In Search of the River Jordan

By James Fergusson
Yale University Press
ISBN 978-0-300-24415-1

Review by Ian Portman

James Fergusson’s great aunt Frances was a keen advocate of a Jewish state in Palestine. Her mother, Blanche Dugdale, was Arthur Balfour’s biographer – herself an ardent Zionist and a close friend of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel.

Great Aunt Frances’ birthday letters reminded the young James of the family tradition:

November 2nd. Very important day!!!

* Your birthday

* My birthday

* Birth of the state of Israel

But James Fergusson was an independent-minded boy and remained on his guard at being led up the garden path. In his In Search of the River Jordan, that proves to be no easy task as, at every turn in his travels, he comes across conflicting narratives, bitterness and intransigence.

Although Israel and Palestine cover a modest area, (smaller than Belgium, bigger than Lebanon) the author covers 1600 km in a search for underground hydrogeological facts while keeping his eyes open for realities on the surface. This means he encounters injustice and nationalism wherever he turns. 

His book, part travelogue, part an appeal for enlightened self-interest, is full of odd and surprising realities: He introduces an abundance of larger-than-life characters with more than one side to them — from grizzled Israeli farmer-pioneers from the 1950s to gung-ho, hi-tech desalinators, to a nudist hippie colony on the Dead Sea to suspicious settlers on usurped land. The Palestinians he meets are not all downtrodden but most are bitter about their loss of water, farm-land and basic rights under the more than 50 year occupation.

Despite his difficult subject matter, Fergusson’s easygoing style leads the reader into difficult terrain without preaching; and it establishes him as a trustworthy guide. He offers professional insight into the complexities of water provision in an area where population growth and climate change threaten to outstrip supply (in Israel) and where supply remains woefully inadequate (Gaza and the territories occupied since 1967).

He starts his trip far away from the Jordan, in Gaza, where there is a perpetual water shortage and the sea has often turned into a cesspit. He is received by Dr. Ahmad Ya’qubi, retired Director-General of the Palestinian Water Authority, who explains that underground water in the strip has almost disappeared. It is contaminated and no longer fit for purpose. Fergusson notes that, although Israelis blame this dire situation on poor family planning In Gaza, the real reason was the Nakba catastrophe of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven south by Zionist militias to Gaza, where they and their offspring live in poverty in refugee camps. They joined the original, substantial population of Gaza. Resources are now absolutely overwhelmed and everyone is imprisoned by walls, barbed wire and machine gun posts and continually observed by drones. Fishing is severely restricted.

An aerial photograph of the strip and its surroundings demonstrates how dire the situation has become: flourishing, well-irrigated green fields on the Israeli side surround the dusty, brown agricultural areas inside the sealed-off territory of refugees. The strip remains thirsty despite the abundance of water on the other side. Israelis enjoy a daily average of 240 litres per person, while in Gaza, Palestinians get just 77. Israel does supply Gaza with some water, as agreed under the Oslo accords in the early 1990s, but the population has today far outstripped the supply. Disagreements between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have also hindered an increase in provision.

From Gaza, Fergusson heads to Ramallah, administrative capital of the occupied territories in the West Bank. He finds the welcome help of a professional guide, Bassem, who fixes him up with a curious low-slung Korean motorbike with chopper handlebars. So the two roar off, Easy Rider style, to Area C, Israeli military occupied territory stretching the length of the Jordan and further to the north and south with patches dotted all over the West Bank, isolating populations from one another. Rich in natural resources, Area C comprises over 60 per cent of the West Bank. Almost all of it is forbidden to Palestinians. It was agreed at the Oslo conference in 1995 that the area would be gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction. But this never happened. Area C is designed to facilitate and protect illegal Israeli settlements – which it performs with efficiency and with scant regard for the suffering which ensues.

The River Jordan’s brown trickle

In the 1991 Master Plan for the Development of Settlements issued by the World Zionist Organisation, one reads:

The aim is to render it difficult for the minority Arab population to unite and create territorial continuity.

A detailed map showing the islands of Palestinian control, says the author

… illustrates the challenge – or as some might say the futility – of establishing a viable Palestinian state, the basis of the two-state solution, that has underpinned the efforts of generations of Western peacemakers.

