Date: Mon, 28 Jul 97 23:07:36 CDT
Subject: Israel, PLO find water rift too hard to bridge
From: Press Agency Ozgurluk <>

PLO find water rift too hard to bridge

By Cynthia Johnston, Reuters. 28 July, 1997

The water dispute stems from disagreements over who should control Israel's water resources, which lie mainly under Palestinian land.

Ain Arik, West Bank- Peace with Israel was supposed to bring running water to Iman Abu Saffa's West Bank home.

She gets 60 television channels piped into her house but her tiny village is still dry.

"We hope that some day we'll have running water," Abu Saffa said, balancing a bucket of well water on her head with one hand and holding her two-year-old daughter Razan by the other.

"That's what they (the Palestinian Authority) promised, but we haven't seen anything."

While politicians bicker about the status of Jerusalem and a future Palestinian state, experts on both sides say there will be no peace until the water problem is solved.

More than half of West Bank Palestinian towns do not have water piped in, Palestinian officials said.

Villagers drink from wells and collect rain in rooftop tanks for washing.

In the dry summers, they buy water that is often polluted at exorbitant prices from green tractor trucks.

About 130,000 religious Jews live on West Bank land amid two million Palestinians. They make up less than 10 percent of the population, but use 80 percent of the water, according to Palestinian and independent assessments.

"We need more water," said Tsvi Amit, a farmer at the Peza'el settlement in the Jordan Valley, one of the West Bank's driest.

"I am a farmer, and that's what I want," he said, adding that he has enough water for only half his crops.

Peza'el has started using drip irrigation to conserve water, but Amit says it is on the verge of economic ruin because of a disastrously small grape harvest and the water shortage.

Palestinians have little sympathy. While Peza'el pipes in drinking and irrigation water, villagers in Ain Arik drink and irrigate their fields with water taken manually from the village well.

Farmers gather the water from a mossy concrete pool that holds the green run-off. Village boys swim in it.

"There is no single Israeli settlement without water, and they have good water and good pipes," said Abdul-Rahman Tamimi, director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group, a non-governmental organization monitoring the water supply in the West Bank and Gaza.

"This is increasing tensions between the two countries," he said.

Dispute over who owns water

The water dispute stems from disagreements over who should control Israel's water resources, which lie mainly under Palestinian land.

Palestinians say land is inseparable from the water that lies beneath it. They say the water is theirs.

But Israelis say they have a historical right to the water, which they have been tapping for decades.

"It's going to be difficult," said Uri Shamir, a water expert who spent five years on the Israeli team negotiating the issue with the Palestinians.

"Water resources don't always conform to political boundaries," he said, adding that the sides would have to share.

One of the difficulties, Tamimi said, was getting the politicians to understand the problem.

"There is a water shortage, and there is a large demand for water, and some Palestinian minister is talking about bringing 50 million tourists to Bethlehem," Tamimi said.

"If each of them goes to the bathroom once a day, they need three million cubic meters of water...That's just to flush the toilets. It's a disaster."

At the same time, both sides say that when talks on a permanent peace settlement finally roll around, it will be easier to solve the water problem than to find a solution for the status of Jerusalem and a future Palestinian state.

They have already reached a temporary agreement giving Palestinians some extra water until a final agreement is worked out. But Tamimi said it was not enough.

"The Palestinian villagers cannot wait," he said.

Economic hardships for Palestinians

The water shortage has created an economic crisis for Arab villages in Gaza and the West Bank, which now cultivate only three percent of their farmland, down from more than a quarter 30 years ago, the Palestinian Hydrology Group said.

The well water is drying up slowly, and Palestinians depend on a new Israeli-Palestinian water committee to get permission to dig new wells.

But that committee has not met since last February, and no new wells have been dug.

"Water is not the dream any more. The approval to find water is the dream now," Tamimi said. "They (the Israelis) reduced the opportunities for self-sufficiency in food."

The decrease in cultivated land comes as travel restrictions imposed by Israel have forced unemployment rates to nearly 40 percent in the West Bank and 60 percent in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Monetary Authority.

Most Palestinians, who make an average $652 a year, cannot afford to buy $13 tanks of water every two weeks.

Not only is tank water expensive, it could be dangerous. In Gaza, Tamimi said, the fresh water isn't much better.

"Gaza is a disaster area. They drink water unfit for human beings, and even in some areas like Khan Yunis, they drink water unfit for agriculture," he said, adding that it was polluted with chemicals and pesticides.

When the Palestinian Authority took over in parts of the West Bank and Gaza under interim peace deals, it promised to pipe water to the villages but progress was snagged by crises in Israel-PLO negotiations.

At the well in Ain Arik, an elderly village woman bends over from the weight of two blue buckets of water.

"Are you here to bring water to my house?" she asks a reporter, balancing herself on a wooden cane.

Tamimi said running water would not come soon.

"There is enough water," he said. "But there is no goodwill."

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