HEBRON, Occupied West Bank — Water has become one of the many controversial issues between Jews and Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The Palestinians accuse the Israelis of siphoning off their water supplies. The Israelis deny the accusation and say drought and outdated distribution systems are chief causes of water shortages among West Bank Arabs.
Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem who has written a series of studies on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, maintains the Palestinians face chronic shortages largely because "their water system has become an integral part of Israel," harnessed primarily for Israeli needs.
A 15-page report published by his West Bank Data Research Group says Israel uses more than 75% of underground water in the West Bank.
Twice as Much
The report adds that the research, funded by the U.S. Ford Foundation, found Jewish settlements use almost twice as much water as Palestinian towns and villages, although the Jewish settlers number only 65,000 in contrast to about 800,000 Arabs in the West Bank.
The water crisis has been aggravated by a long-term drought. According to Israel's meteorological service, average rainfall has dipped below average in the last few years and was 40 to 55% below average in 1986.
Some Israeli analysts say the West Bank's rich underground aquifer has become a strategic asset and it may ultimately affect Israel's willingness to withdraw from the territory.
'Die of Thirst'
"The argument would go, 'How can we give back territory that would sentence Israel to die of thirst?" wrote columnist Michael Gerti in the liberal Haaretz newspaper.
One of the more recent controversies is over an Israeli plan that officials say will solve severe water problems for Hebron, a city of 90,000 Arabs, and supplement supplies to Arab and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
Palestinians say they worry the new well will draw away their existing sources of water. U.S. officials express concern the well may violate international law if water is piped to Israeli cities.
Israeli leaders say the water will be evenly distributed to Jews and Palestinians.
"The amount of water to people of the West Bank will not be reduced, even if we have to add water from our own sources," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said.
But most Palestinian leaders reject the prospect of deeper dependency on Israel, and consider the project another attempt by Israel to annex the land conquered in the 1967 Mideast war.
"We want to depend on ourselves, not Israel," said Mustafa Natshe, former mayor of Hebron.
Most Hebron residents have water trucked to their homes every 20 days.
"The people in Hebron feel bad that (Jewish) settlers have water and we don't," said Hebron's current mayor, Abdel Majid Wazir, 59. "This summer has been the worst."
Jewish settlements in the area report sporadic shortages for only a few hours at a time.
The Israeli military, which administers the West Bank, maintains that Arabs in Hebron sometime suffer worse shortages because of a 40-year-old pipe system, while the Jewish settlements have newer distribution systems.
Palestinians also allege that Israel exacerbates the problem by refusing to let them drill new wells into the West Bank hills.
Israeli officials say the restrictions are to avoid waste and that uncontrolled drillings could upset the country's entire water table.