreme water scarcity for 1.7 million people in Gaza.70 The EU also helped to expand the Southern Gaza Seawater Desalination Plant, completed in June 2023, that is designed to serve 250,000 Palestinians.71

However, the war sparked by Hamas’s October 2023 massacre has dramatically worsened the water situation in Gaza. According to the PWA, fuel and electricity shortages have forced the shutdown of desalination facilities. Due to the chaos, all water facilities in the enclave are functioning at very low levels or not at all.72 It is difficult to assess the precise extent of the damage to the water system, but 95 percent of Gazans are estimated to have lost access to clean water, and most major water infrastructure projects have been destroyed.73 The huge and increasing number of internally displaced persons contribute to the water stress in southern Gaza, where the infrastructure is unable to handle rising demand. Meanwhile, the drastic crowding in Rafah, close to the Gaza-Egypt border, and lack of clean water are causing the spread of waterborne diseases, including intestinal disorders and flu. The population there also suffers dehydration, hepatitis A, diarrhea, skin diseases, and dehydration.74

This is not just a problem of crowding, however. Annabelle Houdret and Ines Dombrowsky have shown that water has been used as a weapon in several different ways. The pumping of thousands of cubic meters of seawater into Hamas’s tunnel network has contributed to the contamination of the local groundwater. Moreover, wastewater treatment plants have been destroyed, allowing untreated sewage, hospital waste, and metals from thousands of bombs to poison the environment.75 As of late February 2024, only one in three of the Mekorot water pipelines from Israel into Gaza was operational—at just 47 percent of its capacity.76

Peace with the Palestinians, including living up to the Oslo agreements, has for years been a low priority for Israel.77 And with the ascendance of the ultra-right, the Israeli government is less and less likely to engage in negotiations and compromise with its Palestinian counterparts. As Marc Lynch argues, “Israelis and Palestinians today exist in an unacknowledged one state reality defined by systematic structures of domination and control.”78 It has been difficult for the PA to find a balance between working with the Israeli water authorities and trying to mobilize regional and international support against the expanding Jewish settlements and the Israeli plans to annex the Jordan Valley, without doubt “one of the most explosive diplomatic and political issues today.”79

The vicious cycle of the water crisis and Israeli hydro-hegemony makes cooperation between the occupying power and the occupied territories increasingly difficult. In addition to the war in Gaza and settlers’ land grabbing in the West Bank, the Palestinians also get merely rhetorical support from Arab states. Those governments have been pursuing their individual interests, including formal and informal normalization with Israel. This has also rendered unlikely any major improvements in Palestine, including on water access and quality.


The water crises facing Jordan and, especially, Palestine are growing more acute due to Israel’s hydro-hegemony and the attendant power imbalance. The peace process envisioned a collaboration between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, but that blueprint was thwarted by the rise of Netanyahu and Israeli governments that successively led toward a one-state reality. This led not just to Israel’s increasing its control over the occupied territories but the internal divide in Palestine that allowed Hamas to run Gaza. We have seen that the imbalance has allowed Israel to essentially control water resources, which thereby increased the state’s power. For Jordan, while it has since the 1994 peace deal maintained diplomatic relations with Israel, this has not helped the Hashemite kingdom improve its water outlook.

The water issue is not solely driven by the problem of Israeli overuse. Today, Israel can provide a major part of its household water via its massive desalination plants, reducing its drawdown from available aquifers. The discovery of significant offshore gas resources in the Mediterranean will for decades ahead make it possible to carry on with desalination, even if no other solutions appear. This technological advance and wastewater treatment and recycling have allowed Israel to strengthen its already dominant position.

Jordan is facing a problematic future due to the increasing scarcity of its fresh water. The Hashemite kingdom is trying to improve its infrastructure and has come some way, but its distribution system is inefficient and intermittent. The country also suffers from ecological impacts related to the withdrawals of groundwater and surface water.80 Jordan can seek to remedy a minor part of its potential crisis by working on water infrastructure. But there is really no other option than to cover a major part of its needs through an increase of supply from Israel. The kingdom harbors ambitions of becoming a regional leader in solar energy, which could mitigate the problem. However, it is struggling to secure financing, as the country suffers from a weak economy, partly as a result of years of crisis in neighboring Syria. As well, due to the Gaza war and the mounting tensions with Israel, it will likely take a while before the two can negotiate agreements that not only meet Jordan’s needs but are also acceptable to its public.

As for the PA, decades of overuse have sparked a water crisis and reduced its options. The many externally funded projects have not significantly changed the situation, and Israel has not cooperated enough. Instead, the occupying power is extending its dominance in the West Bank, as settlements are growing and new ones are planned. These outposts seize Palestinian groundwater and use large amounts from aquifers.81 Thus, the settlements constitute an important element in the emerging one-state reality, which affects relations among Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. The Palestinians had—at least before October 2023—become isolated in the Arab world: Although a two-thirds majority supports a two-state solution, most have come to believe that such an outcome will never happen.82 Israel has strengthened its hegemony by improving its own water-security nexus. Jordan has no choice but to accept its dependence on Israel’s continued deliveries of significant amounts of fresh water, though perhaps in the medium term it can improve its electricity generation enough to forge a deal for water with its neighbor.

Both in connection with settlement policies in the West Bank and the ongoing war in Gaza, this article shows that Israel is utilizing its water hegemony to strengthen its control over all territories from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This has reduced Israel’s incentives to deal with the Palestinians, and the vicious cycle has only increased its hydro-hegemony.

  • Peter Seeberg

    Dr. Seeberg is associate professor emeritus, Center for Modern Middle East and Muslim Studies, Department of Language, Culture, History, and Communication, University of Southern Denmark.

Scroll to Top