Israel, War and Water

By Jim Miles

There is a global crisis emerging concerning the allocation, uses, and abuses of fresh water. This is a combination of misuse by humans and the increasing violence and changing frequency of various weather conditions as the global climate heats up. Along with the heating are other factors such as the acidification of the oceans as they uptake more carbon than the life forms living there can deal with it in such a short time span. Agriculture becomes threatened, potable water for domestic use becomes scarcer, and although fresh water should be a right enshrined in the UN Charter, it is increasingly becoming both a military and corporate target.

Intersecting with the water crisis is the current economic situation with the rising economic power of India and China and their roughly 2.5 billion population making increasing demands on energy and food resources. Oil is at or near its peak, and while it may not be noticeable in the near future, its increasing scarcity and difficulty with extraction will cause the price to rise inexorably, creating further economic hardship and alternate demands on the environment.

Global Warring

A new text by Cleo Paskal [1] highlights the intersection of these environmental, economic and political crises and how they will redraw the world map. Her writing is not of the apocalyptic nature, not describing the horrors of a post-nuclear holocaust period nor the horrors of the survivalists imagination when the economy and the environment tank together and suddenly we need to become self reliant in a much more primitive sense.

Instead, it is a strong academic analysis of the current geopolitical/environmental interactions that could possibly – in spite of the denials above – spell ‘doom’. Her information is concise and wisely presented, without exaggeration or resorting to hyperbolic disasters. She describes the rising power of China and India, beset with their own environmental challenges, but “planning for the [long-term] future” as they “graduate more than half a million engineers and scientists a year.” The U.S. is viewed from the Katrina perspective and its demonstration that the U.S. cannot manage a single environmental disaster let alone be “prepared to manage repeated major domestic environmental disasters.”

Paskal is clear with her goal of using “the best science available to understand the implications of the inevitable in order to minimize the geopolitical, economic and security fallout” of climate change. She is not operating from theory but from history with “myriad examples of the environment affecting war and politics.” Her stated goal, with which she succeeds is to “demonstrate that environmental change is about to have enormous, and specific, geopolitical, economic and security consequences for all of us.”

The chapter on the Middle East is titled “Today’s Weather – Intolerable with periods of Uninhabitable.” Historically the problem with the fertile crescent “was too many people, too little food and water, and too few places to secure more supplies.”

Her closing, after many well argued presentations says that with “all the threads together, the world of tomorrow looks chaotic and violent. Even more so than usual. And even more than expected.” Our current “social, political, security and economic structures [are built] on the assumption that there are certain geophysical and climatic constants to act as a foundation. There aren’t. There never have been. And there never will be.” So now you can go read the apocalyptic and survivalist authors, as this relatively calm academic analysis arrives at a pretty gloomy and scary picture.

Water…and Israel

Water is a large part of Paskal’s discussion. Storms are becoming more violent and less predictable. The monsoons are undergoing new vagaries. Rivers are exploited to make them toxic sewers and/or to have them run dry before they reach the sea. All this is supported by the current National Geographic special issue “Water – Our Thirsty World.” [2] After discussing the current fresh water status, the glacial melt of the Himalayas, the monsoons, the ‘holiness’ of certain water sources, the “burden of thirst”, California’s “Pipe Dream” situated on a highly active seismic zone, the topic of water in Israel is addressed.

Generally I have criticized the Geographic for its frequent attempts to ‘balance’ arguments, arguments often between powerful corporations and weaker NGOs and citizens groups, or between environmental agencies and the more powerful governments. Balance is not good journalism when the power of circumstances and events lies strongly and critically with one side, at which point an analytical advocacy is by far the greater route to take.

I feared this article on Israeli water might strive for ‘balance’ but there are some strong references that indicate that the National Geographic editors are beginning to question the power equation in Israel. The article, “Parting the Waters”, [3] is essentially about the Jordan River, that a “ six-year drought and expanding population conspire to make it a fresh source of conflict among the Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians vying for the river’s life giving supply.” The article continues that the “lower Jordan is practically devoid of clean water, bearing instead a toxic brew of saline water and liquid waste that ranges from raw sewage to agricultural runoff….The fight over the Jordan illustrates the potential for conflict over water that exists throughout the world.”

Yet it is more than potential in Israel/Palestine, it is kinetic…actualized. While the politicians describe the occupation and annexations in terms of religion, the building of the wall as a prevention against terror, and the savage attacks on the Palestinian people in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, and Jordan as attacks against terror, one of the principal underlying causes is water resources. Of global military conflicts over water “since 1950, 32 took place in the Middle East, 30 of them involved Israel and its Arab neighbours.”

