In this excerpt from Tragedy in South Lebanon: The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006 I discuss the issue of water wars. This is a subject rarely discussed but it is a vital one particularly in a region of water scarcity.
It was in 1937, in an address to the Zionist World Worker’s Party in Zürich, that David Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, first unveiled his intention to destabilize and dismember Lebanon in order to install a puppet regime pliable to Israeli demands and take its water.
“Lebanon is a natural ally of the Jews of the Land of Israel,” said Ben-Gurion. “The proximity of Lebanon will furnish a loyal ally for the Jewish State as soon as it is created and will give us the possibility to expand to the Litani River, with the agreement and benediction of our neighbors who need us.”
Ben-Gurion, as it turns out, was not the first to formulate a strategy for Lebanon and its water. On November 5, 1918, a committee of British mandate officials and Zionist leaders put forth a suggested northern boundary for a Jewish Palestine “from the North Litani River in Lebanon up to the Banias River in Syria.”
David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann urged then Maronite Christian Patriarch Hayek to abandon South Lebanon in return for a promise of technical and financial assistance to develop the north an area Israel hoped would become a Christian state. The Maronites chose, instead, peace with the Muslims, establishing the 1943 National Pact which succeeded in preserving Christian dominance over the country for many decades.
Determined to succeed one way or another, Israeli forces managed to reach the Litani River in 1949 and occupy part of the district of Marjeyoun and Bint Jbeil. International pressure, however, forced Israel to withdraw. In 1954, Israel tried again to renew its claim on the Litani. President Eisenhower attempted to diffuse the crisis by proposing a formula of sharing the Litani among Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Israel rejected the proposal and threatened to use force against Lebanon to prevent its utilization of the Litani to develop South Lebanon.
Historically, any analysis of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has focused on religious differences. This is a shallow veneer covering a deeper conflict for this basic resource. When war broke out in 1967, the water issue was among major Israeli concerns when it launched its preemptive attack. With purposeful planning, Israeli tanks and troops stationed across the proposed route effectively completed Israel’s encirclement of the headwaters of the Upper Jordan, which included the West Bank. Its seizure of Syria’s Golan Heights assured Israeli control of the Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) water pumping facilities while the take-over of Gaza gave Israel additional water supplies.
Israel’s ecology varies from semi-arid to complete desert so it has intense water needs. These are fulfilled primarily by three sources. The Seat of Galilee provides over a third of Israel’s water, or did until recently. Another third comes from two aquifers—large, geographical areas of subterranean catchments where water accumulates. These were beneath the West Bank and Gaza, precisely the territories Israel seized in the 1967 war. In 2005 then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered Israeli settlers out of Gaza to resettle them in the West Bank because Gaza had by then, because of over-use, ceased to provide an adequate water supply. The level of salt and other pollutants had reduced the quality in numerous sites to below what was permissible for drinking water. Gaza today has no potable water.
While the 1967 war helped Israel secure eighty-eighty-five percent of the West Bank’s water, its Separation Wall ensured yet another means of claiming even more water. A 2006 article in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz estimated that the bizarre loops and zigzags of the Separation Wall, adhering to no previous delineation, and not even remotely resembling the pre-’67 border, placed ninety-five percent of the aquifers on the Israeli side. Currently, Israelis in the West Bank receive approximately 92.5 gallons of water per person per day while Palestinians get 18.5 gallons per person per day. Palestinians are also forbidden to drill wells for their additional water needs.
It is no wonder that Israeli considered the permanent occupation of South Lebanon and continued access to the Litani River as the answer to its water problems. The 170-kilometer-long Litani River is located entirely within the borders of Lebanon. The river’s proximity to Israel, a distance of some four kilometers, makes it even more tempting for Israeli to exploit. Israel’s twenty-two year occupation of South Lebanon which was another attempt to control the Litani ended in 2000 when Hezbollah threw their occupation forces out of the country. The 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war was another attempt to capture the Litani River.
A simple solution to the water crisis has existed since at least 1949 when then-Syrian President Hosni Zaim proposed a peace treaty with Israel in which he offered to share the waters of the Sea of Galilee. Israel refused. In 2007 Syrian President Bachar Assad offered a revised version of the 1949 peace treaty. Again, Israel refused.
In the end, Israel should realize that nothing is gained through threats and military incursions. The only solution is equitable use of water and reasonable sharing of water rights.
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