Zionism and Water: Influences on Israel’s Future Water Policy During the Pre-State Period

Awyn R Rouyer. Arab Studies Quarterly. Volume 18, Issue 4. Fall 1996.

The issue of allocations and rights to water resources has been one of the most long lasting and difficult to resolve in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the current peace process, water has been a prominent topic of discussion. While few major points of dispute have been permanently resolved, sections concerning water utilization have been included in both the Oslo Accords and the Taba Interim Agreements between the Palestinians and Israel. Throughout these negotiations, Israel has made few concessions to more equitably share existing water resources and continues to maintain water policies which have been wasteful within her own territory and highly discriminatory toward Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. While water scarcity and concern over water security may be the immediate motivating factors for Israeli policy, to better understand Israel’s current stance regarding water resources, one must look beyond economics to the founding ideological myths upon which Israel was established and which continue to shape her political culture. In Israel water is more than an economic commodity or precious resource; it is a pre-condition for achieving political goals and, for some, fulfilling religious prophecy.

This article argues that the bases of Israel’s contemporary water policies and approach to negotiating water sharing agreements with the Palestinian and other Arab neighbors can be more clearly understood by examining the place of water in the Zionist ideology and quest for water during the pre-state period. These connections will be demonstrated by examining the land-water nexus in the founding of the Yishuv, the new Jewish community in Palestine, and how it enhanced the importance of water in the economy and politics and by examining the Zionists’ diplomatic efforts to obtain ever increasing amounts of water during the British Mandate era to support and justify growing Jewish immigration to Palestine. Throughout this narrative the Arab perspective is seldom mentioned. The aim of this research is to better understand the motivations for Israeli actions and decisions regarding water policy. In the Zionists’ drive to create a state and obtain the necessary water to make it viable, Arab claims were seldom given consideration.

Zionism’s Land-Water Nexus

The search for water has always played a major role in the ideology of Zionism, the movement to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine. Without access to sufficient water supplies the Zionist dream of a return to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) could never have been fulfilled. Water was seen as “the blood flowing through the arteries of the nation.” If the goal of resettlement was to be achieved, the early Zionists realized that the land needed to be “redeemed” in the most literal sense. From the beginning of the Return, promoting agricultural activity became a primary goal of the Zionist movement and the most important symbol of the Yishuv. For if agriculture were to succeed as economic and political ideals, sufficient supplies of water would be an absolute necessity.

The relationship between Zionism and water is a complex mix of historical imperative, modern socialist ideology, and traditional Judaic concepts of redemption. To create a viable national home for Jews in Palestine, Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and other Zionist leaders realized that access to water resources was an absolute prerequisite. While Zionist leaders in Europe focused on geopolitical requirements, socialist conceptions of human and societal renewal dominated the movement in Palestine. The goal was to establish the new sovereign Jewish state on the ideal of the “pioneer”, or chalutz, engaged in physical labor living on the land, qualities that the Jewish people lacked in exile. But the Zionist imperative of land, and thus the necessity of water, can also be observed in Jewish religious self-conception of “chosenness.” Despite the secularization and dissociation from religion by most elements of the movement, Zionism inherited the Jewish particularistic concept of a separate or chosen people whose redemption, whether divine or through man’s own efforts, was inextricably linked to the return and settlement of a specific or “promised” land. Not only did both Zionist-socialism and traditional Judaism emphasize the role of land and agriculture in the personal and collective salvation of the Jewish people, both encouraged collective ownership of the land and natural resources (including water). In part the emphasis on public or institutional land ownership in the period before the establishment of the state of Israel stemmed from the belief that land in Palestine once acquired for Jews must be prevented from future transfer back to Arab ownership. Secular ideological and religious notions also lent support to this practice. Today, while a portion of the land in Israel is privately owned, the great majority of the land remains in the hands of the State or the Jewish National Fund. Water resources are entirely owned by the state of Israel.

Zionism and Land

Zionism has its roots in the Judaic messianic connection to the land of Israel. What demarcated the Jews from the Christians and Muslim majority communities among whom they lived for two millennia was much more than their different religious beliefs, it was their link to the distant land from whence their ancestors had been driven. Had this link to the land of Israel been broken and Jews not continued to regard it as the homeland of their past and of their future, Judaism no doubt would have evolved into a mere religious community little different, save in dogmatic considerations, from the other two monotheistic religions which sprang from its core. This tie to a separate land more than their non-conforming religious beliefs made Jews, in the perception of their neighbors a separate people, a distinct ethnic or national group. “Because of this [tie to the land of Israel] Jews were considered by others—and considered themselves—not only a minority, but a minority in exile.”

A small number of Jewish people had continued to live in the Holy Land and over the centuries a trickle had come to live and die there. One estimate puts the number of Jewish residents in Palestine in 1882, the year of the beginning of modern immigration, at about 24,000. But through all the centuries of exile few Jews of the Diaspora made the Return. They might pray three times a day for the deliverance that would transport them to Jerusalem, but they did not emigrate. Shlomo Avineri calls this the paradox of Jewish life in the Diaspora; a deep attachment to the land of Israel but a quietist attitude toward actions necessary to fulfill this dream.

Zionism changed this quietist attitude with the establishment of the State of Israel on part of the ancient Land of Israel. Zionism is best understood as a reaction to the forces of nationalism, modernism, and secularism unleashed in Europe by the French Revolution. Two trends appear to have made the most significant contribution in the shift from quiescence to political action. Growing nationalistic feeling greatly increased anti-Semitic attitudes and actions across Europe particularly in Russia where pogroms and anti-Jewish policies of the czarist government caused nearly three million Jews to emigrate between 1882 and 1914. Anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews was nothing new in Europe and this new outbreak of attacks on Jews does not, in and of itself, explain the rise of Zionism. In many parts of Europe the growing liberalism and secularization of the Nineteenth Century brought on by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution meant Jews were no longer confined to their ghettos and shtetls and were allowed to take part in the social life of the broader community. This in turn caused a crisis in European Jewish identity. How should they balance their Jewish identity with a new national identity based on common language, history, and ethnicity? And even if they accepted the new national identity could they escape the “Jewish Problem”, i.e., the stigma of being Jewish in a Christian though secular world.

