Water: From Thales to Israeli-Palestinian Apartheid
On a scorching day in Tel Aviv, a child kicks off her flip flops and dives into her family’s private pool. Her mother, watering can in hand, watches her play from across the garden.
About one hundred kilometers away in the West Bank, another child sweats. She opens the tap to pour water for her grandfather, who will break his daily fast in a matter of hours. A single drop falls into her cup.
Members of the family in the first story will have access to between 240 and 300 liters of water a day each—up to triple the 100 liters recommended by the World Health Organization. Members of the second will have access to 70.
Nearly three thousand years ago in another part of the Mediterranean, Thales of Miletus supposed that life started with water. Thales had heard reports that the island of Lade, visible from Miletus, was increasing in size and moving closer to his home coast. He wondered if water could thicken into earth, which would explain the island’s apparent growth. At a time when mythological explanations for natural phenomena prevailed, he dared to offer a new narrative. Water is the source, the first principle, he said.
When I first learned of Thales’ philosophy, I was inspired by his willingness to question assumptions about why the world existed the way it did. His intellectual ambition and creativity impressed me despite the inaccuracy of his conclusions, and his theory got me thinking about a set of questions that had been on my mind for quite some time.
Thales’ world is by no means analogous to today’s. The content of his theories about water and my discussion of water apartheid are linked largely by word association. It is not specific details but his methodology and perspectival flexibility that led me to place the ancient and modern worlds side by side. Reading about Thales pushed me to embark on a more intentional investigation of inequality and access to water in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
Four generations of Americans have watched the U.S. attempt to negotiate peace talks in the region, starting in the mid-1970s. When Americans think of peace and conflict, the lands and peoples of Israel and Palestine often come to mind in an almost fetishized way. Too often, we attribute the tensions to old ethnic and religious hatreds; we too easily paint modern polarization as centuries-old, unresolvable, and inevitable. It can be hard to see where to begin.
In his paper, “Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology,” Princeton philosopher Gilbert Harman suggests a starting point. He contends that these kinds of political tensions can be explained in rational terms. Referencing events in the former Yugoslavia, Harman argues that if we simply attribute violence to ethnic hatred, we are more likely to lose hope.
“We may very well doubt that there is anything we can do,” he writes. “If we understand the way the violence arises from the situation, we may see more opportunities to end the conflict.”
Harman’s larger argument deals with human behavior and the causes to which we attribute it. He notes that individuals’ actions are often wrongly pinned on character traits rather than situational factors, which are overlooked.
We can apply Harman’s teaching to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by extrapolating to political violence and behavior. Instead of attributing the tensions to character traits of the peoples or to supposed centuries-old hatred between Jews and Muslims, we should consider situations that create the conditions for violence. Perhaps we, like Thales with the island of Lade and Harman with Yugoslavia, should begin somewhere concrete.
There are so many children like the one in the pool or the child at the tap, so many stories of routinely cut water supplies next-door to backyard pools and spas. These are overwhelmingly tales of disparity, not shortage. The Palestinian city of Ramallah experiences an annual rainfall of 619 millimeters compared to 596 millimeters in London, a city famous for its wet climate. The water is there. So why are thousands of Palestinians thirsty?
Since the 1960s, Israel’s national water company, Mekorot, has been diverting water from the Jordan River and the West Bank to serve Israeli communities. Israel additionally controls over 80 percent of the water from aquifers in the region, while its government enforces annual quotas on the amount of water available to Palestinians. Water distribution becomes a tool to advance military settlements and a means to deprive the Palestinian people of their rights—a tactic that legal experts and scholars of international water law have deemed illegal.
Palestine would be hard-pressed to build its own wells and divert its own water. In 2011, the Israeli Defense Forces demolished 89 water-related structures in Palestine, including 21 wells and 34 rainwater cisterns important for agriculture and herding. Under the Oslo Peace Accords signed twenty years ago, all new projects must be approved by a joint committee to proceed. Such a committee has not granted Palestine any wells in the region’s most productive aquifer since 1967. When confronted about water management, the Israeli government has cited the unwillingness of Palestinian water authorities to negotiate as justification for not approving new projects.
Hamas’ call for the annihilation of Israel could give Israel the leverage it needs to blame water inequality on supposed Palestinian belligerence. But there are other political reasons for Palestinian refusal to participate in the joint water committee with Israel. Necessary infrastructural improvements have become bargaining chips: For Israel to approve new wells and water projects in Palestinian territory, the Palestinian committee members would have to approve more Jewish settlements in their land.
Much of the land that Arab Bedouin tribes use for farming is located in Area C, which refers to over 60 percent of the West Bank. Israel controls most of this area, including the infrastructure that the Bedouin tribes need for agriculture. Lack of access to water due to the settlements has weakened Palestinian communities in Area C and stunted their development, making it harder for them to become self-sustaining.
Unable to irrigate their land properly, Palestinian farmers cannot take advantage of the land’s yield potential, and their inability to irrigate is lost opportunity with major consequences. According to the World Bank, it takes a significant toll on stability and economy, resulting in an estimated loss of ten percent of GDP and 110,000 jobs. These losses jeopardize future Palestinian independence.
To strengthen Palestinian communities and make future independence feasible, we must attend to water and the infrastructural decisions that allow or prevent communities from accessing it. The complexity and history of the tensions between Israel and Palestine should not discourage us from questioning the violence between the two states and asking why.
In Israel and Palestine, hope may be found in the overlooked. Although his theory was ultimately wrong, Thales, by taking the reports about Lade seriously and thinking about them differently, destabilized assumptions about the Earth’s formation and launched natural science as a field of study. Thales’ work pushed understanding in new directions and kept it from becoming static.
Making access to water more equitable will not fix all the problems that Palestinians face. But it could create room for the beginnings of resolution. It is possible to debate how much land a person or community needs; it is not so with water.
$38 billion in military aid to Israel constitutes the U.S.’ most significant peacemaking effort. This contribution neglects the infrastructural origins of tensions between the states. Instead of feeding conflict, we should be quenching thirst.
Thales thought about transmutations of material: water to earth, ocean to island. In Israel and Palestine, we must consider the material basis of conflict. To push our understanding forward, we must channel Thales’ ingenuity and Harman’s rigor to rework the questions we ask. We can phrase some of those questions in terms of material: How can Israeli and Palestinian water authorities manipulate material—reroute pipes, build wells—to lessen tensions? Even if water is not the first principle, to use Thales’ term, it is a principal factor.
So, to would-be peacemakers: Which material, water or weaponry, is more likely to create peace?
Sana Aslam ’20 is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.