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Monday, August 14, 2006

Water Conflict in the Middle East

The following paper was presented two years ago, in the WILPF Congress is Sweden. Two years before the attack on Lebanon which involved massive depopulation, flattening of whole villages, reminiscent of the ethnic cleansing after 1948.

Could it be that the Israelis want to live in the desert but consume water as if they were in France, the US, or the UK?


Water Conflict in the Middle East

The Lebanese-Israeli case


Roula Zoubiane

IEC member, WILPF Lebanon

Oil has always been thought of as the traditional cause of conflict in the Middle East past and present. No longer. Now, most borders have been set, oil fields mapped and reserves accurately estimated–unlike the water resources, which are still often unknown.

Water is taking over from oil as the likeliest cause of conflict throughout the Middle East, where the natural facts of water supply and the socio political facts of water control, consumption and demand interplay to form a complex hydro-political web. The allocations of the region’s three major river basins–the Nile, the Euphrates, the Tigris and the Jordan–are nascent sources of tension, and potential sources of conflict. However, of all of the Middle East’s river basins, it is the Jordan River that hosts the most fraught and inflammable dispute, and so for the two following reasons:

The most serious water conflicts in the region have centered on control of the tributaries and groundwater reservoirs of the Jordan-Yarmouk river basin. Its water resources are still an integral part both of the ongoing conflict and of the currently paralyzed peace process, shaping the foreign policy of its riparian Middle Eastern countries: Syria, Historical Palestine (nowadays Palestine and Israel), Jordan and Lebanon, in their mutual relationship, which is known as water diplomacy. This new concept means that water is seen as an important factor in determining a country’s foreign policy, one which has caused war and featured peace, but which is unlikely to cause a new war.

One should not forget that the struggle for the possession of land and water has been the two-pronged basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The conflict began in this basis (Jordan–Yarmouk River basin) as a result of early Zionism with its aim of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine and this conflict has been the center of interstate conflict since the establishment of Israel in 1948, a process which was motivated by two purposes:

The first one was related to ideology: In fact, as soon as the Zionist movement started settling the Jews in Palestine, it took an intense interest in water. Its aspiration to "make the desert bloom" reflected the ideological view that water was the "lifeblood of the system," a prerequisite for a new society" and "a nation rooted in its lands". Thus water carries an ideological weight for Israelis.

The second purpose was related to both security and economy. In fact, water has also been related to the crucial matter of settlements which are seen as essential for security purpose: They are a first step in consolidating territory and in providing frontier resistance and time in case of attack.

Thus water has been strongly related to the national interest through agriculture, security and ideology that the former Prime Minister Moshe Sharrett declared: "Water to us is life itself."

A glance at the history of Israel’s water policy reveals how its tactical emphasis has shifted while its dominant strategy has never changed. Israel’s water policy has passed through four stages: The first is distinguished by bargaining for water. The second stage can be characterized as the development of national and shared water resources. The third stage is marked by Israeli occupation of the region head waters. The fourth stage is a return to bargaining tactics. During these four stages, Israel has maintained a single master policy:

- to increase its water resources.

- to overcome environmental constraints in making the desert bloom.

- to make the Jewish homeland meet the needs of an ever-increasing population which seeks improved economic and social conditions.

As far as Lebanon is concerned, there are in the southern part of this country, three rivers around which one of the multiple aspects of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict has always revolved. The Litani is a small river and flows entirely inside Lebanon; therefore it is a "Lebanese river", but the Israelis wanted always to use its water even before the establishment of the state of Israel.

The Zionist movement, which recognized the importance of water in the area from the very beginning, included the river in the borders of the "to be established" state of Israel at that time. These borders included also all the main water resources in the area: the complete Jordan River system (including Yarmuk, Dan, Banias, Hasbani rivers, lake Tiberias, Dead Sea, etc.), Golan Heights, all water resources in Palestine, etc. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1978 was called "Litani Operation".

During Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israeli troops, as verified by Norwegian UN observers and aknowledged in 1983 by Israeli Science Minister Yuval Ne’eman in a candid TV interview, did tests to determine the suitability of a pipe to channel Litani water into the Israeli water system. Ne’eman said Israel abandoned the idea because of political risks and the "low yield of water". Small amounts of Litani water may have been pumped into tank trucks and delivered to Israeli or SLA installations.

From the time it occupied southern Lebanon and the Western Bekaa, Israel set out to destroy installations and displace the population while preventing those remaining from availing themselves of the waters of the Warzani and Hasbani rivers. Since 1978, Israel has been intent on gaining possession of all the waters of the two rivers, or approximately 16million cubic meters yearly.


Extremely shortened version of the paper given by Roula Zoubiane on behalf of WILPF Lebanon at the Kungälv Congress in 2004.

From: International Peace Update, vol. 71, No. 2, Summer 2006, pp. 8-9.

International Peace Update is edited and published by Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 1, rue de Varembé, Case Postale 28, 1211 Geneva 20, Switzerland.

Email: info@wilpf.ch



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