Lebanon News

Water war reignites between Israel and Lebanon over Hasbani - analysis

UNIFIL peacekeepers carry out work north of the village of Ghajar. (The Daily Star/File)

BEIRUT: Israel is voicing renewed concern about the potential diversion of water from the Hasbani River in south Lebanon, echoing similar concerns a decade ago that led to an unnecessary escalation of tensions between the two countries. According to a report in The Jerusalem Post Monday, Israeli officials are worried at the expanding size of a tourist resort built on the western bank of the Hasbani, 1.6 kilometers upstream from where the river flows into Israel. The Hasbani is one of three tributaries of the River Jordan which runs into the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest reserve of fresh water.

The Blue Line follows the center of the Hasbani River for a distance of 3.5 kilometers before veering to the northeast bisecting the Israeli-occupied village of Ghajar.

The tourist resort is owned by Khalil Abdullah, a resident of Khiam who lived for 40 years in the Ivory Coast before returning to Lebanon a few years ago. He began building his resort in early 2010, lending it an African theme with thatched roofs and adobe-walled huts.

He had plans to build a hotel and conference center which he hoped could one day host regional peace talks given its fitting location on the trilateral border between Lebanon, Israel and Syria. Even at that early stage in the project’s development, the Israelis on the eastern bank were keeping an eye on the construction activities, routinely snapping photographs, and, according to Abdullah, even infiltrating across the river one night to sabotage his excavator.

“It has our attention and we are keeping a close eye on what is happening there,” an anonymous Israeli officer told the Jerusalem Post. “Our concerns range from the diversion of water to the possibility that the tourism center will be used as a cover to launch attacks against Israel.”

Another officer warned that it could become a “strategic problem.”

For observers of developments in south Lebanon, this all sounds familiar.

Between 2001-2002, Israeli threats and warnings over minor Lebanese water diversion schemes on the Hasbani created a needless series of crises.

In March 2001, the Council of the South began building a small pumping station beside the Wazzani springs on the Hasbani River to provide drinking water for a couple of local villages. In the dry summer months, the Wazzani springs – which lie opposite Ghajar – are the only source of water for the Hasbani River. Israel immediately warned that the pumping operation could spark a war. But UNIFIL stepped in to remind Israel that it had been informed of the project a month earlier and that the pipe in question was only 10 centimeters in diameter.

Lebanon is entitled under international law to draw some of the waters of the Hasbani River for its own uses. In the 1950s, the so-called Johnson Plan – an arrangement to share the waters of the Jordan River (including the Hasbani) between Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan – granted the Lebanese an annual allowance of 35 million cubic meters.

A few months later, Hussein Abdullah, a local landowner, roiled the waters when he installed a 15 centimeter-diameter pipe to irrigate some farmland. The Israelis cried foul again.

In the summer of 2002, the Council of the South expanded its pumping operation to provide drinking water for some 12 villages in the south. Ariel Sharon, the then Israeli prime minister, declared the scheme a “casus belli,” or case for war, and threatened to bomb the pumping station. Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, cautioned that Israel would fall into an “unrelenting death mill” if it proceeded with plans to attack the Wazzani pump.

Yet, even this enlarged project, which utilized a pipe with a diameter of 40 centimeters, would only draw around 3.5 mcm a year, a mere 10 percent of Lebanon’s total allocation under the Johnson Plan.

Ultimately, Israel had no choice but to accept Lebanon’s right to pump some of the water. Israel’s bluster turned what should have been a minor infrastructure project into a national celebration when it was formally inaugurated in September 2002, with then President Emile Lahoud opening the spigot amid clouds of balloons released into the air and cheering crowds.

Neither Hezbollah nor Israel has much appetite for renewed confrontations for now and it is unlikely that there will be an escalation in tensions similar to a decade ago. But Israel’s concerns do have some precedence.

In 1965, work began on an Arab League plan to divert the Hasbani away from Israel in response to Israel channeling water from the Sea of Galilee to irrigate the Negev Desert. Israel bombed the diversion works, igniting cross-border clashes with Syria indirectly leading to the June 1967 war.

The real purpose of Israel’s overstated threats is likely intended to convey the message that if the Israelis are getting this upset over minor water pumping schemes or harmless tourism projects, then imagine its reaction to a genuine water diversion scheme along the Hasbani.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 10, 2012, on page 3.

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