Water: The Real Reason Behind Israeli Occupations


There is a conspicuous silence in the craggy wadi above Jericho these days. During any normal winter, an insistent roar frames the quiet of that place, as water cascades from the mountains into Wadi Saqr and rushes past St. George’s Monastery, built as a hospice for Christians on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Today, those pilgrims would find little solace in the and alcove, which now echoes only with the steady crescendo of fighter jets as they streak across the skies of Palestine. In wadis and riverbeds throughout the country this dry year, the silence is deafening to regional water experts, who understand that the current battle cry for oil may one day be drowned by a battle cry for an even more basic need-water.

Long before massive Soviet Jewish immigration increased Israel’s already considerable thirst, the country was facing a water deficit of up to 500 million cubic meters annually by 1990. The deficit projection is now put at a staggering 2.2 billion cubic meters annually by the year 2000.

Israeli water experts were painfully aware by 1979 that all the water resources available within the country’s 1948 borders had been exploited. By the early 1980s, Israel was getting half of its water from Arab sources located outside the pre- 1967 boundaries ‘ resources which are now over-exploited by more than 10 percent.

“Mortal Dangers”

Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture has admitted that relinquishing control of the West Bank would have “an immediate and significantly detrimental effect on the Israeli water supply. ” In a full-page advertisement in the Aug. 18, 1990 international edition of the Jerusalem Post, the ministry admits that giving up Palestinian water would constitute I mortal dangers” for Israel and “would, in a most tangible way, endanger her continued existence.”

The advertisement states: “It is difficult to conceive of any political solution consistent with Israel’s survival that does not involve complete, continued Israeli control of the water and sewerage systems, and of the associated infrastructure, including the power supply and road network, essential to their operation, maintenance and accessibility.”

About 85 percent of the water in the large aquifer below the West Bank is currently used by Israeli settlers or pumped into Israel, while Palestinian water consumption in the occupied territories has been sharply curtailed. Average water use per capita among Palestinians is 25 cubic meters per year, whereas the average Israeli rate is 170 cubic meters annually. In some areas, Palestinian water use falls below the level determined by the United Nations as necessary to maintain minimal health standards.

What’s more, Palestinians are not allowed to drill new wells or deepen existing ones, according to the PLO’s Economic Development Department in Amman.

But the Israeli siphon goes much farther afield than the West Bank. Israel takes 100 million cubic meters of water each year from the Yarmouk River, which originates in the Golan Heights. It diverts all of the Jordan River above Lake Tiberias, leaving only a polluted trickle downstream. And many international water experts agree that Israel is now either trucking water or has installed an underground pipeline to divert the Litani River, which originates in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and flows completely within Lebanese territory. Some observers say this may be a main factor in Israel’s occupation of the so-called “security zone” in south Lebanon.

Yet, even these water sources apparently are not enough. Widespread Arab press reports are now linking Israel’s dealings in Ethiopia with its intention to gain access to the Nile.

Even if the political implications of this regional water-witching don’t result in yet another Middle East war, as many observers and politicians predict, they will inevitably reinforce Israeli intransigence in refusing to approach the negotiating table. Peace for Israel, it seems, would carry a hefty price tag.

A Costly Peace

Thomas Stauffer, writing for the 1984 Arab Research Center symposium on water held in Amman, concluded that Israel’s “only significant alternative to capturing more water sources is a large-scale desalination program that would require implausibly large increases in US aid, at between $1.2-1.8 billion per year. ” Stauffer said Israel’s cost for replacing only the water it takes from the occupied territories would be about $2 billion annually. “The price of peace thus becomes, for Israel, the spoils of war,” he wrote, “some $2-3 billion yearly in forsaken war prizes.”

Stauffer’s figures, now seven years old, were compiled well before Soviet Jewish immigration upped water demand considerably. They also fail to include the cost of buying water to replace between 400 and 800 million cubic meters it is estimated Israel now takes from the Litani.

This year’s drought in the region has heightened concern among Israeli officials about what they can do when the well runs dry. Israeli farmers were told in March they would have to reduce water consumption by as much as 70 percent.

The implications of a multi-billion dollar price tag for Israel’s water needs are not lost on Washington.

Alternatives such as cloud-seeding and desalination have been floated, but the price tag in most cases is prohibitive to a government already stretched to capacity by exorbitant military expenses and a burgeoning population. One Israeli agricultural official, asked late last year who should foot the bill for urgently needed water projects, replied matter-of factly that Japan and the US should.

The implications of a multi-billion dollar price tag for Israel’s water needs are not lost on Washington, where politicians fully understand the pressure Israel is able to put on them when the need arises, and the fallout they face when funds are not forthcoming. Consequently, the high cost of land for peace may well put mediation efforts in an entirely different light.

The quest for water to supply the Jewish state is rooted in early-1890s Zionist attempts to include the Jordan and Litani rivers in plans for Palestine, and the Nile and Euphrates in those for Greater Israel. The borders proposed by Zionists after World War I began with a point on the Mediterranean north of the mouth of the Litani, then east to include all sources feeding the Jordan River (including Lebanon’s Hasbani and Syria’s Banias rivers), the eastern shore of Lake Tiberias and all the Yarmouk River tributaries, further east past Dera’a to Amman, and then south to the Gulf of Aqaba.

Jordan’s leaders have been sounding alarm bells about Israel’s water appetite for years. Jordan is particularly vulnerable to Israel’s aquatic expansionism, since Jordan already suffers from a severe shortage. In some villages, water is available as infrequently as once every 18 days. The chronic shortage can be credited, in large part, to Israel’s claim to 100 percent of the Jordan River.

