Israel's water needs may erode path to peace in region
Israel today, just as in the early 1960s, is running short of water.Skip to next paragraph
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And for this reason, the water in the wells of the Israeli-occupied West Bank is fast becoming the most ominous obstacle to any peaceful settlement in the region.
The Israeli press is replete with references to the need to retain the West Bank in order to protect Jewish water supplies from encroaching Arab wells. This problem is real - and transcends the West Bank itself.
Two aquifers provide almost all of the groundwater for Northern and Central Israel, both arising in the West Bank. The shallower sandstone aquifer is recharged partly from runoff and percolation of rainwater falling on the former Jordanian lands. The deeper and more copious limestone aquifer is recharged largely or, possibly, entirely by rainwater from the West Bank.
Both aquifers drain westward toward the Mediterranean, where they are tapped by an elaborate and expensive system of wells between Haifa and Tel Aviv.
These two aquifers provide about one-fifth of Israel's total water consumption but, moreover, the smooth functioning of that system of Israeli wells and water from Jordan is the linchpin in the entire Israeli water balance. The wells are pumped in the summer but recharged during the winter with water extracted from the Jordan River, a hydrological balance which could be dangerously upset if either source of Jordanian waters were interrupted.
It is therefore critically important for the Israelis to forestall any substantive Arab development of the West Bank, so that these percolating rainwaters continue to flow across into pre-1967 Israel, where they are not only consumed but also serve to stabilize pressure and prevent Mediterranean salt water from intruding into Israel's coastal water wells. This occurred before the 1967 war and before Israel's diversion of the upper Jordan River had been completed. The chains of new settlements, maintained at considerable subsidy cost, are indispensable in preserving these aquifers for Israeli use.
Control of the West Bank thus ensures control of the underground aquifers arising on the West Bank. But access to water is still more broadly part of Israel's territorial interests. More generally the annexation of the Golan Heights, together with the steady accretions of Syrian and Lebanese borderlands to the north, fits integrally into Israel's longer-term water policies.
Control of Golan is the necessary predicate for the final move into Lebanon to acquire the Litani River. Conversely, any return of the Golan area not merely compromises that longer-term objective but also threatens Israel's successful preemption of the entire flow of fresh water from the upper Jordan River basin.
Currently another 25 percent of Israel's water is extracted from the Sea of Galilee, most of which is pumped 370 meters over the mountains out of the Jordan watershed for consumption in central and southern Israel. The National Water Carrier, initiated in 1953 and completed in 1964, is an elaborate engineering triumph; a system of pumping stations, nine-foot reinforced steel conduits, canals, and siphons, all deeply entrenched against attack.
Since the late 1960s it has brought all of the irrigation-quality water from the area north of Galilee to the coastal areas, except for small amounts pumped to the Israeli settlements on the Golan Heights. Only salt water is discharged into the Jordan bed downstream.
Control of Golan is necessary to protect the intake system and the pumping works, embedded in rock cliffs three kilometers south of the ancient city of Capernaum (now Kafer Nahum), well within artillery range of the Golan ridges overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Control also serves to block any Syrian or multilateral Arab effort to recapture the upper Jordan waters by a diversionary canal intercepting Israel's own diversion.
The threat of an Arab counterdiversion, especially of the headwaters arising in the Hasbani River, is quite real. In the early 1960s, as the Israelis' own scheme was close to fruition, Syria spearheaded an Arab project to cut the Hasbani upstream of the Israeli pumping system and divert that water across southwestern Syria into the Yarmuk River.
Israeli military strikes quashed that project and their final seizure of the entire area in 1967 interposed their tanks and fortifications across the proposed route for the Arab canals and pipelines, effectively completing Israel's encirclement of the headwaters of the upper Jordan River.
Control of Golan also ensures that the Yarmuk River cannot be fully developed. In 1967 the Israelis destroyed the site of the Khaled Dam at Mukhaiba in Jordan and later blew up the East Ghor Canal, the sole irrigation artery to the east bank of the Jordan Valley.