By Toby Irenshtain
In 1964, United States President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke of the importance of water in the geopolitical sphere: “Water means life, and water means opportunity, and water means prosperity for those who never knew the meaning of those words. Water can banish hunger and can reclaim the desert and change the course of history.”
He was right - a vital instrument of power in the current nationalized world order is governmental water resource management. Indeed, Shimon Tal, former head of the Israel Water Commission, forcefully asserts that one “can tell a lot about a country by the way it manages its water.” Israel is a world leader in water sustainability and management; Israel has utilized a combination of water conservation and technologically innovative approaches to lift itself out of a crisis of water scarcity into the comfortability of water surplus. How? Israel reuses 85% of municipal wastewater, requires dual-flush toilets, drills deep wells for brackish water, desalinates seawater, develops seeds that work primarily with saltwater, and uses drip irrigation for agriculture - all measures that greatly enhance the relationship between the nation and its water.
The story of Israel’s success in water sustainability and management is one rooted in Jewish theology, Israeli technology, and a determination to overcome environmental constraints in pursuit of national order. Rarely, however, do you hear of Israel’s successes in desalination, recycled municipal wastewater, or water conservation. Whether because of malicious intent or mistaken disinformation, media sources mislead readers about Israel’s management and allocation of water. In this article, I will present factual rebuttals regarding two main false claims.
Firstly, many articles and sources, such as the UN, have unjustly claimed that the Palestinians have no power to make their own decisions regarding water. This is not only factually inaccurate, but it also distorts the relationship between the two powers, presenting a reality in which Palestinian suffering is the result of Israeli action rather than the Palestinian governments’ choices and inaction.
Water management and allocation are key forces of nation-building and transboundary cooperation; as such, Israel seeks fairness in water allocation and has endorsed peace plans that would advance such an aim in the West Bank and Gaza. The 1995 Oslo II agreement established the current water allocations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Palestinian authority gained significant autonomous responsibility regarding water through Oslo II, including the right to drill wells in determining locations and an increase of water allocations (28.6 MCM/year), provided by both the Israeli government (33%) and the Palestinian Authority (67%). The Palestinian Authority has real leverage and choice in their water activity; however, their failure to uphold agreed-upon terms and refusal to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist serves to harm their water access. Water allocation specifics can be determined again when Palestinians return to the table for the final status Oslo negotiations. The power to make their own decisions regarding water is possible, but only with compromise and recognition.
Secondly, many sources, such as the BBC, Amnesty International, and more incorrectly assert that Israel allocates 3-5x more water to Israeli citizens than to Palestinians, grossly skewing the data. In reality, superb technological innovation has enabled Israeli citizens to use desalinated ocean water and recycled effluents above the levels they would consume from the groundwater without such innovations. In fact, Israel recycles close to 85% of its municipal wastewater. To include recycled municipal wastewater in this comparison is to count the same water twice. Despite the violence that Israeli citizens face from Hamas, Israel provides Gaza with over 12 million cubic meters (MCM) of Israeli water annually. Further, Israel sends another 73.7 MCM to the West Bank
The harsh reality on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank regarding water is a result of the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to invest in the welfare of its own citizens, choosing to murder Israelis rather than provide for the sustenance of its population via infrastructure, peace talks, and water management.
Narratives that we share about countries - existent or yet to be created - that house ethnic peoples matter. Whether due to purposeful antisemitism, accidental disinformation, or subconscious discomfort with the increased power of the Jews through the apparatus of the Israeli state, the media continues to misconstrue the realities of the Middle East. The constant bombardment of negative depictions of Israeli society fails to capture the complexity and beauty of the nation’s interaction with nature, water, and building a state apparatus. We must combat misinformation on all fronts; as the tide of anti-Israel sentiment develops on campuses, we must recognize the incredible power that distorted facts hold, call them out when necessary, and respond with the necessary comparative vigor, authenticity, and accountability.
Toby Irenshtain, born in Israel and raised in New York, is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University, with a fall, and sees advocating for Israel as a crucial aspect of her educational and career path. She was a 2020-2021 Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.