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Israel-Lebanon Dispute Heats Up Over Water Rights - 2002-10-09

U.S. officials have been involved in shuttle diplomacy for the past several weeks, trying to ward off a possible confrontation between Israel and Lebanon over water issues. Israeli officials have threatened the use of force if Lebanon proceeds with plans to divert a portion of the water from a river the two countries share.

Several months ago, Lebanon began a project to pump spring water from the Wazzani River to supply drinking water to 40 villages along Lebanon's border with Israel. It was an area under Israeli occupation for 22 years until Israeli troops pulled out in May of 2000. Shortly after Lebanon regained control of the area, plans were made to begin supplying water to the southern Lebanese villages.

But because the Wazzani feeds into the Jordan River, which supplies water to Israel's largest freshwater reservoir, the Sea of Galilee, Israel is threatening consequences if the project proceeds.

On September 10 Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested Israel may be willing to go to war over the issue.

Philip Zgheib is a professor of business at the American University of Beirut and author of several papers regarding Lebanese water issues. He said Israel has legitimate concerns about the quality of the water in the Sea of Galilee if fresh water from the Wazzani is diverted. He refers to the Sea as a 'lake.'

"If there is a decrease of the inflow of fresh water, even if the decrease is minimal, even if it is a decrease of one or two percent, the level of salinity in the lake may increase, again not much, one or two percent. However, that one or two percent variation is enough to corrupt the entire lake and therefore to prohibit the use of water in certain sectors," Mr. Zgheib said.

Sectors such as drinking water, he said.

A team of U.S. water experts went to the region two weeks ago in an effort to determine whether Lebanon has the right to pump about two million cubic meters of water annually from the Wazzani River.

High-level U.S. government sources say it appears Lebanon has the right under an unsigned international agreement that dates back to the 1950s. According to the sources, under the agreement Lebanon has the right to pump a much greater quantity of water from the Wazzani.

On Sunday, Israel's prime minister insisted he would not compromise on the issue and Israeli helicopter gunships flew low over the controversial project. The helicopters returned Monday as engineers prepared to test the pumps.

Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri told VOA that Lebanon does not want confrontation with Israel, but plans to proceed with its water project. "We know our rights and Israel knows we know our rights. We are not looking for confrontation. We are not looking for any escalation in the situation in the south. We know how sensitive the issue of water is for Israel and for us as well. But also we have people that need water and we have land that needs irrigation and it's our national right," Mr. Hariri said.

Israel said Lebanon does not have the right to take water from the Wazzani. And Israeli government spokesman Daniel Seaman asks why Lebanon wants to take that water when, he said, there are other resources it could use that are not linked to Israel's water supply.

"The thing from Israel's perspective is that is one of the main sources of water for Israel. Whereas Lebanon, they have the Litani River which does not go into Israel at all and is several kilometers away from the Wazzani and they are not using that resource at all. So that is why it raises the question, on our part, how sincere they are in the necessity of using the Wazzani and not other sources, which they have in abundance," Mr. Seaman said.

On Monday, a U.S. diplomat met with the Lebanese Prime Minister in an attempt to cool the feud. A Lebanese government source told VOA the diplomat attempted to convince Mr. Hariri to agree to postpone the project, which is scheduled to be completed October 15. The source said the prime minister "refused to budge."

The project will be completed on time, according to its director Qabalan Qabalan. "It is our water. It is our right. It is our land," he said.

Mr. Qabalan said despite threats of possible Israeli military action he has received support from throughout Lebanon. "I am very proud. All of our people are very proud because we said no to the Israelis many times. We said no to the occupation. We said no now for everything that comes from Israel. For that, all of my people are very proud. All the people have supported us in this project," he said.

Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud recently said Lebanon's decision is irreversible, adding that "Israel's threats will not keep the project from being implemented."

Both sides, along with U.S. officials, have been coordinating with the United Nations in an effort to avoid an escalation of the Lebanese-Israeli water dispute.