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Wary Israeli officials monitor Lebanese water diversion project

JERUSALEM (BP)–Israel is keeping close tabs on a Lebanese water project, which could divert the flow of an important river, preventing it from feeding Israel’s main supply of fresh water, CNSNews.com reported March 15.

While defense and water officials are downplaying the size of the Lebanese project, one Israeli lawmaker said such tampering with a water source, which diverts it from a downstream neighbor, is a “justification for war.” Israeli lawmaker Michael Kleiner, who heads the right-wing Herut party, said Israel should respond swiftly to this Lebanese test of the new Israeli government. He maintains that the project was begun shortly after Israeli’s February elections.

“The theft of water sources is a justification for war according to standards of international law,” Kleiner said. “Lebanon put Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the test and studies the limits of deterrence of the state of Israel.”

In the 1960s, Kleiner said, Israel risked a full-scale war with Syria, when it repeatedly bombarded Syrian attempts to divert sources of the Jordan River to within Syrian territory. Eventually, Syrian building stopped.

“If Israel will not react, it will invite more infringements,” Kleiner said.

Uri Saguy, chairman of Mekorot, Israel’s national water carrier, said in a radio interview March 14 that “the pumping is illegal and I hope that Israel will defend its interests. We have the means to do it.”

Saguy, who is a former general and military intelligence chief, would not elaborate on what he meant by his comments, but he did say that water is a “strategic asset,” which concerns Israel’s security.

Later in a telephone interview Saguy said that everyone should work to “calm down” the situation.

The amount of water actually being pumped from the Hatzbani River by small Lebanese villages is “very local” and “very small,” Saguy said, but the main point is the principle of taking the water without Israel’s permission.

The Hatzbani River is one of three tributaries that feeds the Jordan River, which feeds the Sea of Galilee, the source of one-third of Israel’s fresh water. According to international conventions, that would give Israel, which is downstream from Lebanon, a right to that water.

If Lebanon pumps water out of the Hatzbani, it will have “serious, detrimental effects” on the Sea of Galilee, said water expert Martin Sherman of Tel Aviv University.

Israel has no peace treaty or agreement with Lebanon, but Saguy said that a water-sharing arrangement between Beirut and Jerusalem could be made “behind the scenes.” He hinted that such contacts are already taking place.

“First of all, we don’t know exactly what they are doing,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror. “It’s really only minor work.”

Serious problems, Dror said, would arise if the Lebanese build a dam or some kind of pumping station, which would dry up the river.

Israel is watching developments along the river very closely, Dror said, and if it becomes clear that the Lebanese have intentions other than simply supplying water to a few small villages, Israel will turn to the international community for help.

Prior to this latest development, Israel’s water situation was already “disastrous,” Sherman and Saguy said. Several years of low rainfall and an over-exploitation of scarce water resources during the past three decades have brought the country to a hydrological crisis.

“Israel’s strategic reserve of water has been eroded since the 1970s,” Sherman said. “But [the situation] has never been as serious as now.”

According to both Saguy and Sherman, it is imperative for Israel to start an accelerated program of water desalination in order to provide for the needs of the country.
Stahl is the Jerusalem bureau chief for CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Julie Stahl