Imperialism that runs clear

Issue: 122

Jonathan Maunder

Mark Zeitoun, Power and Water in the Middle East: The Hidden Politics of the PalestinianIsraeli Water Conflict (IB Tauris, 2008), £47.50

Water is one of the most obvious symbols of the injustice of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. In Israeli settlements water is used for swimming pools and garden sprinklers, while Palestinians largely make do with supplies for basic consumption. The recent Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip left 500,000 people without access to clean water.

Mark Zeitoun is a water engineer with wide experience in the Middle East and Africa, and in Power and Water in the Middle East he attempts to explain how Israel secures its dominance in the struggle over water resources and what drives it. On a day to day basis the Palestinian water authorities have to cooperate with the Israeli authorities over the supply of water, and yet as Zeitoun argues (quoting Noam Chomsky), “the outcome of cooperation between an elephant and a fly is not difficult to predict” (p7).

He starts with a striking image, the indoor water fountain at a new Tel Aviv airport: “The water appears from outlets arranged in a wide circle falling from the ceiling of the large open hall, as rain from the sky. The mood and rain gets heavier, with a loud, soft swoosh as it falls onto the lake underneath, around which people with luggage sip coffee at tables” (p1).

Zeitoun contrasts this with life in the Gaza Strip. In Gaza families north of Beit Lahia had to set up home on the banks of a lake of sewage as it was the only free space they could find. The children suffer from water-borne infectious diseases and in summer 2006 Oxfam warned that Israeli shelling of the area increased the risk of the banks bursting. This did indeed happen in April 2007 when five Palestinians, ranging in age from 70 years old to 11 months, drowned in the ensuing torrent (p6).

The fact that such a sewage lake existed, and families had to live next to it, is a product of Israel’s longstanding disruption of Palestinian control over their own resources. This was seen most recently by the imposition of the economic blockade on Gaza following the election of the Hamas government in 2006 (compounded by the withdrawal of aid from the US, which stopped the building of a water desalination plant).

Zeitoun traces the shift in the Israeli approach to Palestinian water resources, moving from the direct “domination-occupation years” (p82), to a more subtle form of control instituted after the 1995 Oslo Accords. These accords recognised Palestinian water needs (but not rights) and created forums of negotiation in which representatives from both Palestinian and Israeli water authorities would work out how to allocate resources. Zeitoun argues, however, that this formal equality obscured continued Israeli dominance. In reality the negotiating forums became places where Israel bullied and threatened the Palestinians in order to allocate water to the settlements and for Israel’s internal use.

What makes this book interesting is that Zeitoun attempts to give his account a theoretical underpinning, mainly through a concept of hegemony that he derives from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Zeitoun writes, “It is when the existing ‘order of things’ is taken as the natural order of things that we know hegemony is active. One cannot go far in understanding power relations between parties that are formally equal yet evidently not equally strong, without referring to the concept of hegemony” (p30).

He argues that Palestinian water authorities have conformed to Israeli hegemony by internalising their own weakness, no longer demanding Palestinian water rights but meekly accepting the fact of Israeli domination and trying to obtain a few crumbs (or droplets) from the table. This is seen by Zeitoun as emblematic of a shift from “imperial” type rule based on force and formally unequal relations, to “hegemonic” rule, where power disparities and the use of force are concealed behind a veil of formal equality and cooperation.

This certainly adds some depth to our understanding of the situation, but there is also a lack of clarity in Zeitoun’s use of the term hegemony. For Gramsci and the Marxist tradition, the concept helps explain how the ruling class maintains its rule most of the time without having to resort to violence. Capitalist hegemony operates both in the fact of the ruling classes’ influence over the media and other sources of ideology (such as the education system), and in the nature of wage labour. Workers are compelled to sell their labour power to the capitalist in order to survive, and yet the exploitative nature of this relationship is not immediately apparent because it is hidden behind the wage relation. Therefore the concept of hegemony is rooted materially. It is not just about certain ideas attaining dominance because they are particularly well articulated or forcefully argued.

At times Zeitoun suggests that Israel’s water hegemony over the Palestinians is in some way connected to the process of capital accumulation: “The situation may be compared to the ever hungry and predatory nature of the capitalist system…new opportunities to make profits must constantly be made available, through continually opening up access to wider markets…and/or reserves of cheap labour” (p83).

