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1964-1982: "Water Wars" and territorial adjustments

As each state developed unilaterally, their plans began to overlap (see appendix I, maps 4 and 24). The resulting tensions helped lead to a cycle of conflict, which, exacerbated by other disputes, in turn led to war in 1967. Water also emerged as one possible strategic issue in the war in Lebanon in 1982.

A 1963 agreement between Jordanian King Hussein and Ya'akov Herzog, envoy to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, had spelled out an agreement on the allocation of the Jordan River water in return for Israeli acquiescence to US tank sales to Jordan (Kershner 1990, 11). By 1964, Israel had completed enough of its National Water Carrier for actual diversions from the Jordan River basin to the coastal plain and the Negev to be imminent. Although Jordan was also about to begin extracting Yarmuk water for its East Ghor Canal, it was the Israeli diversion that prompted President Nasser to call for the First Arab Summit in January 1964, including heads of state from the region and North Africa, specifically to discuss a joint strategy on water.

The options presented to the Summit were to complain to the United Nations, to divert the upper Jordan tributaries into Arab states (as had been discussed by Syria and Jordan since 1953), or to go to war (Schmida 1983, 19). A military assessment revealed that the Arabs were unprepared for this last option and might be incapable of defending their own river diversions, should they proceed (Stevens 1965, 76). However, the decision to divert the rivers prevailed at a Second Summit in September 1964, and the states agreed to finance a Headwater Diversion project in Lebanon and Syria and to help Jordan build a dam on the Yarmuk. They also made tentative military plans to defend the diversion project (Shemesh 1988, 38).

A two-stage plan, the first full formula for a campaign against Israel, was laid out:

The first stage would involve the diversion of the sources of the Jordan River and the establishment of an effective Arab defense force through the strengthening of the Arab armies. The building up of this (United Arab Command) force would take two and a half to three years, until late 1967 to early 1968. During this period, there would be no full-scale war with Israel.

The second stage would see, "... the liberation of Palestine from imperialism and Zionism." The commander-in-chief of the United Arab Command was ordered to prepare a detailed military plan for Israel's destruction which was approved at the Third (September 1965) Arab Summit. (Shemesh 1988, 39)

The Arab Diversion had its roots in a 1953 agreement between Syria and Jordan for the allocation of water diverted from the Hasbani and/or the Banias into a proposed dam on the Yarmuk. Syria would get three-quarters of the hydropower produced at a dam at Adassiye, and Jordan would get the water, "instead of it going to the Mediterranean, the Dead Sea, or the Jews" (interview, Haddad, November 1991).

An additional strategy was decided upon at the First Summit. The delegates agreed to establish a Palestinian entity to "carry the banner of Arab Palestine" (Stevens 1965, 76), and to mobilize the Palestinians themselves for the eventual "liberation of Palestine" (Shemesh 1988, 37). Yasir Arafat later combined this Palestine Liberation Army with his own Fatah and other groups to form the Palestine Liberation Organization (Cooley 1984, 15). Given its roots, it is not surprising that the nascent PLO's first action was an unsuccessful attempt to sabotage the Israeli National Water Carrier on 31 December 1964. As one associate of Arafat's put it, "The water issue was the crucial one. We considered our impact on this to be the crucial test of our war with Israel" (Dr Nabil al-Shath, cited in Cooley 1984, 15).

In 1964, Israel began withdrawing 320 MCM/yr of Jordan water for its National Water Carrier, and Jordan completed a major phase of its East Ghor Canal (Inbar and Maos 1984, 21). In 1965, the Arab states began construction of their Headwater Diversion Plan to prevent the Jordan headwaters from reaching Israel. The plan was to divert the Hasbani into the Litani in Lebanon and the Banias into the Yarmuk, where it would be impounded for Jordan and Syria by a dam at Mukheiba. The diversion was possible, in part, because of the two strips of land, at the Banias Heights and at el-Hama next to the Yarmuk, which Israel had lost in the fighting in 1948. The plan, to be financed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, was technically difficult and economically inefficient, with water to be pumped as high as 350 m. The diversion would divert up to 125 MCM/yr, cut by 35 per cent the installed capacity of the Israeli Carrier, and increase the salinity in Lake Kinneret by 60 ppm (United States Central Intelligence Agency 1962; Inbar and Maos 1984, 22; Naff and Matson 1984, 43).

Although a 1964 US State Department memorandum concluded that the Arab Diversion seemed "unlikely to cause large-scale hostilities" (US Department of State memorandum 1964), Israel declared the impending diversion as an "infringement of its sovereign rights" (Naff and Matson 1984, 44). To a visiting US delegation, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol declared that "Israel was not trigger-happy, but if it came to it, we would have to fight for our waters" (US Department of State memorandum 1965).

The United States had supported the Israeli Water Carrier within the Johnston allocations and had both opposed the All-Arab Diversion and expressed doubt that it would be completed - Lebanon had stopped work on the diversion project in July 1965 (Hof 1985, 36). It was made clear to Israel, however, that the United States "would oppose you if you take preemptive action" (US Department of State memorandum 1965). Nevertheless, in March, May, and August of 1965, the Israeli army attacked the diversion works in Syria. Partly because of the US warning, however, Israel tried to avoid a full-scale war, using long-range "sniping" with tanks rather than calling for artillery or the air force. This represented a new doctrine for the Israeli Tank Corps, which would lead to important lessons for the impending war (Argaman 1990) (see appendix I, map 25).

These events set off what has been called "a prolonged chain reaction of border violence that linked directly to the events that led to the (June 1967) war" (Professor Nadav Safran, cited in Cooley 1984, 16). Border incidents continued between Israel and Syria, finally triggering air battles in July 1966, and April 1967.

Even as tensions were leading to the following week's outbreak of the SixDay War, the US Departments of Interior and State convened an "International Conference on Water for Peace" in Washington, D.C., during 23-31 May 1967. Building on advances in nuclear energy and the possibility of inexpensive nuclear desalination, President Johnson had, in 1965, announced a "massive, cooperative, international effort to find solutions for Man's water problems, which he dubbed the Water-for-Peace Program" (cited in Skolnikoff 1967, 157). In the 1967 Conference, there were 6,400 participants from 94 countries, including Israel, