Whose water is it anyways? Resentment pools on Israel-Lebanon border

A Lebanese village well, newly crucial amid water shortages, is on the wrong side of the boundary between Israel and Lebanon, as is an add-on to a riverfront resort.

Nicholas Blanford
A water well used for more than a century by Lebanese residents of Blida in south Lebanon now lies on the Israeli side of the 'Blue Line,' a United Nations boundary that corresponds to the Lebanon-Israel border.

The Israeli-Lebanese border has enjoyed a rare, eight-year spell of calm, but worsening water shortages threaten to spark tensions once again. 

A sealed well used for more than a century by residents of Blida, a small village in southern Lebanon, has found itself on the wrong side of the border as water shortages entice local farmers to tap it. A few miles east along the border, another territorial dispute looms at a Lebanese tourist site beside the Hasbani river, which flows into Israel.

The 24-foot deep well, known as Nabi Sheaib, skirts the course of the Blue Line, the United Nations term for a boundary created in 2000 which corresponds to Lebanon's southern border. Israeli troops were required by the UN to pull out of south Lebanon, to behind the blue line, to end its 1978-2000 occupation of south Lebanon.

Cartographers often struggle with such boundaries because Global Positioning Systems are not precise enough. In 2000, when the blue line was first delineated, the disputed tomb of a Jewish rabbi or an Arab sheikh (depending on the Israeli and Lebanese points of view) was found to lie within the GPS margin of error. Both Lebanon and Israel insisted the tomb remain on their respective sides. UNIFIL instead offered a compromise worthy of Solomon, drawing the line down the length of the tomb.

But such compromises depend on goodwill between neighbors, and that commodity seems to be in short supply between Israel and Lebanon. 

The blue line is only a stopgap until there is a formal frontier agreement between the neighbors. In 2009, the UNIFIL peacekeeping force in south Lebanon began physically marking the blue line on the ground in coordination with the Lebanese and Israeli armies. Blida's problem began when UNFIL realized that the Nabi Sheaib well actually lay about three feet on the Israeli side, and therefore was technically out of bounds to Lebanese citizens.

"That well is part of our history and we will never let it go," says Hussein Daher, the mayor of Blida.

The well is covered by a concrete roof and has four metal hatches providing access to the water below. Showing the well to the Monitor, Mr. Daher lifted one of the hatches open, breaching the blue line by a few feet. For now, it is useless – the bottom of the well is full of sand and rock, which need to be cleaned out to access the water below.

Riverside resort

A few miles to the northeast, near Wazzani village, the line follows the middle of the Hasbani river, which separates Lebanon from Israeli-occupied Syria. Little more than a shallow creek, the Hasbani is flanked by dense thickets of oleander and rhododendron bushes and winds through a narrow gorge. In 2010, Khalil Abdullah, a local businessman, and his sister, Zahra, began constructing a tourist complex of swimming pools, chalets, and restaurants on the river bank.

The Qaryat Hosn el Wazzani facility has steadily grown and is a popular spot for relaxing, eating, and swimming in the cool river [waters] during the blazing heat of summer. The Israelis have eyed the expanding tourist site with unease, and soldiers often stand on the river's edge, ending up just a few feet from Lebanese diners and swimmers.

"They try to intimidate us. They curse us and are just looking for trouble," says Zahra Khalil.

She says that the resort wants to clear rocks washed down river by the winter rains that are blocking part of the channel, but that doing so would require using heavy machinery and access to both sides of the river. So far, the Israelis have refused to allow the operation to proceed.

A bigger problem, perhaps, is that a newly built restaurant extending into the river may have actually crossed the blue line. UNIFIL cartographers are trying to assess the exact path, which may have changed because of construction work on the tourist site.

Given that the Israelis cannot use the Nabi Sheaib well because the only access from their side is a steep slope laced with landmines, and the Qaryat Hosn el Wazzani tourist site does not represent a security threat to Israel, it seems like it would be easy to strike a deal. 

But a history of distrust hangs over this minor dispute. In 2002, Israel threatened to go to war against Lebanon when a small pumping station was constructed on the bank of the Hasbani to provide drinking water to nearby villages. Israel is sensitive about the Hasbani because it flows into Israel a mile south of the tourist site and eventually feeds into the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest source of fresh water.

UNIFIL was hoping to quietly resolve the problems at Blida and Wazzani but that hope was dashed when the disputes were picked up by the Lebanese media.

"The Israeli enemy conveyed its decision to prevent the usage of the well via the UNIFIL troops who implemented it, leaving the residents in great agony due to the drought which overburdens them," reported Al Manar television, owned by the militant Shiite Hezbollah, on Tuesday. Mr Daher, Blida's mukhtar, says the village will take its case to UNIFIL. But if the well is not restored to the villagers, they will take action.

"We have made a decision to go and clean the well and get the water," he says. "A large crowd will go there and let the Israelis shoot us if they want." 

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