Zionism was a response both to the new round of anti-Semitism and to the dilemma presented to the Jewish people by the growing liberalization and modernization of European society. Under these pressures the historic bond to the ancestral Land of Israel took on a new dimension. No longer was this distant land just the symbol of religious redemption in some unforeseen future but the practical focus of national rebirth, the beacon of Jewish nationalism responding to the rise of European nationalism. Zionism must be understood both in terms of traditional religious beliefs and modern desires for national self-determination. From either perspective the quest for land and settlement are the ascendant goals.

The major organizational drive to settle Jews in Palestine began with the efforts of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), an Austrian-born assimilated Jewish playwright and journalist considered by most to be the central and seminal figure in the history of Zionism. In an 1896 book entitled The Jewish State he concluded that the only solution to what he called “the Jewish question” was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In August 1897 he convened the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. The Congress brought together over two hundred secular, reform, and orthodox Jews representing most of the countries of Europe and even representatives from Jews living in the Ottoman Empire. The Congress founded the World Zionist Organization which from then on claimed to represent the entire Jewish people as a separate nation-in-the-making. The Congress adopted a program with the avowed aim of creating a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured by public law and confirmed through settlement of people. These actions transformed a diffused and disorganized ideological tendency into an international movement with specific goals and a coherent institutional structure which has come to be known as “political Zionism.”

Named by the First Zionist Congress as its leader, Herzl traveled widely engaging in international diplomacy in an attempt to gain the support of European leaders for his program and to pressure the Ottoman sultan to allow serious Jewish colonization in Palestine. While the sultan was unresponsive to these entreaties, the British proved more accommodating suggesting the possibilities of Jewish settlement in Sinai in the area around al-Arish on the Mediterranean Sea in 1902 and the next year in Uganda in East Africa. Herzl’s first response to Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, regarding the Sinai idea reportedly was: “We will not go to Egypt—we have been there.” In time Herzl was willing to consider both sites as temporary refuge until it would be possible to make permanent settlement in Palestine. But the al-Arish proposal was vetoed by Lord Cromer, the British viceroy in Egypt, in large part because of the lack of sufficient available water supplies, while Uganda was strongly opposed by many members at the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903. No firm action was taken, and after Herzl’s death in July 1904 nothing came of the proposal.

The Jewish National Fund

From its foundation, the World Zionist Organization considered acquisition of land in Palestine essential to the successful settlement of new immigrants. The most important pre-statehood organization involved with this effort was the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet Leisrael). Established in 1901 by the Fifth Congress as an agency of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish National Fund’s purpose was to purchase land in Palestine, drawing on contributions from Diaspora Jews. The Jewish National Fund’s unique aim was national ownership of the land of Israel by the Jewish people. Under rules established by the Zionist Congress, once acquired by the Fund land or other immovable property in Palestine could only be let to Jews under terms which would not allow them to sub-lease to non-Jews. These legal principles were a radical departure from past European practice. Not only did they exclude non-Jews from control of land once acquired by the Jewish National Fund but they abolished private property ownership of the land and replaced it with the principle of hereditary land leasing. Once purchased, these lands were to be held in trusteeship in perpetuity for the Jewish nation.

The inspiration for this approach can be found both in Biblical tradition and socialist reform thinking of the time. For religious Zionists, both then and now, the land of Israel was given by God to the Jewish nation. In one section the Bible states that God promised Eretz Yisrael to Abraham and his descendants, the entire Jewish people. In another passage, the Lord admonishes the Jewish people, “The land shall never be sold because the land is mine.” These excerpts have been interpreted by some to indicate that under Judaic religious principle the land of Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people and cannot be converted to private property or transferred outside their collective ownership. From the secular perspective, Marxism teaches that the state must control the means of production in order to eliminate societal inequalities caused by private property and the profit motive. While few Zionists were outright Marxists, the collectivization of the land and of natural resources was a widely held value among socialist Zionists. Gershon Shafir suggests that collective ownership of agricultural land was seen by many Zionists as a means to prevent the kind of abuse and displacement of small peasantry by large private landowners taking place in central Europe at the time. Others saw collective ownership as the most effective means to national renewal. In any case, the territory to be acquired was to be inalienably Jewish.

Initially a small scale operation, the Jewish National Fund has had a deep and lasting impact on Israeli land and natural resource policy. It was described during the Yishuv period as acting “to a large extent as the functional equivalent of a sovereign state.” Yet by 1920 the Fund held title to only 16,366 dunams. After the establishment of the Mandate, however, British land ordinances made it much easier for Jews to purchase land. As a consequence Jewish National Fund holdings grew steadily during the period and by May 1948 at Israel’s declaration of a Jewish state had reached 936,000 dunams, about half of all the land owned by Jews in Palestine. Among its most significant activities during the Yishuv was providing land to and nurturing for the kibbutz movement, the generic term for communal settlements based on collective ownership of the means of production. Even on the eve of independence, Jewish National Fund holdings constituted only 3.55 percent of the territory of Palestine under the British Mandate. The 1947-48 fighting resulted in the flight and expulsion of the large majority of the Arab inhabitants from the territory which came under the control of the state of Israel. This development made large amounts of land from now absentee Arab landowners available to the new Israeli government. A Development Authority was established and given wide latitude on how to dispose of this “abandoned property” including compensating or settling land-less Arabs. Few Arab landowners who fled the Israeli controlled sections of the former Palestine Mandate during the conflict ever had their land returned while the largest purchaser of these lands was the Jewish National Fund which more than trebled its pre-1948 holdings with 2,373,676 dunams of new land.