The article tries to be optimistic, quoting one source as saying “water is just too important to go to war over…people need water, and that’s a huge incentive to work things out.” Unfortunately, that optimism is not apparent in the actions of the Israelis. The author recognizes that the West Bank Palestinians are under Israeli military rule, that Israel harvests much of the ground water and of the flow of the Jordan, denying access to the Palestinians. Turn about, when water is scarce, the Palestinians must buy it from Israel, paying money for water removed from their territory, water that lowers the water table for the fewer and fewer remaining wells. Another source is quoted, while looking at a Mekorot [Israel’s national water authority] well, “This is what water theft looks like in this part of the world.”

Balance and Context

The attempted balance is interesting. The chief Israeli water negotiator (and one has to wonder how much ‘negotiation’ actually takes place under military control), Noah Kinnarth, tries to argue that the underground water “knows no borders” and that the Palestinians think that the water that falls in the West Bank belongs to them.” What a novel idea, your own rainfall belonging to you. Kinnarth’s final twist is that with Oslo “we agreed to share that water. They just can’t seem to get their act together to do it.”

I am uncertain of the author’s intent here. The latter statement is obviously completely out of context – as a militarily occupied territory under variable and oppressive military law, with valuable agricultural land and water resources being remove through illegal expropriation and the winding turns of the Wall, with its leaders continually being arrested, tortured, and or assassinated – could hardly be expected “to get their act together.” Does the author let the statement stand out of context through his own prejudice or ignorance? Or is he allowing it to stand on its own demerits, expecting the readers to fill in the nuances of his presentation, combining his statements about military occupation, the drilling of wells, and the ignorance of the Israeli ‘negotiator’s’ statement?

I will give the benefit of the doubt to the author this time, as the final comment goes to a Palestinian farmer, Muhammed Salamain in the village of Auja. He has had no running water for five weeks, does not have enough water to irrigate crops, cannot access the aquifer, and summarizes, “we are powerless to do anything about it.” To get to the water he needs in the Jordan, he would “have to jump an electric fence, cross a minefield, and fight the Israeli army.” And he can’t get his act together? No wonder.

Israel, war and water…and the U.S.

The Israeli’s have always wanted the full landscape of Eretz Israel, purportedly for religious reasons, but geopolitically the scarce water resources have had significant influence on their actions towards limiting access to the Jordan, the annexation of the Golan Heights, and the occupation and attacks on Lebanon. Combining the geographic narrative with the Paskal presentation, Israel sits in a precarious yet powerful position.

With the strongest military in the region, one of the strongest in the world with many nuclear devices, with its need for control of water for a burgeoning population – the Palestinian population growth rate is higher – and its short lines of access to oil and gas resources for energy and industry, Israel is well situated to take advantage of any turmoil caused by the intersection of global environmental catastrophes and geopolitical catastrophes of its own or others making. Should the rest of the world devolve into chaos without taking Israel with it, the water is there for the taking, the oil is there for the taking, and the Palestinians are there for removal.

This is a rather grim finale to the interpretation of these two items. However, both geopolitics and the global climate are unpredictable, with many unexpected occurrences and outcomes. Again Iran enters the picture, not as an imminent threat, but as a created threat that will allow Israel to rationalize more authoritative action of whatever kind it wants in order to secure its future needs.

The U.S. plays a large role in this, but as per Paskal, “power is imperceptibly shifting away from the United States….there is a growing movement away from overt alignment with the States….Authoritarian regimes benefit from having an enemy….the US military is becoming [?] unpopular and politically marginalized globally….” China and India are taking up the slack.

Israel is powerful, yet at the same time extremely vulnerable, sitting in a precarious geopolitical situation. Surrounded by hostile yet compliant neighbours – ranging from the U.S. supported Egyptians, Saudis, and Jordanians, and the more antagonistic governments of Lebanon and Turkey – relying on power alone, as seen with the U.S. and its attempts at global military control, creates many unexpected feedbacks, many distortions in the economy and social/cultural fabric of the country. Israel has recognized the environmental threat, and is using its military to control as much of it as it can.

The lessons of history, natural history and geopolitical history, would indicate that a different approach is needed. Restoring the rights of the Palestinians in either a functional contiguous independent state or in a truly democratic bi-national state, would relieve enormous geopolitical pressure, and make the quest for environmental survival that much stronger.

– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.


[1] Paskal, Cleo. Global Warring – How Environmental, Economic and Political crises Will Redraw the World Map. Key Porter Books, Toronto, Canada. 2010.

[2] “Water – Our Thirsty World.” National Geographic, April, 2010.

[3] Belt, Don. “Parting the Waters,” National Geographic, April, 2010. pp. 154 – 171.

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