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From the field

Disputed Waters: Israel's Responsibility for the Water Shortage in the Occupied Territories

September 1998, Summary

Water is the most basic and vital resource for human existence. It is vital for human life itself and for personal health and hygiene. The right to water is, therefore, a basic right. Israel's citizens benefit year-round from unlimited running water to meet their household needs. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians suffer from a severe water shortage throughout the summer. Many of them have no running water all summer long.

The severe water shortage, which results directly from Israeli policy since 1967, violates the basic right of residents of the Occupied Territories to minimal living conditions. This policy is based on an unfair division of resources shared by Israel and the Palestinians. Israel created a system of restrictions that prevents the Palestinians from utilizing their water resources in a manner that meets their basic needs and the population's natural birth rate. Despite its responsibility towards the residents of the Occupied Territories, Israel has not ensured them an alternative supply of water. This system of restrictions, together with Israel's serious neglect of the water system in the Occupied Territories, blatantly discriminates between Palestinians and Israeli citizens.

Israel restricted Palestinian utilization of water resources in several ways: imposing bureaucratic obstacles related to drilling new wells; establishing quotas on the quantity of water drawn from the wells and imposing heavy fines for violators; expropriation of wells owned by Palestinians and declaring them absentee property; precluding access by declaring land a closed military area or a nature reserve; neglect in caring for the municipal water-system networks, as part of Israel's overall neglect of infrastructure in the Occupied Territories. This neglect has resulted in leakage and loss of large amounts of water. All these actions by Israel prevent the Palestinians from receiving sufficient water to meet their needs, and creates structural inequality in division of the shared water sources. Some Palestinian residents, mostly farmers, compound the problem by stealing water from the network supplying water to Palestinian towns and villages.

The Oslo 2 Agreement improves the water situation of the Palestinians by increasing the quantity of water available to them, and providing them with a certain degree of influence, albeit limited, over the division arrangements. However, the agreement also preserves the previous inequality: blatant discrimination between Palestinians and Israeli settlers, and an unfair division of the shared resources. The agreement also grants Israel a veto over any change in the status quo. In practice, Israeli control, indirect but extremely tight, continues over all water sources available to the Palestinians. The Palestinians' dependence on Mekorot, the Israeli Water Authority, has even increased. In addition, it should be pointed out that even though Israel handed over to the Palestinians an extremely deteriorated water-system network, the agreement does not impose any responsibility on Israel for this, and does not obligate Israel to fund repairs.

Discrimination between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories

The discrimination between Palestinians and Israeli settlers regarding the supply of water is especially conspicuous in the many cases where settlements are located near a Palestinian town or village and are connected to the same Mekorot well. While the settlers benefit from an unlimited quantity of running water - including filling swimming pools and watering lawns, the Palestinian towns and villages suffer a severe shortage of running water, even for drinking and bathing. The report shows that the immediate reason for the shortage is Israel's discriminatory policy, employed through Mekorot. This policy includes drastically reducing the allotment of water for Palestinian towns and villages during the summer months in order to meet the increasing consumption in Israel and the Israeli settlements.

Effect on Health

The water shortage gravely affects the health and welfare of the residents. These consequences include, in part, increase in infectious diseases as a result of use of unclean water, increase in dehydration cases because of insufficient water, and improper treatment of patients at home and in hospitals, at times life-threatening.

International Law

International law rejects the Israeli settlements' utilization of water resources in the Occupied Territories and requires a fairer distribution of shared water sources. Under international law, the two water sources shared by Israel and the Palestinians - the mountain aquifer and the Jordan Basin - constitute international waters to be shared by Israel and the Palestinians. Under the Helsinki fair-use principles,?? which state the rules for administering international waters, a re-division of the shared water sources must be made in favor of the Palestinians.

The fact that residents of the Occupied Territories do not receive sufficient water to meet their needs and suffer from a severe water shortage during the summer is indisputable. International law imposes on Israel, as the occupying power, the obligation to supply sufficient quantity and quality of water for the residents of the occupied territory. International law prohibits Israel from making changes in the occupied territory that are not intended for the benefit of the residents, and to use the water sources in the West Bank to benefit the Israeli settlements. Where a water shortage exists in the Occupied Territories, Israel must supply water from its own sources.

By giving preference to the Israeli settlements over the Palestinian residents vis-a-vis supply of water in the Occupied Territories, Israel blatantly violates the prohibition on discrimination and the principle of equality. This principle is unequivocally stated in the Hague Regulations, the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Israel is party to all these instruments.


B'Tselem urges the Israeli government to:

  • Immediately provide Palestinians in the Occupied Territories with at least enough water to meet their minimal household needs.
  • Stop discriminating in the distribution of water between Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and the Israeli settlements there.
  • Shorten the approval procedures to develop new water resources, and execute the other water projects agreed upon in the Oslo Accords.
  • Recognize Israel's responsibility for the poor condition of the water infrastructure in the Occupied Territories and the lack of infrastructure in many areas, and provide money to improve the infrastructure.

B'Tselem urges the two parties to:

  • Cooperate to put an end the thefts from the water-system network.
  • Establish a fairer division of shared water resources, one that meets international law standards and is based on existing models of joint management of shared resources.