However, he ultimately rejects the idea that Israeli water hegemony is driven by a search for new profits, concluding rather that this is a feature of “a general Israeli strategy of maintaining disparity with the Palestinian side at the broader political and economic level” (p83). This seems to make sense if we consider that Israel is propped up ultimately not by profits gained through exploitation of the Palestinians, but by US dollars which it gets in return for fulfilling its role as “the cop on the beat”1 for US imperialism in the oil rich and strategically important Middle East.

Therefore Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians is informed mainly by a fusion of imperialist motives and ideological motives (Zionism), rather than a simple desire to accumulate capital through use of Palestinian resources and labour.

However, Zeitoun seems to miss the imperialist and ideological factors, and their implication for how Israel behaves. In rejecting the reductionist economic argument he seems to argue that water domination is just the result of a mistaken policy, or “discourse”, unconnected to Israel’s material interests. He writes that a change in Israeli water policy in relation to the Palestinians will only occur “if the discursive identification of water with security is shattered”. He argues that inequality in the water sector is not “a necessary condition for Israeli state security” or of “the wider Israeli strategy of asymmetrically containing the Palestinian population” (p84).

But there seem to be three reasons why this conclusion is mistaken, all of which are implicit in Zeitoun’s own analysis. First, Israel does benefit substantially from Palestinian water. The settlements in the West Bank around the western, eastern and north eastern aquifers provide Israel with a third of its water supply (p84).

Second, the fragility of Palestinian water infrastructure can make it hard to disentangle Israel’s overall dominance from its water dominance. One example comes from Israel’s invasion of Jenin in 2002. The water pipes in Jenin are either above ground or buried just below the surface. When Israeli tanks rolled into the city to occupy it they immediately destroyed much of the water system (p92).

Third, control of water is a very important strategic tool in maintaining control over the Palestinians through “collective punishment” of the population. Israel can shut off or reduce supplies to Palestinian cities when it wants to increase pressure at specific times, as it did during the invasion of Jenin.

There is a broader point to be made here about how we understand imperialism and how it expresses the interaction between capital accumulation and the territorial logic of states. The Marxist David Harvey has argued, “The relation between these two logics should be seen…as problematic and often contradictory (that is, dialectical) rather than being functional or one_sided…the difficulty for concrete analysis of actual situations is to keep the two sides of this dialectic simultaneously in motion and not to lapse into either a solely political or a predominantly economic mode of argumentation”.2

In relation to Israel this means not only accurately weighing the importance of economic and political factors and how they interact but also looking at how Israel operates according to its own specific imperialist logic, which is shaped by it being a smaller ally of a major imperialism, driven by a powerful Zionist ideology and with a level of economic security provided by the “floor” of US dollars.

Ultimately Israeli “security” depends upon being engaged in an ongoing conflict, varying in intensity and form but always present, with the Palestinians and the wider region. It can be no other way for a state founded on ethnic cleansing, which does not believe that Arabs and Jews in the Middle East can live and work together as equals, and which is armed to the teeth with the latest and most deadly weapons supplied by the US.

This book is written by a technical specialist angered by the oppression of the Palestinians who wants a theoretical explanation to help understand the situation. That makes it both useful and interesting. But for a broader and deeper theoretical understanding of the connections between imperialism, Israel and the oppression of the Palestinians it is necessary to return to some classic Marxist writings on the topic, such as Tony Cliff’s “The Palestine Question”,3 in order to start to work out how Palestine can be free today.


1: The term used by Noam Chomsky in Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (Pluto, 1999).

2: David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford University, 2005). There is a debate over whether this implies the existence of a logic of states separate from that of the logic of capital. For an excellent argument that the logic of states emerges from, and is profoundly shaped by, the logic of capital see Colin Barker, “The State as Capital”, International Socialism 1 (summer 1978), See also Alex Callinicos and Sam Ashman, “Capital Accumulation and the State System: assessing David Harvey’s The New Imperialism”, Historical Materialism, volume 14, number 4.

3: In Tony Cliff, International Struggle and the Marxist tradition: Selected Writings, Volume One (Bookmarks, 2001).