In 1954 the government of Israel and the World Zionist Organization entered into a Covenant clarifying the relationship to the State of Israel and the World Zionist Organization and its several institutions including the Jewish National Fund. One of the most significant results of this agreement and subsequent memoranda between the government and the Jewish National Fund Board of Directors was the extension of the Jewish National Fund’s restrictive land-holding and leasing policies to all state lands. The Basic Law: Israel Lands passed by the Knesset in July 1960 “gave legal effect to the ancient tradition of ownership of the land in perpetuity by the Jewish people.” Hence-forth over 92 percent of the territory of Israel, the 75 percent controlled by the state and Development Authority and nearly 18 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund, were to be managed according to the principles of collective Jewish ownership, inalienability, and hereditary leaseholds. Only the 7.4 percent privately owned land, mostly Arab owned, remained free of the collectivist restrictive principles of the Jewish National Fund. In its principles and practices the Jewish National Fund fostered a political culture which espoused collective ownership of the land and its natural resources.

The Zionist Ethos, Agriculture, and Water

From its inception the Zionist movement saw as part of its mission no less a goal than the renewal, or national redemption, of the Jewish people. Many believed that a vehicle of this transformation should be physical labor especially agricultural work. The selfless pioneer immigrant to Palestine, chalutz, became the symbol and bearer of this national mission. According to this ethos, Jews would be reconnected to the land of Israel not only by returning and repossessing the land but by actually working it with their own hands and “making it bloom”. This emphasis further reinforced the importance of water resources to the Zionist movement. If agriculture was to be the primary means of this national rebirth, then control of water after the land itself became the most valuable commodity for establishing and sustaining the Jewish state. Zionists’, and later the Israeli government’s, efforts to obtain and maintain water resources can be better understood within the context of this “ethos of the pioneer and agricultural labor.”

In exile in Europe and in the Middle East, Jews rarely owned land or engaged in agricultural activities. To many Zionists, Jewish life in exile was parasitic and non-productive. If the Jewish people were to be successful in once again becoming a “normal people” and establishing a state in Palestine, they would have to perform all the tasks necessary to a society and most importantly agricultural work because that put them closest to the ancient land of Israel. In the words of A.D. Gordon (1856-1922), one of the most influential thinkers of the early Yishuv, “The Land of Israel will not be Jewish, even if Jews settle in it and buy land, unless they work the land with their own hands. For the land is not really that of its owners, but its workers.” The Zionist ethos thus endeavored to erase the exile from Jewish history. By creating a new ideal man in Palestine, the exile derogations would be expunged from the Jewish psyche.

These Zionists believed that the Jewish people strengthened their claim to settle the land, by improving the land and climate and returning what they saw as a wasteland to its Biblical description as a “land of milk and honey.” The Zionists believed that the local residents cared little for the land, but they, the Jews, would revive the land. Baruch Kimmerling suggests that this “struggle with nature” took several forms: building cities on the sandy sea coast of Palestine where none existed before; digging wells to provide irrigation for the agriculture that would rejuvenate the land; the draining of swamps was a central component of this pioneer image; the planting of forests was aimed at changing the climate and preserving the land and in turn became a symbol of the conquest of nature. During the British Mandate period over 96 percent of all new wells were dug by Jews. In the Jezreel Valley and other parts of Palestine many suffered hardship and disease but succeeded in draining swamps to open up new land to agriculture. Each of these activities ensured that water became intertwined in the Zionists’ ethos of land, pioneer heroics, and national salvation.

As with the principle of collective ownership of the land by the Jewish people, the idea of the redeeming value of physical agricultural labor has its roots in a combination of 19th Century socialist thought and biblical tradition. Socialist oriented Zionists who began to constitute a significant element of the Jewish immigrants to Palestine after the turn of the century were influenced by both the Marxian conception of the productive value of labor over trade and commerce and Tolstoy’s ideas about the redeeming value of agricultural work. Biblical proverbs also provided metaphors emphasizing the need for a relationship between Jews and the land of Israel through physical connection with land and nature. Zionist-socialism often borrowed biblical admonitions to support their secular goals transferring the focus of sanctity from spiritual to earthly concerns. A.D. Gordon was particularly adept at connecting his ideas to Jewish religious traditions; in his writings on the value of physical labor he often used the phase “religion of labor.” To him labor had almost the same mystical value as prayer had for pious Jews. Another rich source of appropriation of religious sanctification by Zionist-socialists are Passover haggadadeveloped by early kibbutzim. During the Yishuv period it was not uncommon for a kibbutz to transform haggadot into invocations to land and labor, for example, “And we shall cross the stormy seas until we reach you and cling to you. In our blood and toil we shall redeem you until you are entirely ours.”

The contours of the Zionists’ ethos were mainly forged during the period of the second aliya (literally “ascent” in the sense of return to Palestine). Spanning the years 1904 to 1914, this period is considered a watershed in the development of the Yishuv and in the shaping of the political culture of the State of Israel. During this period 35,000-40,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine mostly from Russia following the outbreak of a new round of pogroms in 1903 and the collapse of the 1905 revolution. Although about half of those who arrived in Palestine later left the country, this period of immigration brought many of the leaders destined to lead the Yishuv into statehood including prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol. These new migrants were by no means a homogenous group, but a significant number were young men and women with modern educations espousing revolutionary and utopian socialist ideas who, once in Palestine, began a wide variety of efforts, some more successful than others, aimed at leading the Jewish community in the direction of their socialist ideal. They founded the political parties, labor organizations, and the welfare institutions which soon became known as Labor Zionism.

