Israel – Wars over Water

“What would Israel do if another country stole its water?” If this question keeps you awake nights, keep reading.

Open throttle water wars are rare. Historians tell us that the only full-scale war fought primarily over water issues took place some 4,500 years ago. An ancient inscription on the Stele of Vultures records that as the two Sumerian states of Laqash and Umma expanded into the plain between them, they agreed that Umma would cultivate the disputed area in the middle and pay Laqash part of the harvest as rent. After some time, Akurgal, ruler of Umma, tired of paying rent, invaded Laqash, and destroyed the boundary monument between the territories. Eatanum, ruler of Laqash, fought back, defeated Umma, and compelled its ruler to swear to respect the territory of Laqash and never divert its irrigation channels.

Ever since, things quieted down. Rival nations sharing waters of the Jordan, Nile, Ganges, or Parana rivers have generally favored cooperation over full-scale war; the past fifty years have witnessed only 37 violent disputes over water, in contrast to 157 negotiated treaties. Inconveniently straddling the borders of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, the Jordan River is most famed for its part in Israel’s “Water Wars.”

The Jordan’s Sources

Few tourists visiting the placid Banias Falls in the Golan Heights would dream it was once the scene of violent conflict between Israel and Syria. The Jordan River has four main sources, the Hasbani River of Lebanon, the Banias River of the Golan Heights, the Dan River that originates in Israel just above the Kinneret, and the Yarmuk River, with sources in Syria and Jordan, that flows into the Jordan River seven miles below the Kinneret. Prior to 1967, 77% of the Jordan’s waters originated on Arab soil.

Anyone comparing the Jordan with the Hudson or MississippiRivers can appreciate that it does not exactly deluge Israel with water. This is an old problem. It is said that when Theodore Herzl met the German Kaiser in 1896 outside the Mikveh Yisroel settlement, the Kaiser shook hands with him, remarked that Palestine was a land with a future “but needs water, plenty of water,” shook hands again, and rode off, leaving Herzl to ponder the implications of his message.

In his book, Boundaries of Palestine (1919), the hydro-pioneer Aharon Aaronsohn argued that, “in Palestine, like in any country of arid and semi-arid character, animal and plant life and therefore, the whole economic life directly depends on the available water supply. It is therefore of vital importance not only to secure all water resources already feeding the country, but also to ensure the possession of whatever can conserve and increase these waters… The boundary of Palestine in the North and in the North East is thus dictated by the extension of the Hermon range and its water basins.”

Zionist delegates at Europe’s post World War I peace conference repeated his demands, declaring in the “Boundaries” section of their “Statement of the Zionist Organization Regarding Palestine,” that “the economic life of Palestine, like that of every semi-arid country, depends on the available water supply. It is therefore of vital importance not only to secure all water resources already feeding the country, but also to be able to conserve and control them at their sources. The Hermon is Palestine’s real ‘Father of Waters’ and cannot be severed from it without striking at the very root of its economic life.”

Ben-Gurion repeated the message before the state’s founding. “It is necessary that the water sources, upon which the future of the land depends, should not be outside the borders of the future Jewish homeland,” he wrote. “For this reason we have always demanded that the Land of Israel include the southern banks of the LitaniRiver, the headwaters of the Jordan, and the Hauran Region from the El Auja spring south of Damascus.”

But there were dissident voices. The French claimed that the “historic and natural” boundaries of Greater Lebanon should include the sources of the Jordan River, and due to this and other reasons, once the dust of Israel’s 1948 War settled, Israel found itself in control of only one of the Jordan’s tributaries. As Israeli agriculture and population jumped after 1948, it became critical to either provide more water or to announce – Attention humans, stop drinking!

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the World Zionist Organization commissioned water resource studies by an American engineer, which concluded that Israel could support four million new immigrants by diverting water from the Jordan River to the Negev. This led to the 1950 “Master Plan for Irrigation in Israel” whose main component was a massive National Water Carrier to channel the Kinneret’s and the Jordan headwaters deep down to the populated centers of Israel and the agricultural Negev via-series of canals, tunnels, reservoirs, and pumping stations.

