Israel, Palestinians reach landmark water deal for West Bank, Gaza
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Israel, Palestinians reach landmark water deal for West Bank, Gaza

New desalination project is part of wider plan to run water through pipeline from Red Sea down to Dead Sea; US envoy Greenblatt hopes it's a 'harbinger of things to come'

US President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, center, sits next to Israel's Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, left, and Mazen Ghoneim, right, head of the Palestinian Water Authority,  during a news conference about a water-sharing agreement between Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, in Jerusalem, July 13, 2017. (AFP/POOL/RONEN ZVULUN)
US President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, center, sits next to Israel's Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, left, and Mazen Ghoneim, right, head of the Palestinian Water Authority, during a news conference about a water-sharing agreement between Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, in Jerusalem, July 13, 2017. (AFP/POOL/RONEN ZVULUN)

Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Thursday announced an agreement that will provide millions of cubic meters of drinking water to the Palestinians from a desalination process.

While the Palestinians made plain that the deal, brokered by US President Donald Trump’s envoy Jason Greenblatt, has no impact on final-status issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Greenblatt hailed it as a “harbinger of things to come.” At a joint press conference in Jerusalem, however, Greenblatt refused to take any questions regarding his bid to relaunch peace negotiations

The agreement announced Thursday is part of a larger trilateral agreement for the construction of a 220-kilometer (137-mile) pipeline transferring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea — the lowest body of water on earth — to benefit Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, and replenish the dwindling Dead Sea. As the water runs down the gradient it will be used to generate electricity that will also power a desalination plant to produce drinking water.

“As we all know, water is a precious commodity in the Middle East,” Greenblatt said. “The US welcomes the agreement reached by the Palestinian Authority and the government of Israel, which will allow for the sale of 32 million cubic meters of water from Israel to the Palestinian Authority. In addition, we hope that the deal will contribute to the healing of the Dead Sea and that will help not only Palestinians and Israelis but Jordanians as well.”

Trump has made it clear that reaching lasting peace agreement is a “top priority for him,” Greenblatt added. “This agreement is an example of the parties working together to make a mutual beneficial deal,” he said.

“I am proud of the role the US and international partners have played in helping the partners reach this deal land I hope it is a harbinger of things to come,” Greenblatt said.

Salt-covered rocks on the shores of the northern basin of the Dead Sea on January 11, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Salt-covered rocks on the shores of the northern basin of the Dead Sea on January 11, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

The US envoy, who earlier this week met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior Palestinian negotiators as part of a bid to relaunch talks, noted that Thursday’s agreement is the second recent deal between Jerusalem and Ramallah to improve the daily lives of Palestinians. On Monday, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah attended a ceremony launching a new Jenin electrical substation.

Thursday’s water deal was reached under the tutelage of Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who hailed the so-called Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance project as the “biggest and most ambitious project event initiated and exercised” in the area.

“Unfortunately, in our neighborhood we don’t always have a reason to smile. This morning we do,” Hanegbi said. “After years of stalemate, and thanks to the passionate negotiations of Jason Greenblatt and thanks to the pragmatic and professional approach of both delegations… we reached an important agreement,” he said.

The agreement announced Thursday showed that “water can serve as means for reconciliation, prosperity, cooperation rather than calls for tensions and dispute,” Hanegbi said

The deal was also applauded by the pro-settler Yesha Council. “We are very impressed by Jason Greenblatt’s ability to achieve a substantive agreement on water that will change people’s lives on the ground,” the group’s foreign envoy, Oded Revivi, said. “We have long said that true peace must be built from the ground up, one step at a time.”

US President Donald Trump's envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exchange greetings at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, July 12, 2017. (Haim Tzach/GPO)
US President Donald Trump’s envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exchange greetings at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, July 12, 2017. (Haim Tzach/GPO)

 

Environmentalists hailed the deal as a significant step toward addressing water shortage issues, especially in water-starved Gaza. Gaza needs about 200 million cubic meters of water per year, but natural aquifers can only provide 50 million. For years, Gaza has been overpumping its aquifers, causing seawater to seep into the groundwater and salinity levels to rise. Currently 97% of Gaza’s water is not potable. When Gazan water is mixed with Israeli water, however, the salinity levels drop enough to make it safe for human consumption, according to Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli co-director of EcoPeace Middle East, a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental organization.

“[Greenblatt] identified water as a low-hanging fruit, and this water deal between Israel and the PA is really significant, because it is going to help improve the water situation first and foremost in Gaza,” said Bromberg.

“The original 2013 water deal did not include Gaza at all; the original deal was only for the West Bank,” Bromberg added. “It’s because of the crisis in Gaza; both sides realize that it’s not just a water security issue, it’s a national security issue. If more water is not provided to Gaza, there could be a potential outbreak of pandemic disease, which even Prime Minister Netanyahu has said won’t stop at the border.”

The water sharing deal reached on Thursday calls for an Aqaba desalination plant in Jordan to sell water to southern Jordan and Eilat, while water from the Sea of Galilee will be sold to northern Israel and Jordan. Israel will sell 32 million cubic meters of water to the Palestinian Authority from Mediterranean desalination plants — 10 million to Gaza and 22 million to the West Bank — according to Bromberg, whose organization is heavily involved in water research and advocacy.

Besides providing a yearly total of 100 million cubic meters of drinking water to Palestinians, Jordanians and Israelis, the Red-Dead project will produce “green energy” and replenish the Dead Sea, which is currently shrinking at a drastic pace, Hanegbi said.

The Israeli government now has to allocate a budget for the project — which is located entirely in Jordan but will be run by a joint administrative board — before construction can commence, he said. It is expected to be completed in four to five years, he said.

Experts have estimated the canal will cost $10 billion, and the EU, US, Japan and Italy, among others, have already committed to part of the cost, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Bromberg’s EcoPeace, however, dismissed the idea that the canal will “replenish” the Dead Sea. The canal will bring an estimated 80-100 million cubic meters to the Dead Sea per year, just 10% of the amount the Dead Sea needs to stay at its current level. The Dead Sea, dropping at a rate of more than a meter per year, requires 800 million cubic meters per year just to stay stable, meaning the expensive project will provide needed water but won’t “save the Dead Sea” as advertised to global donors, it said.

The head of the Palestinian Water Authority, Mazen Ghuneim, welcomed the deal.

“This will alleviate the suffering of Palestinians that they surely face, especially in the hot summer months,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

Water is primarily a humanitarian issue, he added, stressing that the deal struck this week has no bearing whatsoever on the overall Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Greenblatt and Hanegbi refused to comment on current US-led efforts to relaunch peace negotiations, though the Israeli minister said Thursday’s agreement teaches that “when you focus on the issues, and not history or background or personal emotions or other disturbing elements, the common denominator’s much bigger than what separates us.”

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