One of the most far reaching institutional innovation of Labor Zionism was the creation of a new form of agricultural settlement based on the principles of cooperation and communal ownership of the means of production. These agricultural cooperatives over time took on a variety of forms but generally are known in the West generically as the kibbutz movement or kibbutzim (plural). The land for these collective settlements was purchased by the Jewish National Fund through the Palestine Office, an arm of the World Zionist Organization, opened in Jaffa in 1908. Settlers were allocated land for a nominal rent. Economic and social relations between members of the cooperatives were based on egalitarian principles although the level of austerity depended on the type of settlement. The original type of collective settlement, the kvutza (communes), had only a small number of members. All members shared equally in both the labor and rewards of the commune. A number of these small family-type collectives were founded over the next decade, but by the 1920s it became clear that larger-scale collectives were necessary for economic viability. These larger cooperative enterprises had memberships reaching into the several hundreds and were called kibbutzim distinguishing them from the smaller more intimate communes. In more recent times the distinction between kvutzot and kibbutz has been lost. Kibbutz settlements of any size membership went to great lengths to achieve socialist ideals. All property was communally owned except for a few personal belongings. Work and marketing was centrally organized by committees and managers elected by all the members of the kibbutz.

Another form of agricultural collective arose in the early 1920s, the moshav (literally, settlement). Like the kibbutzim, moshavim were established on Jewish National Fund land, but in this case the land was divided equally among settlement families. The aim was to combine collective action with individual initiative. In the moshav every family worked its own land and remained a social and economic unit. Leases to the land could be passed from father to one of his sons but not divided between multiple off-springs. Cooperation came in the form of strict rules covering purchasing production material and marketing produce. Arrangements for mutual assistance, provision of services, and obtaining credit also existed. While it was impossible for a family to increase its holdings through the purchase of land, it could increase its income through increasing livestock and more efficient farming methods. The self-governing structure of moshavim was along the same lines of kibbutzim with members electing managers and other cooperative officials. During the Yishuv period the moshav never attracted the glamour of the kibbutz nor subsequent academic interest, but it constituted an intermediate model between capitalist/private ownership of agriculture and the communistic orientation of the kibbutz.

Although the total population of the collective settlements was never above 8 percent of the population of Jewish Palestine and today constitutes less than 4 percent, the influence of the kibbutz movements on the political culture and political life of both the Yishuv and the future Israeli state has been far reaching. The utopian principles of communalism and egalitarianism they espoused came to be regarded as the dominant ideology of the pre-state period. While kibbutzim organized into a variety of federations connected to different political parties and adhering to somewhat different ideological orientations, these variations were far less important than the general image they forged of the pioneer ideal of Jewish self-sacrifice and quest to redeem the land. Agricultural development and the drive for Jewish self-sufficiency came to be seen as the most important activity of the Yishuv. Kibbutzim also played a vital role in the absorption of immigrants: Fleeing growing European anti-Semitism and later Nazi persecution many new arrivals exchanged their middle class occupations for agricultural labor on the kibbutz. While many of these immigrants later settled elsewhere, the kibbutz served as a way station for their integration into the nascent society. As discord with the Arab inhabitants of Palestine grew into violent confrontation in the 1930s, kibbutzim increasingly constituted vital security outposts. Kibbutz members provided the nucleus of Hagana, the illegal Yishuv military organization, and especially its elite corps, the Palmah. Given these contributions, Kibbutzim members came to be regarded as an important social and political elite within Yishuv society. Even today, kibbutz membership, or having lived on a kibbutz, is an important stepping stone to the upper echelons of the Israeli government and particularly the army.

One of the most decisive contributions of the kibbutz movement has been shaping agricultural policy. After over nearly a half-century of statehood this collectivist orientation has lessened appreciably. Israeli farmers today are essentially capitalist in outlook. The moshav has far outstripped the kibbutz as the model for new agricultural settlements. Even kibbutzim operate like private businesses hiring employees and seeking profit. Yet the agricultural sector retains a mythological aura and place of importance beyond its contribution to the overall economy. Land and water resources continue to be part of the national domain rather than under private ownership. Market mechanisms are heavily regulated while considerable government subsidies are provided to maintain the economic viability of the agricultural sector. Indeed, agricultural interest and government agricultural policy often appear one and the same. The result has been an allocation of water resources based more on the imperatives of the Zionist ethos rather than on rational economic calculus.

The Zionists’ Quest for Water During the British Mandate

From its foundation the territorial aspirations of the Zionist movement included access to water resources necessary to insure the survival of a Jewish national home. As Jewish settlement in Palestine proceeded piecemeal in the decade following the death of Herzl, water resources were far from adequate and water utilization schemes non-existent. No parallel to the large irrigation systems developed with the waters of the Nile and Euphrates rivers going back to ancient times had ever been undertaken in Palestine. During the Roman and Byzantine periods aqueducts and reservoirs for agricultural purposes were built, but these were allowed to deteriorate in subsequent centuries especially under the Ottoman Empire. Before the First World War the Jewish settlers relied on the same primitive water utilization methods as the Arab farmers of the region digging wells where groundwater could be found close to the surface, mainly along the coastal plain, and bringing it to the surface with pumps operated by cattle. Even with the introduction of engine driven pumps and the building of the first pumping station in Palestine at the Yarkon near Petach Tikva, water resources were hardly sufficient to support much more than the existing population.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I and the British conquest of most of its Arab possessions presented the World Zionist Organization with the opportunity not only to gain official recognition of a national homeland in Palestine but to extend the boundaries of this entity to include the water resources to sustain a much larger immigrant population. From the Zionist perspective, the most important development of the war years was the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 expressing the sympathy of the British Government with Jewish aspirations in Palestine. While Zionist policy did not demand the creation of a Jewish state at this time, prominent British Zionists had urged the British government to endorse the idea of establishing the Jewish national home in Palestine. While the document was considered a major boost to Zionists’ aspirations and international status, British motives for issuing the Balfour Declaration were quite complex and not confined to aid to the Jews. On one hand, the declaration was expected to facilitate Jewish financial support to the British cause and to encourage American Jews to rally the United States behind the Allied war effort and after the war provide a strategic asset against the assertion of Arab nationalism, re-assertion of Turkish interest, or even French imperial designs in the Middle East.