Work on the carrier began in 1953, about the same time President Eisenhower appointed Eric Johnston as his representative to forge an agreement between the four countries thirsting for the Jordan’s waters. After two years of talks, the Arab League announced it would not collaborate with Israel in sharing and managing water until the Arab/Israeli conflict was resolved, announcing, “The scheme is another step made by imperialists and Zionists to attain their ends, territorial expansion in the heart of the Arab homeland, under the attractive guise of economic interests.'”

Israel’s waterworks scheme involved constructing an intake of the Jordan’s water carrier north of the Kinneret. During 1957, Syria opened fire on the construction sites forcing Israel to build the intake at the north-west corner of the Kinneret, which was a double loss. First, the water down by the lake is saltier due to saline springs (Israel later diverted the springs) and secondly, the lake was lower down, which necessitated pumping the water 270 yards high before it started its 150 miles’ journey down to the Negev. At the same time, Israel was fighting Jordanian attempts to dam the YarmoukRiver that flows into the Kinneret.

The Arabs Take Action

After its completion in 1964, the Water Carrier began pumping 320 million cubic meters into Israel every day. Predictably, this made the Arabs very jealous indeed, providing them with reason no. 452 to get rid of the Zionist enemy. As far as they were concerned, Israel was stealing water from the headwaters of the Hasbani and Banias rivers, located in Lebanese and Syrian territory, to irrigate the Negev desert and allow millions of Zionist enemies to thrive on its soil.

During two Arab Summit meetings convened in January and September 1964, the participating states agreed that instead of immediate military confrontation, they would create the Jordan Diversion Authority, whose goal was to divert the flow of the two rivers into Arab territory and store huge quantities in a dam before sending a trickle on to Israel. This would cut the potential of Israel’s water carrier by 35% and Israel’s water supply by 11%.

Israel declared the impending diversion as “an infringement of its sovereign rights” and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol declared to a US delegation that, “Israel was not trigger-happy, but if it came to it, we would have to fight for our own waters.” The Arabs didn’t flinch.

That same year, on December 31, 1964, the newly founded PLO’s first violent action was an unsuccessful sabotage attack against Israel’s National Water Carrier. One of Arafat’s associates commented at the time, “The water issue was the critical one. We considered our impact on this to be the crucial test of our war with Israel.”

Syria’s construction of earthworks to divert the Banias led to four major clashes in 1965/66. Initially, Israeli tank gunners gained such expertise that towards the end of the clash their guns were hitting Arab bulldozers at the range of eight miles, and when the Syrians moved their operations further upstream, Israel sent in planes. Israel also shelled a Syrian-Jordanian waterworks designed to drain off Lake Kinneret’s water in 1964, and destroyed three Lebanese water reservoirs in 1965. Border incidents continued, triggering air battles between Israel and Syria in July 1966 and April 1967. Ironically, the week before the Six Day War broke out, the US Departments of Interior and State convened an “International Conference on Water for Peace” in Washington D.C. from May 23-31, 1967, with 6,400 participants from 94 countries including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.

That same month, President Nasser demanded withdrawal of UN forces from Sinai, blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba, and announced, that “the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel.” The Six Day War gave Israel control over both sides of the Jordan and almost all its headwaters, denying the Arabs their dream of drying out the Jewish state.

It is now widely accepted that the Six Day War was rooted as much in water politics as it was in conflict over land. As Ariel Sharon commented: “People generally regard June 5, 1967, as the day the Six Day War began. That is the official date. But in reality it started two and a half years earlier – on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan River.”

(Sources: Aaron T. Wolf, Hydropolitics along the Jordan River: Scarce Water and its impact on the Arab –Israeli Conflict, New York: United Nations University Press, , 1995. Simon Dunstan, The Six Day War 1967: Jordan and Syria, Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2009.)

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