One of the remaining unresolved issues between the Israelis and Palestinians is the shared use of the Mountain Aquifer, the major portion of the recharge area of which lies under the occupied territories, but which flows naturally into Israeli territory, both to the northeast and to the west. Most of its groundwater has been utilized within Israel from springs, rivers and wells for many years.
In this paper, I have assumed that, as an outcome of the Oslo agreements to which the present Government of Israel is officially committed, some form of Palestinian self-rule, autonomous entity or independent state will evolve in stages in all or part, of the occupied territories. Based on this assumption, it is apparent that the Mountain Aquifer will be considered under international law as a shared body of trans-boundary groundwater (Caponera, 1992) with claims and counterclaims by both sides as to its future utilization and control, which must be resolved by a peace agreement.

The Mountain Aquifer

The Mountain Aquifer covers the central area of the occupied territories on both sides of the Judean and Samarian mountain range, and extends, generally, from the Jezreel Valley (near Afula) in the north to the Beersheba valley in the south, and from the foothills of the Judean Hills near the Mediterranean in the west to the Jordan River in the east. The Mountain Aquifer can be divided schematically into three general zones: the western basin (Yarkon-Taninim), the northeastern basin (Schehem/Nablus-Gilboa) and the eastern basin, as shown in Figure 1 (Shuval 1992; Gvirtzman, 1994).
Starting some 80 years ago, Jewish farmers and water companies actively started draining swamps and developing the water resources of the western and northeastern zones of the Mountain Aquifer for Jewish agricultural development in the pre-State period up to 1948, with the full approval of the British Mandatory authorities. Water resource development expanded rapidly after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, and the western and northeastern sections of the Mountain Aquifer were fully exploited by Israel, within the boundaries of Israel, well before 1967.
It is true that after the occupation of the West Bank in 1967, Israel prevented any further utilization of the aquifer by the Palestinians; however, there appears to be no evidence that there were any constraints on the development and utilization of the natural water resources of the Mountain Aquifer by the Palestinian Arab population under the Ottoman, British or Jordanian administrations, between the turn of the century and the end of the Jordanian administration of the West Bank in 1967. However, during this period, intensive Arab development of the groundwater resources of the Mountain Aquifer would have required heavy investments in hydrogeological investigations, modem deep-well drilling technology, costing much more than available to the individual Palestinian landowners/farmers or municipalities. Israel, thus, has a strong legal claim of prior historic use for that share of the aquifer it presently uses within Israel, which is firmly supported by the principles of international law.
While the source may indeed be mainly from rainfall over the Palestinian populated areas of the West Bank, Israel's prior use of the water, whose natural flow is into Israel, is fully accepted by international law as legitimate use of a shared resource. It is incorrect to claim that such prior use of the shared aquifer within Israel is "stealing" water from the Palestinians; for example, 100 percent of the Nile River flow used by Egypt emanates from sources outside the country. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that, from a historical, national and social perspective, the Palestinians are indeed a deprived people in the area of water-resource development and availability, but not because of any major external legal or political constraints. Israel has officially recognized that, despite Israel's prior use of the shared aquifer, the Palestinians do have distinctive water rights to the aquifer, which were articulated in the Oslo II agreement.
The eastern basin of the Mountain Aquifer is fundamentally different than the western and northeastern basins which can clearly be considered shared trans-boundary international water resources. Almost all of the feed area of the eastern basin is in areas of the West Bank, except for a small portion in and around Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Corridor.
From a very preliminary analysis, it would appear that today, of the estimated 700 million cubic meters/year (MCM/Yr) of potential safe yield of the Mountain Aquifer, 415 MCM is now and has been utilized within Israel's borders prior to 1967, with much of its use going back some 60 - 80 years. Some 115 MCM/Yr is currently used by the Palestinians, while another 65 MCM/Yr is pumped by Israel from new wells drilled since 1967 within the West Bank, mainly for use by the new Israeli civilian settlements there. It is estimated that there may be about another 110 MCM/Yr of unutilized water in the Eastern Aquifer which might be tapped as sweet water through deep wells. This source is specifically mentioned in the Oslo II agreement for potential supplemental water supplies for the Palestinians. In addition, the Palestinians pump some 100 MCM/Yr from the Gaza Aquifer.
The total available water for the Palestinians in 1996 was about 215 MCM/Yr. Thus, assuming that these estimates are correct; without reducing Israel's pre-1967 water withdrawal from the Mountain Aquifer within the borders of Israel, the potential water increases that might be available to the Palestinians (including compensation for the current Israeli water withdrawal within the West Bank) might be some 175 MCM/Yr.