But the Balfour Declaration was not the only promise the British made concerning the future of Palestine and other Ottoman Arab territories. The British also made promises concerning the final status of the region to both the Arabs and the French. In an exchange of letters in 1915-16 with Husayn, Sherif of Mecca, Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, suggested that the British Government agreed to support Arab independence from Turkish rule if the Arabs became their allies in the war.But as this correspondence was taking place with the Sherif of Mecca the British were also making a secret agreement with the French concerning these same lands. Known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, it called for Britain and France to divide the Middle East into zones of influence following the war. Under the agreement the French sphere of influence covered most of present day Syria and Lebanon while the British gained authority over Iraq, the area east of the Jordan River (Transjordan), and the port cities of Haifa and Acre. The remaining territory of Palestine, including Jerusalem, was to be under international administration, the form of which was to be decided at a later date after consultation with their allies including Russia and the Sherif of Mecca.

These three conflicting promises on the part of the British set the backdrop for the postwar diplomacy aimed at deciding Palestine’s political status. Even before the Paris Peace Conference officially began in February 1919, the French premier, Georges Clemenceau, conceded that Palestine would be under exclusive British authority in part because British troops were already in military control of the region and he needed British support for concessions from Germany in Europe and for establishing French control in Damascus which had come under the control of Arab troops under Feisal, son of Husayn the Sherif of Mecca. However, Palestine’s crucial northern and northeast boundaries with the French zone were undetermined. Who controlled the region’s most abundant water resources in the Upper Galilee and on Mount Hermon was left to the conference table. To the British Palestine’s chief importance was that of a territorial buffer for its Suez Canal possession thwarting in particular direct French access to that strategic waterway. They also desired the use of the port of Haifa as a naval base and as an access point for a railroad and oil pipeline from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean. At the Paris Peace Conference British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, proposed the biblical description of the “Dan to Beersheba” as a boundary prescription in his negotiations with the French to divide Palestine from the French zone of influence in what was referred to as the Occupied Enemy Territorial Administrations (OETA). What the British had in mind was not clarified at first but assumed to include the area south of a line stretching from a point between the ports of Acre and Tyre on the Mediterranean through the Galilee hills to Lake Huleh and then south to the northern Negev desert. These frontiers would meet their military and strategic requirements but did not include the control of water resources necessary to support a large and prosperous population. While the British considered the Zionists useful allies in achieving their aims in Palestine, agreement with the French over their strategic interest in the region was a greater concern.

Anxious about their own aspirations being set aside in the Great Powers negotiations, Zionist leaders prepared their own proposal which they submitted to the Paris Peace Conference in February 1919. For them control over the region’s rivers and their headwaters was the primary goal of any boundary agreement and an absolute necessity for the survival of a Jewish national home in Palestine. As they expressed it: “The economic life of Palestine, like that of every other semi-arid country depends on the available water supply. It is, therefore, of vital importance not only to secure all water resources already feeding the country, but also to be able to conserve and control them at their sources.” For them, Mount Hermon was Palestine’s “Father of Waters” and its loss would “strike at the very root of its economic life.” With this imperative in mind, their proposal demanded a northern frontier starting on the Mediterranean Sea just south of Sidon and running northeast following the watersheds to the slopes of the Lebanon mountains to include much of the Litani basin and all of the Jordan’s to its northern most source. From that point, the frontier was to run along the crest of Mount Hermon and then turn east to run along the northern watershed of the Yarmuk tributaries until reaching the Hejaz railway. At this point the line would turn south running parallel and just west of the railway to the Gulf of Aqaba. The southwest frontier was to be determined in future negotiations with the government of Egypt. In the view of the Zionists, these boundary claims reflected not only economic necessity, but historic and geographic considerations.

These frontier proposals received serious opposition from the French and from a Christian Lebanese delegation which had come to Paris with the support of the French to demand the creation of “Greater Lebanon” in which they included the Litani basin, the sources of the Jordan River, and the Galilee region. The French made it quite clear that they would insist on the original Sykes-Picot line as the OETA boundary between their sphere of influence and that of the British. This would have placed the frontier far south of the Zionists’ proposal beginning at a point just north of Acre on the Mediterranean Sea and running southeast, south of the city of Safed cutting across Lake Tiberias and then east along the Yarmuk River. If accepted this boundary would have put most of the water resources of the region in the hands of the French or their Lebanese allies and situated a considerable number of Jewish settlements outside the area of British control. Under pressure from the Zionists and the American delegation the British rejected the French position. The British put forward a compromise known as the “Deauville Proposal” which called for the boundary to follow the Litani River from the Mediterranean and then east to encompass the northernmost Jewish settlement of Metulla and the headwaters of the Banias River incorrectly thought by the British to be the biblical Dan thereby holding true to their claim of Palestine “from the Dan to Beersheba.” But the French continued to insist that the Litani River must remain entirely within Lebanon and the Paris Peace Conference ended with no decision on Palestine’s boundaries.

In April 1920 the allied prime ministers met in San Remo, Italy, to complete the redrawing of the political map of the post-Ottoman Middle East. By this time the large British troop commitment to the region had become a cumbersome financial burden and the British were anxious for an agreement. The British quickly agreed to an overall Middle East settlement in which they received mandates in Palestine (including the Transjordan region east of the Jordan River) and Iraq while the French gained the mandate in Syria (including Lebanon). As part of the agreement, the British withdrew their support from Feisal giving the French free reign to dethrone him and expel his forces from Damascus. In June the French, also tiring of the extended discussions, offered a compromise on boundaries which for the first time departed from the Sykes-Picot line. The boundary would go from a point on the Mediterranean coast (Ras al-Naqura) between Tyre and Acre to the Jordan River north of Metulla and the Banias and Dan headwaters and then south to the northern shore of Lake Huleh running east of the Jordan River through Lake Tiberias to meet the Sykes-Picot line at the Yarmuk.

The World Zionist Organization saw this proposal as extremely detrimental to the viability of a future Jewish national home and mobilized pressure from several countries appealing the British government to stand firm on the issue. While they remained firm on the claims they made at the peace conference, the Zionists made it clear that at a minimum they required the right to divert a portion of the waters of the Litani to the Jordan and control over the entire Jordan Valley up to the Dan. The British pushed the French on these points particularly the inclusion of the lower Litani in Palestine. But the French flatly refused all further suggestions. In December the British accepted the French proposal of the previous June as the final agreement. For the British the agreement met their imperial interest regarding the railroad and oil pipeline access, but in acceding to it they abandoned the requirements of their erstwhile Zionists allies.

