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Water War Looms as Israel Tells Lebanon to Halt River Works

By Robert Fisk

Published on Thursday, September 26, 2002 in the lndependent/UK


It's not much of a river. It's low enough to walk across, warm from a stone bed that attracts the autumn heat, full of tadpoles and small fish, frothing merrily in a creek below the scruffy village of Ghajar. But take a closer look and you'll see an Israeli soldier standing above the creek, on the opposite side of a maze of barbed wire, watching this little river through his binoculars. For say the word Wazzani right now, and you're talking water war. Even Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State, has become involved.

There's no war yet, just a mass of piping that the Lebanese are laying along the Lebanese side of the Israeli frontier wire to carry the warm waters of the river to another bunch of dirt-poor Shia Muslim villages. The trouble is that the Wazzani flows right out of Lebanon and into Israel, where it feeds the fish-farm lakes of four Jewish kibbutzes.

Lebanon's action is "a violation of every agreement we have signed in the past", says Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Israel's Defense Minister. "Israel cannot tolerate the diversion of the waters of the Wazzani." Israel could solve the problem, said Dan Zazlavsky, the former head of Israel's water commission, with "a few tank shells".

Up in Beirut, Emile Lahoud, the Lebanese President, has responded in kind. The project will continue, he says, and the government has ordered the contractors to speed their work. Bashar Assad, the Syrian President, has phoned his support to President Lahoud. The Hizbollah militia – the group that drove the Israelis out of southern Lebanon – claims it will "cut off Israel's hands" if military force is used to close the pipelines. So no wonder the Israeli soldier watches me through his binoculars as I dip my hands in these tepid waters.

The Americans have turned up to inspect the pipeline system the Lebanese are installing and Mr Powell has discussed the project at the United Nations with Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, who warned of a dark plot by Syria to destroy the peace of southern Lebanon.

Israel says the river carries 10 per cent of its water, which, given its meager current, seems a gross exaggeration. What Jim Franckiewicz, the American water expert who turned up on the river here this month made of it, no one knows.

In a part of the world where water means politics and possible conflict, the Lebanese have oddly failed to present the UN peace-keeping force on the border with a project assessment. Word has it that under international law, the Lebanese may pump 35 million cubic meters of water a year, and that they intend to pump only 12 million. Other statistics suggest that the Lebanese already pump 7 million cubic meters further north and intend only to raise this figure to 9 million.

The Israelis ask why the Lebanese don't pump from the Litani river, a much larger watercourse, much of whose contents flows uselessly into the Mediterranean north of the frontier. The answer: the Litani is poisoned by the outflows of factories further inland.

The Wazzani itself is a weird little stream. It starts off as the Hasbani river and flows under an elegant Roman bridge below Mount Hermon and the occupied Golan Heights. Then it changes its name to the Wazzani and meanders below Ghajar, a village split between Lebanon and Israeli-occupied Syria, trickles across the frontier into Israel itself, fills up the Kibbutzim fish lakes and ends up in the Jordan river, on another international frontier and then feeds Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) which is Israel's prime source of drinking water.

Back in 1964, the Syrians tried to divert the waters of the Banias river and the Israelis attacked the pipeline. They could easily do the same again although (Lebanon enjoys its little complexities) they will have to avoid hitting two water pumps here, which have been pressuring water out of the Wazzani and into Ghajar, including the Israeli-occupied half of the town, since 1976.

Along the frontier beside the Lebanese village of Addaisey, unarmed Hizbollah fighters guard the pipeline construction workers. If the Israelis should open fire at the workers, they know the Hizbollah will fire Katyusha rockets back across the border in retaliation. Last week, some of the workers were being abused with obscenities by two Israeli soldiers in a Jeep, a not uncommon experience these days. When I visited another section of the frontier this month, an Israeli soldier in a concrete fortification – who had earlier been singing loudly as if drunk – shouted abuse to a colleague.

But now Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, has become involved in the whole affair, discussing with army officers the fate of the water project. One Israeli minister scoffed at the use of the army. "Are we going to go to war for four kibbutzes?" he asked. The answer, of course, is that wars have been started in the Middle East over smaller things that the Wazzani. Which is why the waters of this wandering little river could grow a lot hotter in the coming weeks.






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