Issues under the Oslo Accords

1 Jan 2011
23 Apr 2014

The Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement signed in September 1995 (Oslo 2) includes the last mutual arrangement concerning water in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and is the most detailed to date. The issue is treated in article 40 of the agreement’s Protocol on Civil Affairs (Annex 3). The agreement did not significantly change the scope of Israeli control over the shared water resources.

In the agreement, the division of water from shared Israeli-Palestinian sources was based on the principle that Israeli use – both within the Green Line and in settlements – would not be reduced. Any additional water for the Palestinians would be extracted from previously unutilized sources, with no re-distribution. According to the agreement, 80% of water extracted from the Mountain Aquifer would serve Israel and the remaining 20% would serve Palestinians. Palestinian water supply would come from two sources:

  • Continued extraction of some 118 million cubic meters (mcm) a year from existing drills in the West Bank.

  • Development of new drills to extract water from the only previously unutilized source in the West Bank, the eastern basin of the Mountain Aquifer, yielding some 70 to 80 mcm a year. Until the development, Israel was to immediately begin supplying the Palestinians with approximately 25 mcm of water a year.

In practice, however, Palestinians have access to less water than was agreed upon. Extraction from pre-existing drills currently yields only 87 mcm of water a year, rather than the agreed-upon 118 mcm. The reasons for this include: 1) Technical problems and outdated equipment; 2) Drop of water level at several locations; 3) Overestimation of the available underground water when the agreement was signed in 1995. Independent Palestinian drilling in the eastern basin of the Mountain Aquifer was never developed as planned, due both to Israeli restrictions and to failed test attempts. The amount of water sold to Palestinians by Mekorot (national Israeli water company) has doubled from 25 mcm a year in the agreement to a current 53 mcm. Even so, there is a considerable gap between the amount of water that was supposed to be available to the Palestinian Authority under the agreement, and present-day availability. Almost twenty years after the Oslo Accords were signed, the Palestinians have access to only about 75% of the 200 mcm of water they were supposed to receive annually by the year 2000.

In the Oslo Accords, Israel recognized that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank comprise one territorial unit. However, the Interim Agreement stipulates that the Gaza Strip will constitute a separate water sector. Other than the small quantity that Israel undertook to sell, Gazan authorities will have to meet the population’s needs solely by using sources located within Gaza’s borders, and will not be able to use water from the West Bank.

Pursuant to the agreement, the parties established the Joint Water Committee (JWC) for approving every new water and wastewater project in the West Bank. The committee has an equal number of representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority and all its decisions must be unanimous. In practice, Israel often uses its exclusive control over Area C to circumvent committee approval and unilaterally create facts on the ground. It brings only large projects before the committee, ignoring its obligation under the agreement to request the committee’s approval for work within settlements or for laying new water pipes. The Palestinians, however, need committee approval for any infrastructure project, as Israel may demolish facilities built without it. Also, their projects usually depend on foreign funding from governments that demand committee approval, whether out of compliance with the Oslo Accords or of fear that Israel will demolish unapproved facilities.

As all the committee’s decisions must be made by consensus, Israel can veto any Palestinian request to drill a new well, repair infrastructure or treat wastewater, while the Palestinians have virtually no power of veto. According to committee protocols, Israel has employed its right of veto by conditioning approval of Palestinian projects on Palestinian approval of projects in settlements. In several instances, Israel demanded that water or wastewater facilities to be built in the West Bank serve both Palestinian communities and settlements, based on geographical concerns. The Palestinians and the donor states objected. The wastewater treatment facility in western Nablus, which began operating in late 2013, currently treats wastewater from Palestinian communities only, while Israel connected settlements to the facility in al-Bireh. The fate of similar planned facilities throughout the West Bank remains unclear. In almost two decades since the agreement was signed, the only facility to be fully approved by the committee and the Civil Administration and begin operation is the one in western Nablus (the facility at al-Bireh was approved in 1992, before the committee was established).

Israel's control of water extraction from the shared aquifers is not limited to its power in the committee to veto new drillings, as water-related projects in Area C also require not approval by the High Planning Committee of the Civil Administration, which often denies such requests. A study by Jan Selby from the University of Sussex found a limited number of Palestinian projects authorized by both the committee and the Civil Administration, as opposed to nearly 100% approval of Israeli projects for settlement use. All the Israeli projects approved by the committee received Civil Administration approval within mere months, while Palestinian projects have been delayed for years. For example, the plan for the facility in western Nablus was submitted to the committee as far back as 1997, yet began operating only in 2013.