An Anglo-French commission was established to demarcate the exact boundary line. The results of the commission’s work were accepted and signed by the British and French governments in March 1923. The final boundary did not differ significantly from the old Sykes-Picot line. It ran from Ras al-Naqura east along a line between the Litani and Jordan watersheds turning sharply north to include Metulla within Palestine. The boundary, however, neglected to include the Banias spring on the British side. Instead, it was allowed to originate and flow 100 meters in Syrian territory before reaching Palestine. The Litani River was entirely outside the borders of Palestine and the headwaters of two of the three tributaries of the Jordan (Hasbani and Banias) lay beyond the frontier as well. Only the Dan spring remained entirely within Palestine. From the Bahias River the border turned south toward Lake Tiberias along the foothills of the Golan Heights east (sometimes only fifty meters) of the Jordan River and Lake Huleh. At Lake Tiberias the border ran along the eastern shore keeping the entire lake and a small strip of land on the southeast inside Palestine. Inhabitants of Syria were allowed fishing and navigation rights on the lake. From the south end of the lake a small triangular strip of territory between the Jordan, the Yarmuk, and the lake was included in Palestine. At this point the border went eastward following the Yarmuk east along the original Sykes-Picot line. The final piece to the Palestine Mandate border puzzle fell into place in 1923 when the British recognized the autonomy of Transjordan. The border ratified in 1929 followed the Jordan River south from the confluence with the Yarmuk to the Dead Sea and through the Wadi Araba to the Gulf of Aqaba.

These final boundary agreements deeply disappointed the Zionist leadership. They continued to seek change in the frontier to include the Litani basin, the headwaters of the Jordan, Mount Hermon, and the eastern side of the lower Jordan valley by encouraging Jewish settlement in these areas but without success. The Arabs, for their part, saw “no good reason, economic or ethnic,” for inclusion of the Upper Galilee in Palestine. In their view, this area along with southern Lebanon constituted an economic unit that was now divided in two. As they saw it, had it not been for the existence of a few Jewish settlements, the area would have remained united under French jurisdiction as part of Lebanon. Despite these protests from both Jew and Arab the agreements became the final boundary settlements and later the international borders between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

Throughout the period of the British Mandate (1922-1948) the acquisition and development of water resources remained a paramount goal of the World Zionist Organization and Yishuv. If a future Jewish state was to be economically viable and strategically secure, access to water was an absolute necessity. To this end, the World Zionist Organization was not only heavily engaged in purchasing land through the Jewish National Fund and promoting settlement through the Jewish Agency, but engaged in significant financial investment to develop existing water resources. In addition, Zionist leaders strove to insure that regional water development and management plans channeled the lion’s share of the region’s resources to the Yishuv.

Even before the Mandate was officially established, the major issue that drew the attention of the all the parties involved—Zionist, Arab, and British -was Jewish immigration to Palestine. How many people could the land and water resources of the Palestine Mandate accommodate? The Arab community had never accepted the Balfour Declaration and increasingly perceived Jewish settlement and land purchase as a threat to their national aspirations and economic well-being. Clashes and violence between the two communities began as early as 1920. In 1922, the British government issued a White Paper offering an official interpretation of the Balfour Declaration and clarifying British policy toward Jewish immigration in a manner to dispel Arab fears. Known as the Churchill White Paper, since it was issued over the signature of Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, the document affirmed British support for “the existence of a Jewish National Home in Palestine” and formally recognized the “ancient historic connection” of the Jewish people to Palestine. On the other hand, the White Paper placed both geographical and political limitations on the British definition of what they meant by a Jewish National Home. Geographically, Jewish settlement was restricted to the area west of the Jordan River. Politically, the British government eschewed support for any future Jewish state asserting that a Jewish National Home did not mean “the imposition of Jewish nationality upon the inhabitants of Palestine as a whole but the further development of the existing Jewish community….” The document went on to state that Jewish immigration could not be “so great in volume as to exceed whatever may be the economic carrying capacity of the country at the time to absorb new arrivals.”

Fearful of losing British support, the World Zionist Organization reluctantly accepted the White Paper. The Arabs flatly rejected it declaring that any endorsement of the principles of the Balfour Declaration made it unacceptable. The British went ahead and issued the White Paper and it was accepted by the Council of the League of Nations as the official interpretation of the Mandate. While the Churchill White Paper did little to dispel Arab fears about Jewish immigration, it introduced for the first time a policy that made that immigration dependent on Palestine’s “economic absorptive capacity.” This new provision made acquisition and development of water resources an even more important variable in the Zionists’ equation for redeeming the Land of Israel. The legitimacy of the Zionists’ claim to a national home could only be sustained by extensive land holdings and a demographic presence approximating that of the Arabs. But if the land was to assimilate such numbers, much of it had to be turned to agriculture and for this large-scale irrigation was required. From this point on the imperative of agricultural development was sustained not only by an ideology of “national rebirth” but political necessity.

During the 1920s the Jewish community, with the agreement of the British Mandatory Authority, began constructing small irrigation systems and other local water projects. Among these was the initial harnessing of the waters of the Yarkon River near Tel-Aviv and the Kishon River north of Haifa. The most extensive and significant water development project in the country began in 1926 with the granting of a 70-year concession by the British Mandatory Authority to the Zionist Palestine Electric Corporation to develop a facility at the confluence of the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers for the generation of hydroelectric power. The “Rutenburg Concession,” so named for Pinhas Rutenberg, the president of the corporation and a major force behind Jewish water development during the Mandate period, exercised a virtual monopoly over much of the Jordan basin river system. Still under the authority of the British Mandate, the government of the Transjordan ratified the concession in 1928. However, under the terms of the concession, it was only granted the right to draw water from the Yarmuk River not required for use by Rutenburg’s company. To obtain additional water Transjordan and other basin states had to gain permission from the Palestine Electric Corporation. In fact the company never released water to Transjordan always claiming a lack of surplus.