The Role of International Water Law

International water law is not binding or enforceable by some supra-national authority; however, it does carry considerable moral weight as the manner in which peace-loving countries resolve their water conflicts.
This enlightened and peaceful approach is summed up in the Helsinki Rules of 1966 and the draft recommendations of the International Law Commission of the UN (Caponera, 1992). These propose that water disputes be settled by negotiations. Article IV of the Helsinki Rules states that "each basin state is entitled, within its territory, to a reasonable and equitable share in the beneficial uses of the waters on an international drainage basin." These rules further provide for taking into account, among other means, possible alternative water sources that might be available to one of the parties, the possibility of economic compensation and the economic and social needs of each state. Most of the effective international water treaties provide for the establishment of joint commissions for inspection, monitoring, control and management of shared water resources, so that all parties can be assured that the terms of the agreement are in fact being adhered to.
If we are to accept the point of view of the experts in international law, we would come to the following conclusions: The position that, only by the physical occupation of territories which serve as a source of its water resources can a country assure its water rights, is not generally supported by the normal practice of peaceful nations or international water law. Similarly, there is little legal basis in international water law to support the claim of others that they have exclusive rights over the use of water derived from sources within their territory. The claim that prior historical use assures immutable water rights is also not absolute in terms of international water law. Thus, based on modem principles of international water law, both the historic riparian rights of Israel as the downstream user, and the water rights of the Palestinians as the upstream party on a shared body of water, must be considered on the basis of equity and legitimate needs.
The Palestinians claim that any water extraction within the West Bank after 1967 for Israeli civilian settlements is illegal and in violation of the Geneva Convention concerning the rights and obligations of what is defined as ''belligerent occupier" (Al-Hindi, 1990). Under the Geneva Convention, the utilization of a territory's natural resources by a "belligerent occupier" for civilian purposes is not allowed (Benvenisti, 1994). In this case, Israel will not be able to claim prior historic use, since all of the wells were drilled under the authority of the Israel Military Administration after the 1967 occupation of the West Bank. During this period, the Israeli authorities prevented the Palestinians from developing those very same water resources to meet their needs. The fate of these major Israeli water extractions, mainly in the eastern basin of the Mountain Aquifer, will have to be determined as part of the final stage of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations based on the Declaration of Principles (DOP).
One overriding principle of international water law that is almost universally recognized is that, regardless of all other factors, a nation on a shared water basin has the right to expect that its minimal needs for water for domestic uses required for its survival be met. This concept is specifically mentioned in the Israel-Jordan peace agreement and has thus been accepted, in principle, by Israel. We shall consider the possible implications and applications of this principle in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over the Mountain Aquifer.

