Israel Report

September 2002         

A Thirst for Escalation

September 18, 2002
What a brilliant, but devious, act of provocation. At a time of heightened tensions in the area, with an American attack on Iraq possibly just weeks or months away, Lebanon has suddenly decided to resurrect one of the touchiest, and most dangerous, of Middle Eastern issues: water.

Violating a status quo that has been in place for decades, the Lebanese have begun work to divert an increased amount of water from the Hatzbani River in southern Lebanon. Though they already pump some 7 million cubic meters of water annually from the river, they now seek to boost that figure by an additional 2 million cu.m, or 28 percent more per year, claiming that a number of nearby villages require it for domestic consumption and agricultural use. Israel's Channel 2 television recently broadcast footage of huge, 16-inch pipes being laid, and bulldozers hard at work, all under the watchful eyes of Hizbullah gunmen guarding the scene.

Though its name might not be too familiar to Israelis, the Hatzbani River is an important part of their daily existence. For it is the Wazzani stream, a tributary of the Hatzbani, which flows southward into Israel, feeding directly into the Kinneret, source of nearly 30 percent of the country's drinking water. By tampering with the river's flow, the Lebanese are tinkering with Israel's water supply.

The government's reaction has been swift. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called it grounds for war, while Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that Lebanon "is dangerously provoking Israel," noting that the diversion of the river is a "in violation of agreements and international law."

Though the Lebanese profess innocence, claiming they are merely pumping additional water, the fact is they know better. In March 2001, a similar crisis erupted when the Lebanese installed a pump at the source of the Wazzani to provide water to a nearby village. Then, in August 2001, a Lebanese farmer installed a pump near the Israeli border to water his fields. In both instances, Israel made clear that a large-scale diversion of water from the river could provoke war.

And, in a region where water sources are growing increasingly scarce even as population growth continues to expand, it should hardly come as a surprise to the Lebanese that their action would cause further friction.

Indeed, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this is precisely what the Lebanese are after. Israeli intelligence has for months been warning of a Syrian-Lebanese plan to heat up the border with Israel, in the hopes of complicating, or even forestalling, the planned American assault on Baghdad. Recent Hizbullah assaults, including an attack on Mount Dov that killed one Israeli soldier and wounded two others, were seen as the prelude to a further escalation. Those incidents, however, quickly caught the attention of the United States, as Israel made clear that it would not hesitate to retaliate. By choosing to target Israel with water, rather than guns, the Lebanese now seem to think they will have an easier time winning sympathy for their position, should Israel be forced to move in and restore the status quo.

Though their provocation might be more sophisticated, it is no less perilous, and Israel needs to stand firm and insist that the water diversion project be halted immediately. The threats have been issued, and the gravity of the situation made clear. But should the Lebanese fail to heed these warnings, then the government must be prepared to act, with military force, to halt the diversion of this crucial source of water.

On Monday, a delegation of American water experts visited the Hatzbani in what the US Embassy in Beirut described as a step undertaken with the agreement of both Israel and Lebanon. But the Lebanese government quickly denied this, stating that the visit had been "technical" and "unofficial," suggesting perhaps that the Lebanese are thirsting not for water, but for war.

As Peres put it, "Israel is interested in a solution, and not escalation." But if escalation is the only choice left to Israel, then the Lebanese are the ones who will bear the consequences of their actions. No country can be expected to stand by idly as a major source of its drinking water is pilfered in contravention of international law, and neither should Israel.

Last Friday, Hizbullah secretary-general Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah hailed the water diversion as a "new victory" for Lebanon, saying that Israel is "afraid of a second front." It is time to disabuse Nasrallah, and his Lebanese protectors, of that notion once for and all. For, when it comes to safeguarding the water we drink, there can be no compromises.

©2002 - Jerusalem Post

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