By 1930 a dam was completed at Tel Or at the confluence of the Jordan and the Yarmuk with a catchment area of about 7,000 square kilometers. In June 1932 a power station at Jisr al-Mujami’i on the eastern bank of the Jordan River below the dam began generating electricity. Rutenburg had visions of far greater hydroelectric development for the region. A series of additional power plants were planned including ones in Transjordan and Syrian territory. These were blocked however by the Mandatory Authority and the French in Damascus. In 1935 Rutenburg applied for permission to supply electricity to Amman. Fearing Zionist ambitions to acquire land east of the Jordan River the British Colonial Office rejected the request. As Arab-Jewish strife increased in the latter half of the 1930s, further development of the Rutenburg Concession facilities halted. Rutenburg died in 1941 but the Palestine Electric Corporation continued to supply power until its facilities were destroyed in 1948 during the hostilities accompanying the establishment of the Israeli state.

Growing Jewish immigration and the Arab Revolt of 1936 increased the British urgency to find a solution to the “Palestine problem” and concomitantly the issue of water utilization. In November of that same year the British Colonial Office authorized a commission of inquiry under William Robert Wellesley, Lord Peel, to find a means to alleviate the tension. In its 1937 report, the Palestine Royal Commission, also known as the Peel Commission, recommended the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas along with a small British enclave consisting of Jerusalem and Bethlehem as well as a narrow corridor to the coast. A small Jewish state was to be created covering much of the northern coastal plain, the Jezreel Valley, and the Galilee. The remaining Arab territory was designated to be annexed by Transjordan. The Commission envisioned an exchange of populations to accompany the partition which would have involved several hundred thousand Arabs living in the Jewish area but few Jews since most resided in their designated area. Finally, because of the partition and population transfers, the report recommended a hydrographic survey be made of Palestine and Transjordan to determine the region’s capacity for land reclamation and agricultural development.

Both Jews and Arabs rejected the Peel Commission recommendations. The Zionists while welcoming the recognition of the desirability of a Jewish state, believed that the amount of territory inadequate to ever constitute a viable state. The Arabs found the plan totally unacceptable proclaiming the British had no authority or right to partition Arab land. Over the next two years the British explored further possibilities of finding common ground between the protagonists but with no tangible results. In the intervening period, an additional report (by the Woodhead Commission) suggested that land and water resources of the region were insufficient to support two separate entities. In light of these drawbacks, in 1939 the British government withdrew its support for partition as impractical. Nonetheless, the hydrographic survey for the Transjordan requested by the Peel Commission had been completed and it provided recommendations for water utilization in the Jordan River Basin.

The survey, Report on the water resources of Transjordan and their development, by Michael Ionides, a British employee of the Transjordan government, provided the first estimate of available water and cultivable land. The report supported the view that the Jordan Basin’s water resources were insufficient to absorb a large Jewish immigration. Ionides concluded that the only source of water large enough to have any substantial consequence on the agricultural development of the region were the two main rivers, Jordan and Yarmuk. He advanced a plan that would divert water from the Yarmuk south of Lake Tiberias to a canal along the east Ghor of the Jordan Valley, stretching 100 kilometers south to the Dead Sea. A feeder canal would also bring water from Lake Tiberias to link up with the Ghor canal. Winter floodwaters from the Yarmuk would be stored in Lake Tiberias for summer use rather than be wasted. Ionides estimated that such a scheme could irrigate 300,000 dunams and also suggested that a similar engineering feat could be accomplished on the Ghor of the west bank of the Jordan River as well.

The Ionides plan never materialized as a result of the failure of the Peel Commission. The onset of World War II also put a temporary moratorium on negotiations over the final status of Palestine. Some months earlier in May 1939 the new British policy outlined in the MacDonald White Paper, named for Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald, had supported a binational state with authority shared on the basis of the proportion of the population between Jews and Arabs, but Jews were not to constitute more than one-third of the population. In keeping with the concept of “economic absorptive capacity,” Jewish immigration was limited to 75,000 over the next five years while Jewish land purchases were restricted. While supporting the British war effort against Germany, the Zionists determined to ignore the White Paper and smuggle as many Jewish refugees as possible into Palestine. At the same time the Jewish Agency for Palestine began to study land utilization possibilities in order to accommodate increased immigration and spread settlement on a wider scale throughout the territory so as to have a stronger political and strategic position at the time of a future partition. The key variables in this planning were agricultural potential and water. To assist in this chore, they enlisted the services of an American soil conservationist, Walter Clay Lowdermilk. In 1944 the results of his work were published in the book, Palestine, Land of Promise. In contrast to Ionides’ survey, Lowdermilk projected a much more optimistic absorptive capacity for Palestine.

The basis of the Lowdermilk plan was a regional approach to the problem of water scarcity. He urged the establishment of a “Jordan Valley Authority” patterned on the Tennessee Valley Authority to oversee the irrigation development on both banks of the river. Included in the scheme was the diversion of water from outside Palestine (presumably the Litani River) to the upper Jordan River and from the Yarmuk to Lake Tiberias. In turn, water from the upper Jordan would be diverted before reaching the lake to the coastal plains and Negev. The plan also included channeling water from the Mediterranean Sea through canal and tunnel to the Dead Sea for the purposes of generating hydroelectric power and compensating the lake for the loss of diverted sweet water. Given the assumption that water from outside the Mandate territory and the Jordan Basin would be available in his regional management scheme, Lowdermilk estimated that Palestine could accommodate 4 million Jewish refugees in addition to the 1.2 million Arabs and 600,000 Jews already residing there. Lowdermilk presumed that the water would only be wasted if not diverted and therefore could be put to use to support Jewish immigrants; and it would also benefit the Arab population of Palestine. The engineering details for the Lowdermilk Plan followed in a study prepared by an American engineer and consultant to the Jewish Agency, James Hays. The 1948 report, T.V.A. On the Jordan, provided an eight stage blueprint to realize Lowdermilk’s overall conception.

