Sunday, June 13, 2010

”Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Isaiah 55:1)

The Hebrew and Christian scriptures, as joined together in the Bible of Christians, refer continually to water both as a metaphor and as the physical necessity that has played an enormously important role in the advancement of societies throughout history.

You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it;
          the river of God is full of water;

you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it.
Psalm 65:9 

Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty
again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will 
never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them 
a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
John 4:14

Residents of the Holy Land in Biblical times and in contemporary times contemplate(d) these images of water, both physical and spiritual, with a deep understanding that only those who live in desert lands can appreciate.

A friend, whom I love but with whom I disagree on many (most?) political issues, and I have carried on correspondence for nearly fifty years. He says we are, in the best sense of the words, the classic “liberal” and “conservative.” I think those terms are meaningless, but will accept them for the sake of argument. He recently wrote me an email in which he made the comment,

By changing the image of the Palestinians from helpless victims to successful entrepreneurs the region could soon rival Israel in economic strength.  After all, hard work and industry is what built Israel into a vibrant, powerful nation where none existed before 1947.

This analysis of the difference between the Palestinians and the Israelis has nothing to do with “conservatism” or “liberalism.” It is simply wrong.

Without any claim to expertise, either political or scientific, I have a one word partial explanation of the difference between the Palestinian “victims” my friend writes of and the “vibrant, powerful” society he claims Israel to be: WATER. That the control and distribution of water in the West Bank (indeed in the entire Holy Land) is one of the keys to Israel’s ability to subjugate Palestinian culture and society is not a proposition open to discussion. It simply is.

When I was a child (this was around 1955), the custodian of our church in Western Nebraska presented a program of projected slides his son had left in his care when he was home on leave from the Navy. He was stationed on a submarine. Somehow he ended up on shore leave in the new state of Israel—just where, I have no idea.

My memory of the presentation is spotty (I remember the custodian, and I remember that the presentation was in the church sanctuary with the screen in front of the pulpit). The image I remember from the slides is of orange groves with water running in irrigation channels between the trees. I remember the custodian marveling aloud at the industry of the citizens of the new country that they had already managed to begin to make the desert bloom in the eight years since 1947.

There are at least two problems with both the presentation as our custodian made it and my memory of it. The first problem is that the Israelis had not, in fact, made the desert bloom in a short eight years. That happened before Israel was made a state. The first Jewish orange groves in Palestine date from 1870, planted in the vicinity of Mikveh Israel, a Jewish agricultural school near Tel Aviv (1).  The school was important to the Jewish immigrants to Palestine during and after the holocaust (2). According to “Years of Citrus in Israel,” by the time of World War I, Palestine had “7500 acres of orchards, 2500 of which were owned by Jews.” After World War I, “[b]etween 1926 and 1936, the Jewish population had planted 35,000 acres of orchards.”

The citrus industry continued its growth after the founding of Israel until after the 1967 War. “Production reached 1.7 million pieces of fruit, out of which 1 million were marketed under the brand name Jaffa” ("Years of Citrus"). This growth of the Israeli citrus industry was made possible by one commodity: WATER. It is emblematic of all agriculture in Israel.

The second problem with our custodian’s presentation was that it avoided the most important implication of the industry of the Israeli farmers: the ownership of the water of the Palestinian Territories is one of Israel’s most powerful tools for maintaining control/occupation of the Territories. According to Harald Frederiksen,

The objective of Zionist and subsequent Israeli actions over the past 90 years has not been in response to any evolving water shortage that arose before or after the creation of the Israel.  It has been a strategy, confirmed in Israeli documents, to garner control of the water resources of Palestine and some of those belonging to neighboring riparians as a means to attain a quite different goal: ownership of all of Palestine (3).

Garnering control of the water resources of the region has insured the growth of the Israeli agricultural industry, as well as all other industry, and of the building and maintenance of settlements in the Occupied Territories to expand control of the land.

Apparently even the 1967 War of expansion had as one of its main goals the control of the most important aquifer in the Palestinian Territories:

Menachem Begin and others later confirmed that the 1967 war was launched not because of Egypt, but as a cover to occupy the Golan Heights, and the rest of Palestine. . . .Israel promptly nationalized the water resources of the Occupied Territories in order to control all West Bank uses (4).

Israeli settlers continue to arrive in the Occupied Territories, taking more and more of the land on which the Palestinians’ hope for a homeland rests. The shrinking land of the Palestinian people is remarkable in many ways. It was, according to the Biblical record, the “land of milk and honey.” It is, today, a land parched and unable to sustain the people left on it. The situation cannot change until a political solution to the plight of the Palestinians is reached because the “water issue in the West Bank is complicated, in part due to the political situation, as the aquifers are controlled by Israel” (5).

This political situation was part of the earliest plan of the Zionist settlement in Palestine.  The control of the aquifers of the region of the British Mandate of Palestine was their goal from the beginning, their goal of claiming the right to the land because they were the ones who built a “vibrant, powerful nation where none existed.”

Without access to water, there would be no large-scale agriculture and thus no economic basis for absorbing the world's Jews in Palestine. And without settlement, the Jews would have no hope of changing the demographic balance in Palestine in their favour and hence laying the basis for a claim to sovereignty over Palestine. Water therefore was not regarded merely as another economic resource, but rather as an important vehicle for creating a new Jewish society based on kibbutzim and other forms of communal agricultural settlements. The selection of one water project over the other was not determined by economic utility, but rather on the basis of its fitting within the overall ideological worldview of the Zionists.  In keeping with this view, irrigating the deserts of southern Palestine also became a national goal as part of the overall Zionist ethos of `making the desert bloom' and thus strengthening Jewish claims to Palestine on the basis of the fact that it was the Jews who were developing the country (6).
(1) history – “Years of Citrus in Israel”
(2) See the story of the Netzer Family in: Ofer, Dalia. "The march of
     memory: survivors and relatives in the footsteps of the Kladovo-
     Sabac refugees." Israel Studies 12.3 (2007): 134+
In addition, the importance of Mikveh Israel can hardly be overstated: 

The creation of the State was made possible by the founding of  Mikveh Israel. If Mikveh Israel had not been founded, I doubt that the State of Israel could have come into being. Everything started at that time; we came only to extend the work in its political and national aspects.

Interview quoted in: Paz, Moria. "A non-territorial ethnic network and the making of human rights law: the case of the Alliance Israelite Universelle." Interdisciplinary Journal of Human Rights Law 4.1 (2009): 1+ (146). Quoted in Silberman, Paul. An Investigation of the Schools Operated by the Alliance Israelite Universelle from 1862-1940 (PhD dissertation) (1973).
(3) Frederiksen, Harald D. "The world water crisis and international security." Middle East Policy 16.4      (2009): 76+.
(4) Fredericksen, op. cit. "I know how at least 80 percent of all ..." quoted in "Aggression, Expansion and       Israel's Terriorism, Part II." Found at
(5) Nazer, Dima W., et al. “Optimizing irrigation water use in the West Bank, Palestine.” Agricultural Water Management 97 (2010) 339–345 (340).
(6) Morag, Nadav. "Water, Geopolitics and State Building: The Case of Israel." Middle Eastern Studies     37.3 (2001): 179.

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