Compounding the gravity of Jordan’s water shortage, said Prime Minister Mudar Badran last summer, was Israel’s successful campaign to sabotage World Bank funding for the $450 million Al-Wahda dam project on the Yarmouk River, just south of the Jordan-Syria border. Badran said the project, which would have supplied the two countries with up to 250 million cubic meters of water annually, was suspended after Israel convinced the World Bank that it held water rights to Syria’s Yarmouk.

Israeli water experts claim they oppose the project because it was cost inefficient and that Yarmouk water should be stored in Lake Tiberias.

Also last summer, Tel Aviv revealed its intention to resume plans to build a controversial Mediterranean-Dead Sea Canal which if completed, could encroach further on Jordan’s vastly insufficient groundwater supplies. The canal project was the brainchild of early Zionists, but did not get off the ground until 1984, when Israel announce that work on it had begun.

Abdullah Hamadneh, in a paper for Amman’s Arab Research Center, predicted Jordan would be the first country adversely affected by the project because Jordanian land would be inundated by a rise in the Dead Sea’s level. Hamadneh said a higher water level would cause an eastward movement of the dividing line between the fresh and salt water on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, ultimately depriving Jordan of its underground water reserves in that area.

Israel’s “annexation” of the Golan Heights somehow prompts it, at least publicly, to discount Syria as a factor in the big water picture. Speaking at a 1989 Jerusalem conference on water, Dr. Elisha Kally, an Israeli water consultant and formerly with the Israeli water agency, Tahal, said Syria should not be party to any future regional negotiations on water because Israel does not share any water bodies with Syria.

Kally appeared to ignore the fact that not only does the Jordan River originate in the Golan Heights, but the headwaters of the Yarmouk (which, during the conference, Kally repeatedly referred to as a potential water resource for Israel) are also in Syria.

Although Syria currently is experiencing no water shortage, Turkey’s damming of the Euphrates River to fill its new Ataturk Dam is expected to have far-reaching implications on Syria’s water resources.

Far-Reaching Implications

One water expert, Leslie Schmida, writes: “Israel’s water strategy has been at the heart of its campaign to retain permanent control of the Golan, control [which] enables Israel to pre-empt any Syrian or multilateral Arab effort to divert the Upper Jordan back to Arab territory or to develop the Yarmouk. ” Control of the Golan also has long been seen as a stepping stone to the Litani. Initially, Israeli water experts predicted such access would increase their water supplies by as much as 50 percent. But the sharp new increase in per capita water consumption in Israel, coupled with its growing population-as many as 300,000 Soviet Jewish immigrants are expected in 1991 alone-has dispelled the old notion of the Litani as the panacea for Israel’s water woes.

According to a May 1990 report in the Lebanese daily, AI-Liwa, Israel’s thirst for Lebanese water has surpassed even what the Litani can provide. The paper reported that Israeli officers and water experts recently had inspected the Hasbani River in the south, after installing large water pumps on the river’s banks and storage tanks on hilltops near the river.

A British Middle East expert, Dr. Uri Davis, pointed out six years ago that, given Israeli policy and the structure of its economy-including Israel’s post-1967 settlement policy-and given the average increase of Israel’s water consumption by one percent annually, “Nothing short of harnessing a proportion of the major rivers of the Middle East-the Nile, the Euphrates and the Tigris-can meet the long-term requirements of the pattern of water consumption in Israel.”

The Nile

Arab observers now claim that is exactly Israel’s intention in its relationship with Ethiopia. The link between Tel Aviv and Addis Ababa has been seen by the West primarily as an arms-for-immigrants trade-off, in which Ethiopia gets arms for its fight against Eritrean separatists and Tigrean insurgents. In exchange, Addis Ababa has reportedly agreed to allow an estimated 15,000 Jews remaining in Ethiopia to emigrate to Israel.

But according to widespread reports in the Arab press, the real reason behind Israel’s involvement in Ethiopia is to establish a foothold in its decades-old push for access to the Nile.

Salem Nassar wrote in the July 1990 issue of the Paris-based Ab Dawliyeh International that Israel has supplied Ethiopia with technology and expertise for plans to dam the Blue Nile, a major tributary to the Nile.

In another story, Said Shahat writes in the Cyprus-based Al-Shahed magazine that Israel has convinced the Mengistu government that it was sold short in a 1902 pact between Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Egypt, for water rights to the Nile. Shahat claims Israel plans to help pay for up to 26 dams on the Blue Nile which, according to a 1964 US government feasibility study, could produce a total of 5.4 billion cubic meters of water.

A Political Stepping Stone

Although political analysts doubt Israel could or would divert a substantial amount of the water, they believe the Jewish state could use control of the water as a political stepping stone in the region.

The prospect of such a scheme makes Egypt understandably uneasy, since almost all its water comes from the Nile. Also, because Egypt’s population is increasing by one million people each year, the government has determined it must reclaim at least twice as much land as the amount that available or potentially available water would allow. In addition, local food production in Egypt is incapable of catching up with the continuous increase in consumption, creating a risky dependence on imports.

An Egyptian journalist, EI-Sayyid Zohra, said these facts mean Egypt not only is in need of every drop of water it now has, but that gaining extensive new water resources is vital in the near future. Otherwise, Zohra predicts, the country will undergo a severe crisis having a direct impact on the daily life of Egyptians. “The facts indicate that any drop of water that goes to Israel will be at the expense of the actual needs of the Egyptian people,” Zohra writes.

That scenario prompted Egyptian Foreign Minister Butros Ghali to predict, like so many of his counterparts, that the next war in the Middle East would be not for political reasons, but over the Nile.

Dr. Elias Salameh, head of Jordan University’s water resources department, put it in simple terms last summer when he said: “Look, if you deplete a country of its water resources, you are depriving the people of eating and drinking and making a living. That leads to domestic unrest, which can result in a regional-and ultimately-international conflict.”

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