Fergusson points out that, while the average Israeli’s water consumption averages 240 litres, settlers do far better. Whereas non-Jewish inhabitants of Area C, whose taps often run dry, struggle to get 50 litres per day, according to the World Bank settlers receive 500 to 700 litres per day and at times up to 20 times more.

[According to the Israeli human rights NGO B’tselem, the water situation in the West Bank is worse than when Fergusson visited to research this book. Israelis, it reports, including those living in settlements, use and average of 247 litres a day per person—three times the quantity used by Palestinians in the West Bank, 82.4 litres per person. In Palestinian communities that are not hooked up to the water grid, average daily consumption is a mere 26 litres per person, comparable to the average in disaster zones. parched.]

The bikers arrive at the eastern edge of Area C, under Israeli occupation and at the border with the Kingdom of Jordan, where the river Jordan used to run. Here, according to the Bible, is where Jesus was baptised.

The author’s disappointment on first seeing the meager brown trickle of agricultural run-off that is today’s River Jordan is shared by countless Christian tourists. Sometimes there is nothing to see at all. Fortunately, the Israeli authorities have created a short stretch of the river at the northern end where one can appreciate how the river used to look before Zionist hydrologists dammed the freshwater ‘Sea’ of Galilee and siphoned it off to supply the cities and kibbutzim of their ‘promised land’ with the water which nature had provided through the River Jordan over millennia. Another area has recently been added, filled with brownish run-off water at Qasr al-Yahud, the exact spot where, it is written, John the Baptist ducked the Messiah. Fergusson did not try his luck.

The importance of water to the region and to Palestine/Israel cannot be overestimated. When the National Water Carrier system of pipes and channels was built in the 1960s, it indeed allowed the new nation to farm land far beyond the fertile Jazreel valley to the south of the Galilee.

The Galilee lake – fed by the upper reaches of the Jordan – once produced Israel’s main supply. But today it has sunk so low that 120 cubic metres of desalinated water is pumped back into it each year in the hope of stabilising the aquifer and preventing further earth tremors which have plagued the city of Tiberias.

Meanwhile, beyond the boundaries of Israeli cities and settlements, most Palestinians continue to live in water poverty, denied the basic human right of access to sufficient water.

The illegal weaponizing of stolen water

In Area C we meet Bedouin refugees from the military occupation of the Negev who put down roots in the 1950s in what was then Jordanian territory but who today are forbidden by the Israeli army from boring wells to reach the depleted aquifer. Israeli settlers are, however, allowed to bore down as far as required to produce a surplus of life-giving water for their crops. As a result, Palestinian-farmed produce is meagre and brings in little revenue. This Is the reality of Making The Desert Bloom: the illegal weaponising of stolen water by an occupying power. Adding insult to injury, Israeli soldiers riddle ‘illegally’ erected water tanks with bullets, rendering them useless.

The deadening nature of agricultural land grabs is illustrated by the story of Al-Auja, a town just north of Jericho, which owed its existence to a spring that could produce 1,800 cubic metres an hour. The farming business was booming until, after the Six Day War in 1967, Israeli settlers moved in under military protection, dug deeper wells for their farms and ruined the livelihood of the original inhabitants. The thriving market town of 20,000 people has shrunk to 5,000 today.

Typically, Palestinian farmers were forced off their land in the late 1960s when it was strewn with mines and declared a military area. A few years later the land would be given to Israeli settlers then de-mined to allow them to farm it. Legal attempts to seek redress from Israeli courts lead nowhere since courts consider the occupied territories to be under military jurisdiction.

Nowadays, Palestinian men and boys are, for lack of sustainable access to water, forced to seek labouring jobs on settler farms where they are paid an absolute minimum. Many, of course, leave for the cities.

A short trip to the Golan Heights, seized by Israel from Syria in 1967, reveals a territory – important in capturing rainfall – that has been completely subsumed into the Jewish state in just 50 years. Whereas over 80,000 Syrians fled or were driven out at the end of the war, the territory remains in effect a war zone. The planned influx of Israeli settlers has, at just over 20,000 souls, disappointed expectations. But everywhere, one comes across little brown signposts pointing out where Biblical events are said to have taken place. Many parts of the Golan have been turned into well-manicured ‘nature parks’ and the Golan is an important tourist destination.

