Iraq isn't the only war shaping up
in the Middle East

[Lebanon water war]

by Marc Sirois Columnist (Lebanon), October 14, 2002


A new crisis is brewing along the border between Israel and Lebanon, but this one is not about Lebanese guerrillas fighting the occupation of Lebanese land or even about Palestinian guerrillas crossing the frontier to fight the occupation of Palestinian land. It is about water.

The Council for the South, an official Lebanese body tasked with helping spread development to impoverished southern Lebanon, has installed a pump at the Wazzani Springs, which feed into the Hasbani River, itself a tributary of the Jordan, which empties into the Sea of Galilee (aka to Israelis as the Kinneret, and to Arabs as Lake Tiberias). In response, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has threatened military action to prevent what he and other officials in the Jewish state ludicrously describe as the theft of their water.

The facts of the case are clear. The water source in question is part of the Jordan system, which is an international one, so Israel has every right to ensure that its rights are not abrogated. But what Lebanon proposes to do is entirely within its own rights, as laid down by the 1955 Johnston Agreement. That pact was never ratified by the governments in question - those of Lebanon, Israel, Syria, and Jordan - but it was signed by technical teams from all four and actually granted the lion's share of the water to the Jewish state.

Lebanon was accorded an annual take of 35 million cubic meters (mcm). Seeing as how the Lebanese government had no access to the area between 1978 and 2000 owing to Israeli occupation, the amount of water its citizens were able to draw was strictly limited. Today it stands at just 7 mcm, and the new facility will increase that to just 10 mcm. An Israeli academic recently inflated the figure to 15 mcm, but even that would be well within the limits established by the Johnston deal.

The U.S. government has sent experts to examine the site, and their findings have led the State Department to counsel "restraint" by both sides. The problem, of course, is that for Lebanon, "restraint" means refraining from legitimate efforts to provide water to parched villages. For Israel, it means not bombing the property of a neighboring state as punishment for simply making use of its own resources.

As usual, an unfair status quo that benefits Israel is regarded as sacrosanct by Washington. Imagine what the State Department's message would have been if the experts had concluded that Lebanon was acting improperly.

I would let this particular manifestation of the usual double standard speak for itself, but Israeli temerity and American duplicity go even further in this instance than is usually the case. The Israelis, you see, do not simply wait for Wazzani water to find its way to them via the Hasbani and the Jordan: They actually still have a pump on Lebanon's side of the border, within spitting distance of the equipment installed by the Council for the South.

Some say that if and when the Lebanese facility starts running, its location will dry up the pool from which the Israeli pump draws water. That would certainly inconvenience Israel, but it is hardly, as Sharon and others have claimed, a casus belli. The Israeli installation is a relic of the occupation and has no business being there in the first place.

The last thing Washington wants is a flareup on Israel's northern border just as George W. Bush tries to gain at least a modicum of Arab acceptance for a war against Iraq. The past few months have taught that Bush lacks the brass to keep Sharon in line, so even a minor skirmish over Wazzani threatens to explode into a full-blown clash that might rival or even surpass the infamous bloodletting sparked by Israel's 1996 "Grapes of Wrath" offensive.

Hizbullah, the organization that dogged Israeli occupation forces until they finally left in 2000, has warned in no uncertain terms that if the Israelis knock out the Wazzani site, retaliation will ensue. For example, an Israeli juice plant sits within a few hundred yards of the border, well within the range of even Hizbullah's smaller weapons. It has been mentioned as a possible target if Israel destroys the new pump.

If experience were any guide, such a move would then prompt Israel to up the ante by launching air strikes against bridges, power stations, and possibly major water facilities in other parts of Lebanon.

Israeli warplanes can operate with impunity in Lebanon, whose air force consists of a few antiquated Iroquois helicopters (yes, the "Hueys" that were so ubiquitous in Vietnam). The government that sends them to wreak havoc on this tiny nation should not fool itself, however, into thinking that it can do so without paying some sort of price itself. Hizbullah has a crude but effective arsenal of Katyusha rockets which, when launched in mass salvos, can inflict significant damage.

What Sharon would do in response after a shower of fifty to two hundred of these projectiles is anybody's guess, but it is reasonable to assume that he would not be overly concerned about civilian casualties on this side of the border.

There might then be yet another Hizbullah riposte, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

All of this is to say that whatever "loss" Israel claims it would sustain by "allowing" Lebanon to exercise its legal rights, it can only be multiplied by taking military action. The Lebanese will undoubtedly suffer more, but that will not alter the fact that Israelis will be subjected to wholly unnecessary hardships brought about solely by their own government's refusal to behave in a civilized manner.

Critics of Beirut's position complain that its timing was calculated to box the Israelis in, i.e. to take advantage of U.S. pressure on the Jewish state to avoid hostilities during the run-up to Iraq. Frankly, that is entirely possible.

It is also, however, utterly irrelevant. When and how a particular nation-state chooses to avail itself more fully of its own under-utilized resources is a matter for its own government to decide. That process should not have to take place under ominous threat from an aggressive neighbor.


[Marc Sirois is a Canadian journalist who lives in Beirut, Lebanon, where he serves as managing editor of The Daily Star. The proud and fanatically protective father of three beautiful princesses, his opinionated writing style owes to the fact that he is never wrong along with his holding monopolies on wisdom, logic, morality, and justice. He is also exceedingly modest.] is an international news and opinion publication. encourages its material to be reproduced, reprinted, or broadcast provided that any such reproduction identifies the original source, Internet web links to are appreciated.

Middle East watch

Index of Website

Home Page