Proposed Concepts for Peaceful Cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians

The basic concept proposed in this paper aims at providing the parties to the dispute with a yardstick for their consideration as one possible approach to assuring the minimal human needs of the parties which could meet the criterion of a "reasonable and equitable share," as formulated under the Helsinki Rules, which are accepted as one of the cornerstones of international water law (Caponera, 1992).
It is generally agreed that the minimum water requirements (MWR) to meet basic human needs are those quantities needed for drinking water or 80 "domestic consumption." In a modem industrial/urban community, the amount of water used in the home for domestic consumption may vary between 100-250 liters/person/day or 35-88 cubic meters/person/year (CM/P/Yr). This does not include the additional amounts of water that must be supplied to a city for public use (schools, hospitals, parks, green belts, playing fields, etc.), commercial use (stores, workshops, laundries, offices, etc.), and industries which usually require the same potable water quality. In most industrialized countries, the amount of water of potable quality that is supplied to meet all domestic, commercial, public and industrial needs varies from 100-200 CM/P/ Yr. I have suggested that the MWR to meet basic human needs for survival in a modem urban/industrial Israeli and Palestinian society (Shuval, 1994), including all the water required for domestic/urban/commercial/industrial purposes be based on the current and future estimated use by Israel of125CM/P/Yr (Braverman/Tahal, 1994). While the current Palestinian domestic/urban/industrial use is much lower than this due to the current lower level of socioeconomic development, as well as external constraints such as water shortages, I propose as a matter of principle that the estimated water requirements for the year 2030 which should serve as the basis for estimating the future needs of each people be assumed as being equal, since the concept of equity is an essential element in conflict resolution (Shuval, 1994). This assumption is also correct professionally since, with time, economic development and greater water availability, the Palestinian economy will develop and domestic/urban needs will increase accordingly, as has happened with all other developing nations.
Based on the estimated MWR and the future population by the year 2030 of Israel of about 10 million, and of the Palestinians of about five million, we can estimate that the MWR for Israel by that time will be about 1,250 MCM/Yr, and the needs of the Palestinians will reach some 625 MCM/Yr.
The MWR calculation does not include any other direct allocation of fresh water for agriculture, but does assume that additional water for agriculture and/or other industrial or urban non-potable uses can be made available through the recycling and reuse of some 65 percent of the water allocated for domestic/urban/industrial use. In other words, there will be, in effect, the possibility of generating another 80 CM/P/Yr if an effective, total water-recycling program is introduced. Thus, the total effective availability of water could reach 205 CM/P/Yr (125 CM/P/Yr from fresh water sources and 80 CM/P/Yr from recycled wastewater).
Based on the estimated current water resources available to the Palestinians of 215 MCM/Yr, it is clear that, unless there is a major increase in the availability of water supplies, the Palestinians will suffer in the future from serious water shortages. Assuming for the moment that they have available only the water resources that they currently use, then their per-capita water use would be reduced from 86 CM/P/Yr in 1996 to an intolerably low level of 43 CM/P/Yr in the year 2030. The total amount of additional water required just to meet the MWR of the Palestinians in the year 2030 is thus estimated at some 415 MCM/Yr.
Where will the additional amount of water required by the Palestinians for minimum social and human needs come from? Will Israel agree to allow the Palestinians to increase their water withdrawals from the shared Mountain Aquifer with a similar reduction of withdrawal by Israel? These are questions that will have to be determined in the final stage of the Oslo negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Alternatively, will the Palestinians obtain additional water by desalination of sea water at Gaza or by pipeline projects from relatively water-rich Arab neighbors, such as Syria and Lebanon?
I have assumed that the Palestinians can develop an additional 110 MCM/Yr from yet-untapped sources in the Eastern Aquifer. In addition, for the purpose of this discussion, I have assumed that Israel will find its way to compensate the Palestinians for the amount of water that it withdraws from the wells that Israel dug in the West Bank after 1967, for the use of civilian settlements concerning which Israel cannot claim prior historic use. Based on these assumptions, the Palestinians may thus have at their disposal, in the coming years, an additional 175 MCM/Yr and should be able to meet their minimum water requirements for the next 10-15 years or so. However, the additional amount of water required by the Palestinians by 2030 would still be some 250 MCM/Yr. Israel's current official position has been that it has no legal obligation to reduce its legitimate historic use of the western and northeastern zones of the Mountain Aquifer currently pumped within the borders of Israel. Will Israel be able to make a generous offer to increase the Palestinians' share of the Mountain Aquifer, which means a similar reduction in its share?
One possible innovative approach to evaluate this question, developed by the Harvard Middle-East Water Project, is based on an economic model which estimates the monetary value of the water in dispute. According to Fisher, if Israel decided as a good-will gesture to further the peace process by allocating the water required, or even 50 percent of the Palestinians' ultimate needs for additional water from its share of the Mountain Aquifer - that is, about 125-250 MCM/Yr - the cost to Israel's economy would be about $25,000,000-50,000,000/year, based on today's value of the water to the Israeli economy. Israel might suggest that any additional water required by the Palestinians above that amount be developed from new, non-conventional sources, such as sea-water desalination, just as Israel will be obliged to do in some 20-30 years from now. Even if, in the year 2030, Israel would have to replace the water given to the Palestinians with desalinated sea water, the cost to the Israeli economy, at that time, would be about $100,000,000-200,000,000/year. According to Fisher, even this amount of money "is small enough to negotiate over rather than to fight over." It represents only some 0.1 percent of Israel's economy, with a GDP of some $80 billion/year in 1996. Such an increased allocation of water to the Palestinians would represent an ultimate reduction of some 8-16 percent of Israel's total fresh water resources.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to predict the outcome of the negotiations, but my own personal feeling is that it is in Israel's interest to see to it that its Palestinian neighbors can live side by side with it in peace and prosperity, with a sense that an equitable and just peace has been established. Israel should be interested to assure that the Palestinians have enough water, not only to survive, but to thrive as good neighbors, with a sense of well-being and security, stemming from a peace settlement that has recognized their legitimate needs. This can be achieved by Israel giving up some of its resources, but not at an unreasonable price.
While providing a solution to the water conflicts in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, including that over the Mountain Aquifer, is not a sufficient condition for peace, it is undoubtedly a necessary condition. The major powers should help to broker the peace process in the Middle East by sponsoring a Water-for-Peace Plan with an assured major infusion of funds for the benefit of all the partners. A bold and generous Water-for-Peace Plan not only removes an important obstacle on the path to peace, but can provide a real motivation for peace which will enable the partners to the dispute to solve urgent problems for the social welfare and economic benefit of all.