Leaving the Golan to the west, Fergusson enters The Hula valley. In their zeal to transform the land in the 1950s, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) replaced the Hula wetlands with farmland, driving out the Palestinian Bedouin and devastating an important ancient ecosystem. After much protest from conservationists, a small area has recently been renatured; unfortunately, today this threatens to be overrun by tourists. The Bedouin were not allowed to return home.

Back to the heartland of the West Bank. Here Fergusson inspects the ugly separation wall, covered with graffiti of the resistance. On the Israeli side, however, it has been landscaped, planted with bushes and painted in pastel shades so as to blend into the background. He learns from a Palestinian hydrogeologist that the position of the illegal separation barrier and its broad ‘seam zone’ was determined so as to bring the western slopes of the West Bank aquifer under direct Israeli control. The Jewish state has been pumping its water ever since.

In the second half of his book, devoted mainly to Israel, Fergusson’s hydrological learning comes to the fore. Daniel from Tel Aviv provides invaluable introductions to facilitate visits to agricultural mega-kibbutzim, desalination plants and a solar mirror power tower in the Negev. Daniel, also a professional guide, was introduced by Bassem. Both guides are friends ‘across the divide’ and offer a refreshing antidote to the occupiers’ bigotry and the resentment of the downtrodden that he meets almost everywhere else.

He wonders at the skill of the ancient engineers of Jerusalem who, under threat of a siege by an Assyrian army, built a secret tunnel, 540 metres long and 150 metres underground from the Gihon spring outside the walls of Jerusalem to the Pool of Siloam inside the city. Teams of excavators worked from either end and met exactly where their engineers’ calculations predicted. Quite a feat in 701 BCE. Meanwhile, the invading army could find no water to refresh them and the siege was lifted.

He visits the cistern beneath the Dome of the Rock, sacred to the three Abrahamic religions. There, the ‘Foundation Stone’, according to the Talmud, marks the centre of the world. It is said to lie atop the flood beneath the world which is apparently still raging. Fergusson points out that:

This surreal sentiment predates Judaism by millennia: it has its roots in the traditions and beliefs of ancient Sumer.

Throughout Jerusalem, and throughout Israel, Fergusson notes a not-so-subtle attempt by Israeli authorities to draw a direct line between events that happened over two and a half millennia ago and the modern state of Israel built on land inhabited and farmed for centuries by Palestinians.

Indeed, the reader begins to feel that Israel’s attempt to justify colonial settlement and expansion using often mythical religious claims rings somewhat hollow when set against the very real suffering caused now by the occupation. The deliberate concealing of Palestinian villages beneath the inappropriate, thirsty pine forests of the Jewish National Fund suggests a national narrative that is not quite kosher.

Before Israel, the Bedouin conserved water

The discovery of Palestinian terraces in 2021 on the Jerusalem hills following a forest fire, came too late for this book. The fires exposed the carefully laid, historic terraces – witness to the water preserving practices of pre-Nakba Palestinians. Pin fact, Palestine achieved a thriving agricultural economy in the 16th century, with a GDP greater than many European countries at the time. But Fergusson does point out how the oranges of Palestine were exported and enjoyed internationally for decades before colonisers moved to take over the business.

Especially in the Negev desert, the author sees the result of the driving out of the native Palestinian Bedouin from traditional lands which they had inhabited for centuries. Before the Israelis came, the grasslands and deserts of the Negev were farmed and managed efficiently by Bedouin who conserved water and raised crops during the rainy season.

The Israeli military needed the land for manoeuvres, it was said. No one was allowed to rebuild villages that the soldiers destroyed. Fergusson visited the village of Al Araqib, which has been bulldozed then clandestinely rebuilt by determined Bedouin over 200 times. The JNF has planted extensive, mostly pine forests in the northern Negev along with well-appointed dormitory suburbs serving the swelling capital of the Negev, Beersheba. Ever more exclusively Jewish communities were established. The rebellious Bedouin just do not fit into the Israeli planners’ Weltanschauung.

