A Lebanese-Israeli water conflict threatens to boil over

A Lebanese facility that opened last week can supply water to 60 villages.

A tranquil stretch of shallow water some 20 yards across strewn with black basalt boulders and shaded by oleander and eucalyptus trees, the Wazzani springs seems an unlikely focus for a possible war between Lebanon and Israel.

Yet a Lebanese plan to draw water from the springs has provoked Israel to threaten to destroy the pumping station, which was officially activated last week. And as the United States gears up for a possible war against Iraq, the water crisis between Lebanon and Israel has raised the possibility of a final showdown in the coming months between the Israeli army and its bitter foe, the Lebanese Hizbullah organization.

Given its scarcity in the Middle East, water has a powerful strategic value. The Wazzani springs feed directly into the Hasbani river, a tributary of the River Jordan. The Hasbani crosses the border into Israel two miles downstream from the springs and runs into the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest source of fresh water. Lebanon intends to pump some 350,000 cubic feet per day from the springs to eventually supply up to 60 impoverished villages along the border with drinking water.

If the pumps operate 24 hours a day, they will still take less than 10 percent of the Hasbani's total annual flow, a clearly acceptable amount under international law, the Lebanese argue.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has described the project as a causus bellum, adding Israel cannot allow the project to proceed.

Diplomats in Beirut and UN officials believe that the threats do not signal a serious intention to destroy the waterworks. "They want to dissuade the Lebanese from launching a more ambitious project for the Hasbani, such as building a dam or diverting the river," says a European diplomat. Israel's intimidation seems to be working. Kamal Awaida, an engineer with the state-run Litani River Authority, says that Lebanon's agricultural needs require a dam being built along the Hasbani to capture the plentiful winter waters for irrigation during summer.

"But the Israelis won't let us," he says. "Look at all the fuss they are making over a tiny little pump. What do you think they would do if we built a dam?"

South Lebanon is still recovering from the devastation caused by Israel's 22-year occupation, which ended in May 2000. Go for a drive along the Lebanese-Israeli border, and the physical contrast between the two countries is clearly apparent. On the Israeli side, dense apple orchards extend right up to the border fence. Pine forests carpet the hills and the numerous fishponds in northern Galilee shimmer like sheets of beaten silver in the brilliant sunshine.

The Lebanese side, however, is marked by a barren landscape of rocky hills, sun-bleached grass and dusty olive groves. The international community has encouraged the cash-strapped Lebanese government to pay greater attention to the economic needs of southern Lebanon, hoping that increased prosperity in the area will weaken Hizbullah, which effectively controls the border district.

"The delivery of drinking water through a pipeline network to southern Lebanese villages is just the sort of thing Israel ought to applaud for purely strategic reasons," says a Washington-based analyst closely involved in a US bid to mediate the water dispute. But Lebanon should have provided prior information on its plans to draw water from the Wazzani springs, the analyst adds. "In the absence of accurate notification, Israel will always, without fail, assume the worst and act accordingly, especially now that most Israelis simply assume that Lebanon's no more and no less than Hizbullah," he says. In fact, Hizbullah became involved in the dispute only after Israel threatened to attack the new pumping station.

On the eve of a ceremony last week to inaugurate the station, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary-general, warned that his fighters would respond "within minutes" if Israel attacked the water project.

And there are growing signals that the group's readiness could soon be tested. Analysts maintain that despite the general calm, Israel cannot live indefinitely with the presence of a well-armed and motivated guerrilla force poised along its northern border. Dore Gold, an adviser to Mr. Sharon, has likened Hizbullah's alleged deployment of thousands of Iranian-supplied rockets along the border as Israel's own "Cuban missile crisis."

A report published by Tel Aviv university last week said that Israel may have to "act forcefully" against Hizbullah to re-establish the deterrent it lost by withdrawing unilaterally from southern Lebanon.

Last month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage described Hizbullah as "the A-team of terrorism," ranking it above the Al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden. That and similar statements by leading administration officials have heightened speculation that Washington may greenlight an Israeli military operation to try and neutralize Hizbullah once and for all, possibly in coordination with an invasion of Iraq.

"It would be convenient for us to do the job while the Americans are at work in Iraq," says an Israeli army officer.

"We can't continue to live here if we back down from every challenge that the Hizbullah throws at us," he adds. "It's true that we will suffer heavy casualties from [Hizbullah's] rocket attacks, hundreds if not thousands of civilians may die. But Hizbullah has to take into account that it will cease to exist after they get off a few rounds and nobody will rush to protect them."

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