Hebron water shortage highlights allocation inequities

JERUSALEM — Israel has ordered authorities to take immediate steps to alleviate a dire water shortage in the West Bank town of Hebron.

The water problem was exposed in a story broadcast over the weekend on Israel Television, which portrayed severe inequalities in the allocation of water to Arabs and Jews in the West Bank.

According to the report, Hebron Arabs were receiving only 20 percent of their allotted water supply during the summer months.

To make up for the shortage, Hebron's Arab residents were scheduled to begin receiving water from tankers provided by the Israel Defense Force.

In contrast to the dry faucets found in Palestinian homes in Hebron, the Israel Television report showed well-cultivated gardens in the neighboring Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba.

Reacting to the report, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered the civil administration of Judea and Samaria, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Mekorot national water company to come up with short- and long-term solutions to the problem.

These could include increasing the monthly water allocation to Hebron from some 245,000 cubic feet to 350,000 cubic feet, developing separate water supply systems for Jews and Arabs, and drilling new wells.

Settler leaders criticized the television report.

"Kiryat Arba is not using any more water than any other Israeli city," said Elyakim Haetzni, a former Knesset member who lives in Kiryat Arba. "It's the government's fault for not providing the Arabs with enough."

The television story drew sharp responses from Israeli politicians, with some Cabinet ministers calling for immediate action.

"If someone wanted additional proof of why there should be no occupation, here it is: the dry faucets in a city of tens of thousands of people, with no explanation," said Environment Minister Yossi Sarid.

But water officials and some ministers said the issue was more complicated than discriminatory allocation.

They charged that Israel was overusing its own water resources, which depend in large part on aquifers located in the West Bank.

They also said that while Israel has maintained a policy of equal allocation of water to all residents, distribution is uneven because of poorly maintained water supply systems and bad management on the municipal level.

Agriculture Minister Ya'akov Tsur said that the Hebron municipality had been given the go-ahead to drill another well but had failed to raise and allocate the necessary financing.

"It's not a problem of amount, but of management," Tsur said.

"Forty percent of the Hebron water is lost through leakage and Palestinians stealing their own water," he told reporters after Sunday's Cabinet meeting.

The decision to address the Hebron water problem came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sat down to a second week of talks in Eilat that will include discussions about who will have control over water rights in the West Bank. This is one of the main sticking points preventing the two sides from reaching an agreement for extending Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.

Tsur, who will be joining the negotiations in Eilat this week, said he would bring up the issue of Hebron's water at the talks with the Palestinians.

U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross also was scheduled to join the Eilat talks, where Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are attempting to complete an agreement on the next interim phase of Palestinian self-rule.

Along with the problem of water rights, the main unresolved issues include security arrangements in Hebron and the release of Palestinian security prisoners.

Israeli government officials said on Sunday they expected an agreement to be concluded within a month.

At Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting, Israel also approved the transfer of eight additional spheres of civilian responsibility in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.

A signing ceremony is expected to take place in Washington, D.C., in September once an agreement is reached