BLIDA, Lebanon: The lack of winter rainfall and the onset of the dry summer months is raising concerns that Lebanon and Israel could face renewed disputes over the allocation of scarce water resources along Lebanon’s southern border.
Already arguments have surfaced over the status of a well near Blida and the ongoing expansion of a tourist project on the bank of the Hasbani River.
Both issues were raised Wednesday at the monthly tripartite meeting grouping Lebanese and Israeli army officers under the auspices of UNIFIL’s commander.
The disputes are small in the greater scheme of things and should be resolvable with some goodwill and common sense. However, past history of water altercations between Lebanon and Israel demonstrates that goodwill is a rare commodity, threatening a potential rise of tensions as the long summer progresses.
The waters of the 6-meter-deep Nabi Sheaib well in Blida have been exploited by residents and surrounding villages of Mhaibib, Mais al-Jabal and Aitaroun for more than a 100 years, according to Hussein Daher, Blida’s mukhtar. It was dormant during the years of Israeli occupation but put back into use in 2000. However, the process of physically marking the Blue Line on the ground that began in 2009 has confirmed that the well actually lies about a meter on the Israeli side of the U.N. boundary and is therefore technically off-limits to anyone inside Lebanon.
The Blue Line at this point adheres to the original 1921 Anglo-French border delineation and follows “the thalweg of Wadi Atabeh.” A thalweg is the lowest point of a valley or riverbed and is commonly used to delineate borders. A dirt track runs along the thalweg of Wadi Atabeh and the Nabi Sheaib well lies a meter or so on the eastern – Israeli – side of it.
“This well is part of our history, and we’ll never let it go,” Daher said.
A 20-member Israeli army patrol and two jeeps reportedly deployed near the well on Wednesday night. But any concerns that the Israelis might exploit the waters of the well are probably unfounded. Between the well and the Israeli military patrol track that runs along the border is a steep 70-meter hill laced with land mines, making it impractical to use the well. Israeli use of the well would also certainly destabilize what has been a calm border since 2006. Presently, the well is full of sand and rocks, which have to be cleared before the water can be reached.
The villagers say they will give UNIFIL a chance to mediate a solution with the Israelis. But if one is not forthcoming, they say they will take action.
“A large crowd will go there and let the Israelis shoot us if they want,” Daher said.
The other current water quarrel is along the Hasbani River, the source of several disputes between Lebanon and Israel between 2001-02. This time, the argument revolves around the Qaryat Hosn al-Wazzani tourist site with restaurants, chalets and swimming pools nestled in a narrow gorge amid oleander trees and rhododendron bushes.
The owners of the site want to clear the adjacent river of rocks washed down during winter to improve the flow. The Israelis have rejected the plan, as it would involve heavy machinery breaching the Blue Line in order to access the entire width of the river. There is an additional concern that a newly built restaurant that juts into the river may have inadvertently breached the Blue Line.
The Abdullah family that owns Qaryat Hosn el-Wazzani insist that they are simply running a business and are harming no one with their tourist venture. But Israeli troops often descend into the gorge and stand on the east bank of the river (which is in Israeli-occupied Syria), just a few feet from diners.
“They try to intimidate us. They curse us and are just looking for trouble,” said Zahra Abdullah, a partner in the business.
Israel’s concern over the Hasbani River runs deeper than potential breaches of the Blue Line. The Qaryat Hosn al-Wazzani facility lies 1 kilometer upstream from the border with Israel. The Hasbani is one of three tributaries of the Jordan River, and its annual flow amounts to about 15 percent of Israel’s fresh water supply.
In 2001 and 2002, a series of small pumping projects to irrigate local fields and supply drinking water to villages in the area led to a flurry of bellicose threats from Israel and wildly exaggerated claims that Lebanon was seeking to divert the Hasbani’s waters away from Israel. The episodes calmed down when it was pointed out to the Israelis that the amount of water to be extracted was negligible compared to the river’s annual flow.
The 1955 Johnston Agreement – which was unsigned, but the closest Israel and Lebanon have ever come to agreeing on sharing the Hasbani’s waters – allocated to Lebanon 35 million cubic meters per year to irrigate 3,520 hectares of farmland in the Hasbaya area. But Lebanon is not thought to be utilizing much more than 10 percent of that amount today.
Quibbles over breaches of the Blue Line tend to provoke bouts of posturing and brinkmanship from Lebanon and Israel, although UNIFIL is hoping to reach agreements over the Blida well and the Hasbani with minimum issue. Global Positioning Systems used to measure the Blue Line are not accurate to the nearest meter, which allows for potential compromise for the well.
In 2000, when the Blue Line was originally delineated, it was discovered that a tomb on Sheikh Abbad hill near Houla fell within the GPS margin of error. The Lebanese claimed the tomb belonged to Sheikh Abbad, a local hermit who achieved fame for the quality of the reed mats he and his followers sold beside the Sea of Galilee, and insisted it remain inside Lebanon. The Israelis said that the tomb belonged to Rabbi Ashi, the fifth century editor of the Babylonian Talmud, and were adamant it stay inside Israel.
The solution was provided by Brigadier General Jim Sreenan, the then-deputy commander of UNIFIL, who suggested that the Blue Line run down the length of the tomb, a compromise worthy of Solomon to which both Lebanon and Israel agreed.