Al-Hindi, J.L. (1990). "The West Bank Aquifer and Conventions Regarding Laws of Belligerent Occupation." Michigan Journal of International Law 11:1400-1423.
Assaf, K., N. Al-Khatib, E. Kally and H. Shuval ( 1993). A Proposal for the Development of a Regional Water Master Plan. Jerusalem: Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, p. 192.
Benvenisti, M. (1994). "International Law and the Mountain Aquifer." Water and Peace in the Middle East, ed. Isaac, J. and H. Shuval. Amsterdam: Elsivier Science Publishers, pp. 229-238.
Braverman A. (1994). Israel Water Study for the World Bank. Beersheba: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Tahal Consulting Engineers Ltd. (R-94-36-1).
Caponera, D. (1992). Principles of Water Law and Administration. Rotterdam: Balkema. Fisher, Franklin. "A New Approach to Water Disputes: The Harvard Middle-East Water Project." Harvard: The Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East, 1994.
Gvirtzman, H. (1994). "Groundwater Allocation in Judea and Samaria." Water and Peace in the Middle East, ed. Isaac, J. and H. Shuval. Amsterdam: Elsivier Science Publishers, pp. 205-218.
Shuval, H.I. (1992). "Approaches to Resolving the Water Conflicts between Israel and Her Neighbors - a Regional Water-for-Peace Plan." Water International 17:133-143.
-. (1994). "Proposed Principles and Methodology for the Equitable Allocation of the Water Resources Shared by the Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Syrians." Water and Peace in the Middle East, ed. Isaac, J. and H. Shuval. Amsterdam:
Elsivier Science Publishers, pp. 481-496.