The Zionists welcomed the Lowdermilk-Hays scheme as proof that Palestine had a much greater absorptive capacity than that claimed by the British. In the aftermath of World War II, the plan provided the evidence that survivors of the Holocaust could be settled in Palestine without causing economic or environmental disaster. The Arabs derided the plan seeing it as only another sinister tactic to justify the seizure of the land they saw as rightfully their own. As the Arabs saw it, the plan was clearly designed to benefit areas of Jewish settlement whereas the Arabs areas figured only as “residuary legatees.” They particularly opposed the transfer of water from the Jordan Basin before the basin’s own water needs were met. Nor did the British Mandatory Authority take a positive view of the plan. In 1945 a British sponsored survey challenged the political and financial practicality of transferring water from Lebanon to the Jordan system suggesting a more modest effort confined to the basin. The report also pointed out that the Zionists’ proposal failed to take into account the existing system of water rights in the Mandate carried over from Ottoman times.

Political events overtook disagreements over water utilization schemes. On 14 May 1948 after the failure of further partition proposals, the British withdrew from Palestine. On that same day Israel declared itself a sovereign state and immediately entered into war with its five neighboring Arab states. After months of war Israel succeeded in expanding its territory about 30 percent over that allocated by the 1947 United Nations Partition Resolution. For the Arab residents of Palestine, hence forward known as “Palestinians,” the war came to be referred to as al-nakba, “the catastrophe” or “the disaster.” As a result of fighting between Jews and Arabs which began even before the British departure, about 800,000 Arabs abandoned their homes out of fear or were forced to flee by Israelis forces, leaving only about 150,000 Arabs within the boundaries of the Jewish state. The Palestinian refugee exodus opened up vast amounts of land which was confiscated by the new state for Jewish settlement putting to rest the question of “absorptive capacity.”

The armistice agreements of 1949 between Israel and her four Arab neighboring states demarcated a line which put several important water sources inside the Jewish state while leaving out others. The northern boundary followed close to that established by the Anglo-French commission of 1923 including within Israel much of the upper Jordan River catchment area and the headwaters of the Dan, one of its three tributaries. As with the Mandate boundaries the sources of both the Hasbani and Banias rivers remained in Arab territory. Lake Huleh and Lake Tiberias were within Israel but bordered on Syrian territory. While these boundaries gave Israel the physical access to an amount of water sufficient to initiate some of the basic elements of the Lowdermilk-Hays plan particularly diverting water from the upper Jordan basin to the coastal plain and northern Negev, they were not the strategically secure borders which had been the Zionists dream since the beginning of the century. As for the Arabs, they believed that these water resources were stolen from them by the force of arms. Thus the stage was set for a near half century of acrimony and violent confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians and other Arabs in which the control of water resources has played a major part.


Zionism must be taken into consideration when attempting to understand the underlying nature of the water dispute between Israel and the Arabs. Zionism, first and foremost, was a movement of return to the Land of Israel, a quest for land for the Jewish people. Because this quest was justified on ancient rights, Jewish immigration and land purchases set in motion a zero-sum situation with the previously existing Arab community of Palestine. Water became a key factor in this struggle because massive settlement was only possible with water resources sufficient to both make this mostly arid land agriculturally productive and quench the thirst of the multitude.

The Zionist-socialist goal of national redemption of the Jewish people through pioneering activity became an important element of the national ethos giving a symbolic importance to agriculture to the Yishuv and in independent Israel far beyond its role in the economy. Because most agriculture in the region requires irrigation, access to abundant water resources became an imperative in this spiritual and psychological journey. But Zionist-socialism also added a statist element to Israeli political culture which has affected her land and water policies and her approach to her water dispute with the Arabs in the current round of negotiations. While socialism may no longer be a significant principle in the Israeli economy, land and water remain the property of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. The absence of a concept of individual property ownership with regard to these commodities has affected Israel’s approach to the water negotiations with the Palestinians and made the finding of an agreeable settlement more onerous.

Zionists in the pre-state period generally failed to recognize the fact that Arabs had legitimate rights to the land and water resources of Palestine comparable to their own. Religious prophecy and their two thousand year history of persecution in Europe led the Zionists to demand the land as their right. Especially in the early years, Palestine was seen by many Zionists as practically uninhabited “free land.” This attitude was perhaps most succinctly expressed by the Anglo-Jewish writer, Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), that Zionism was a movement of “a people without a land returning to a land without a people.” The Arabs’ rights were considered of lesser importance in comparison to the higher purposes of the Jews; to the Zionists the Arabs were an “invisible people.” In the later Mandate period, immigration, territorial acquisition, and water resources claims were justified less on divine canon than on the technical benefits the Jews would bring to the less developed people of the region. Lowdermilk in his report for the Jewish Agency suggested that the Jews should be made “custodians of this new Holy Land and directors of the JVA.” His reasons included their scientific and technical advancement, voluntary cooperative social system, and their European standard of living achieved while “living in the midst of the backward, depressed, subsistence economy of the Middle East.”

As Israel has moved closer to a peace agreement with the Palestinians in the Oslo peace process and achieved a peace treaty with Jordan, control of water resources has been a prime consideration. While somewhat less controversial than some other areas of dispute such as Jewish settlements and the status of Jerusalem, progress in the water talks with the Palestinian Authority has been extremely slow. Israel has been reluctant to make concessions on water-sharing or change her domestic water policies favoring agricultural consumption even when these have not been economically rational. Her water policies in the occupied Palestinian territories have been highly discriminatory against Palestinians and in all likelihood in violation of international law. While Israeli government officials generally cite the necessities of national security for these actions, to gain a more complete understanding of why such actions have been taken, they must be placed in the context of Zionist ideology and history and the role these played in shaping the Israeli psyche.