Daniel proved to be a well-connected guide. Stressing the hydro above the geology, Fergusson gained access to Sorek, one of eight high-tech desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast established in the past 25 years. It is not widely known that today Israel manufactures over 80 per cent of its water by removing salt through a variety of techniques, originally via vapourisation but nowadays predominantly using reverse osmosis (removing the salt through membranes). A real success story. Unfortunately, only a tiny amount is allowed into the occupied territories.

The desalination process demands a great deal of power, mostly fossil-fuelled. Astoundingly, in sun bathed, tech-savvy Israel, just 2.5 per cent of energy derives from renewable sources. Another problem with desalination on this massive scale is disposal of the tonnes of brine produced in the process. At present, it is simply piped back to sea, with largely unknown ecological consequences. HI-tech meets gung-ho, it seems.

Nevertheless, deep in the Negev, we are shown an impressive movable array of mirrors focused on a boiler atop a 260-metre tower. The heat then turns water into steam which powers turbines. Perhaps this is how Israel can change its reliance on fossil fuels. But the technology is still in the experimental stage.

The tour ends in the lush kibbuzim at the edge of Gaza. Most of the produce is grown using drip irrigation – refined and much improved from the original hose with pinholes invented by Simcha Blass, father of Israeli desert agriculture in the 1930s. He later discovered water under the desert and his company, Netafim is worth over $2 bn today.

As a consequence of the National Water Carrier network, parts of the Negev desert could be transformed into fertile land and the burgeoning cities could enjoy an abundant supply of fresh water and agricultural produce. Nevertheless, before the Israelis came, the grasslands and deserts of the Negev were farmed and managed efficiently by Bedouin who conserved water-raised crops during the rainy season and supported themselves in harmony with nature.

Fergusson praises the achievements of Israeli technology as remarkable. But ignoring one’s neighbours and erecting complex and deadly barriers can lead to unexpected problems. The lack of a reliable power supply and Israeli restrictions on the import of pipes led, in 2017, to much of Gaza’s effluent flowing directly into the sea and seeping over into Israel where a large, fetid lake developed. A public health emergency threatened Israeli Sderot and fears were expressed that the contamination might reach the intake pipes of a desalination plant. The state eventually constructed a pipeline to take some sewerage to a processing facility in Israel after the mosquitoes and the smell became unbearable. Since then, thanks to international help and a more reliable supply of electricity, the situation has improved somewhat.

When Fergusson suggested to a water engineer at Sorek that the Gazans were unable to repair their networks without Israeli permission, the engineer told him: ‘I deal in facts, not fairy tales!’ and claimed that Gazans had dug 7000 ‘illegal’ wells and ‘exhausted the aquifer’ (a wild exaggeration). ‘The same would happen to the West Bank if Israel allowed it,’ he added. This willful ignorance of the real causes of the water crises in Gaza and in the West Bank – namely the purloining of Palestinian water from Palestinian aquifers for Israeli use and the denial or delay of the import of appropriate technologies to improve matters – demonstrates the difficult road that lies ahead for Palestinians. As Fergusson says,

The headline problems in Gaza [are] thirst and overcrowding, for which Israel is ultimately responsible, both as […] perpetrators of the Nakba and as enforcers of the present blockade.

In Search of the River Jordan is, despite the problems the writer encounters, a first-rate introduction to the geography and the people of Palestine and Israel.  Eminently readable, and fast paced, it would make the perfect gift for a friend or relative who is interested in Palestine and Israel but not so keen on an overtly ‘political’ book. James Fergusson’s focus on water reflects the crucial role that this element plays in Israeli control of Palestinian lives and the role it must play in any eventual political settlement that finally removes the current ongoing injustice in the land.

Ian Portman spent many years in the Middle East, mostly in Cairo, where he taught for the British Council, wrote for The Egyptian Gazette, broadcast for Radio Cairo, then founded a publishing company. Since moving to Germany in 1998 he has worked as a front-end web developer. In his spare time Ian supports the extensive Palestine solidarity movement in Germany.

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