HRW critique that doesn’t hold water

Netanyahu: "We must expose the hypocrisy of human rights organizations that turn a blind eye to the most repressive regimes in the world."

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday night attacked the ostensible anti-Israel bias of some human rights watchdog groups. “We must expose the hypocrisy of human rights organizations that turn a blind eye to the most repressive regimes in the world... and instead target the only liberal democracy in the Middle East,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu’s comments appeared to be a reaction to a 166-page report entitled “Separate and Unequal,” issued by Human Rights Watch earlier Sunday. In addition to descriptions of alleged Israeli violations of human rights, the report, the longest and most comprehensive issued on any Middle East country this year, called on the US to punish Israel by deducting aid in accordance with its spending on settlements.
There is a tendency among politicians, including the prime minister, to make sweeping charges against HRW and other human rights NGOs, generalizing that they are riddled with malicious intent without providing specific examples. It is worth focusing on one of the many tendentious claims in HRW’s report to illustrate the unfortunately frequent validity of official Israel’s sense of grievance.
THE REPORT takes Israel to task for a purportedly discriminatory water allocation policy. HRW stated that, “Average Israeli per capita consumption of water, including water consumption, by settlers is 4.3 times that of Palestinians in the occupied territories (including Gaza).”
This is true, as far as it goes: Per capita water consumption among Palestinians is 70 liters a day, compared to Israel’s average per person of 300 liters a day. What HRW failed to mention, however, is that access to piped water has dramatically improved in recent decades and is significantly better than in Syria or Jordan, which would have been in control of the West Bank had it not attacked Israeli in 1967.
In fact, as Alon Tal of the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University noted in a recent article in the Israel Journal for Foreign Affairs, Israel has significantly exceeded its requirement as set down in the 1995 Oslo II Peace Accords, increasing supply by 60 million cubic meters (mcm) a year, instead of 28.6 mcm as required.
The 10 percent of the Palestinian population on the West Bank who do not have reasonable access to running water might usefully be contrasted with, say, Romania, where one-third of the population has no running water, or closer to home, the Jordanian city of Irbid, where 400,000 residents lack access.
The relatively widespread accessibility did not happen by itself. A World Bank report from April 2009 noted that Israel was responsible for a 50% rise in the number of West Bank Palestinians who have access to networked water supply. The World Bank also estimated that 45% of West Bank Palestinians’ (and settlers’) water is provided by Mekorot, the Israeli national water carrier, from sources located inside Israel. This has unfolded over the past two decades, moreover, during which the Palestinian population tripled to 2,461,000. As Tal concluded, “There are few developing economies that have achieved such dramatic improvements in such a short time.”
None of this is mentioned in HRW’s report. And while a litany of accusations are leveled at Israel – ranging from “over-extraction of water” to “refusal to approve Palestinian water projects” – no blame whatsoever is placed on Palestinians. Yet, as Tal notes, 30% of Palestinian water leaks out of poorly maintained pipes, three times what Israel loses to leakage.
The Palestinian Authority – with $1 billion in annual civil aid, the world’s largest per capita recipient of international development assistance – invests precious little, if anything, in improving water delivery. And due to PA corruption, rural residents are often forced to pay exorbitant rates for bottled or tanker water. Deficient law enforcement by the PA also results in the digging of wells that threaten to contaminate major aquifers.
SUCH SKEWED treatment of Israel’s water policy is a microcosm of HRW’s wider failings, which were recently detailed to shocking effect in a lecture (republished on these pages on November 25) by its outraged founder Robert Bernstein. Not only does HRW’s obsessive and antagonistic focus misrepresent Israel, it is also counterproductive to the Palestinian cause.
By Israeli standards, the amount of water available to Palestinians, while higher than many developing countries, is inadequate. But what HRW deliberately fails to acknowledge is that this is a consequence of a complex reality that includes Palestinian negligence.
As long as the specifics, and the wider realities, are intentionally ignored by human rights groups maintaining cynical anti-Israeli campaigns, the root problems afflicting Israelis and Palestinians will continue to be distorted, misunderstood, and consequently, all the harder to resolve.