While the money flowing to presidential candidates who offer unqualified support for Israel is finally receiving some media attention, much of what falls under the rubric of “The Israel Lobby” is more subtle. In much of the mainstream media, it consists of a nearly incessant effort to present Israel to Americans as both exemplary (in terms of morals or science) and completely normal (as if Palestinians do not and never did exist). A striking instance of the phenomenon was presented over the weekend in USA Today, the middle-of-the-road national paper which, to my limited knowledge, has not been a foremost exponent of Israel Lobby positions.
Over the weekend, it ran a piece, with illustrations, taking up the entire back page of the front section, entitled “Israel’s Guide to Water.” Michele Chabin, who seems to be the paper’s principal Israel correspondent, suggests that California might look towards the “Middle East”—that is, Israel—for a solution to its water difficulties. She then elaborates upon Israel’s decades of experience with managing scarce water resources, and the techniques and technologies that Israel has developed. She quotes an Israeli official, the former top water minister, who states reassuringly that “Israel no longer has a water shortage.” In a digression, she notes Israeli success in keeping pine trees alive in a dry climate, though not mentioning that the trees—“part of a man-made greenbelt”—are not indigenous to the region. The paper’s takeaway: brilliant Israelis, who make the desert bloom, can help solve California’s major problem.
No doubt much of what the article recounts is true. Israel’s utilization of water recycling and desalinization probably is state of the art, or close to it. California and other drought-affected areas might well learn something from Israeli engineers. But is this really the most salient aspect of the Israeli water story?
Last year, the president of the European Union, Martin Schulz, visited Israel and spoke before the Knesset. In a carefully phrased rhetorical aside, he asked whether it was true, as a Palestinian youth had told him, that an Israeli can use 70 liters of water daily and a Palestinian just 17. “I haven’t checked the data. I’m asking you if this is correct.” Schulz’s words caused an uproar. Members of the right-wing party Habayit Habehudi went ballistic, heckling Schulz and staging a walk-out. One of its members mounted the podium to give Schulz a Bible lesson. “The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Eretz Israel to the Jewish people.” Presumably the implication was that Israeli Jews have the right to all the water.
Many Israelis were genuinely shocked at Schulz’s figures, the kind of unpleasant facts about the occupation that most Israelis prefer to ignore. In fact, Schulz’s 70 liter versus 17 figure was not correct, but it represented a ratio that is roughly accurate, and points to one of the most important—if little discussed—consequences of the Israeli occupation, now approaching its 50-year mark.
For even if Martin Schulz did not, or pretended not, to know the precise facts, there is fundamental structural injustice in Israel’s water policy. Much of Israel’s water comes from underground aquifers on the occupied West Bank. Under the provisions of Oslo II, an interim agreement which the Palestinians naively expected would expire in five years, after the occupation was terminated, Israel maintained control of the central West Bank aquifers which it had seized in 1967. The Palestinians were allocated 118 million cubic meters a year and Israel 483. In other words 80 percent of the water was going to Israel, 20 percent to Palestine. Actual Palestinian per capita water usage is around 73 liters per day, well below what the World Health Organization considers a safe minimum. In some Palestinian cities, water use is half that.
On average, Israelis use about 3 times as much water per capita as Palestinians (not 4, as Schulz said he had heard) though for Palestinians not connected to the water grid, the gap is greater. One highly visible fact about the West Bank is that Israeli settlements have swimming pools and lush lawns, while neighboring Palestinian villages struggle for water. In West Bank Area C, under Israeli control but not connected to the water grid, Israeli soldiers often destroy Palestinian cisterns designed to collect rainwater. Israeli settlers poison Palestinian cisterns with dirty diapers or dead chickens. Israeli water apartheid, as activists call it, is not a sideshow but a central feature of Israel’s occupation, a systematic policy designed to drive Palestinians off their land. This Amnesty International report, six years old but still highly relevant, details the myriad bureaucratic regulations by which Israel limits Palestinian access to water, which is no doubt why Martin Shulz tried, ever so tactfully, to raise the issue before the Knesset.
For USA Today to ignore this central aspect of Israeli water policy is a result of either exceptional journalistic gullibility or a simple desire to spread Israeli propaganda. The presentation of Israel as a model for American water policy is outrageous. Would we expect USA Today to endorse measures whose consequence was the reduction of water usage of Hispanic and African-Americans to one-third that of whites? Almost certainly not. But for USA Today, Israel’s systematic and pervasive denial of Palestinians’ right to access their own natural resources is so normal, it apparently isn’t even worth mentioning.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.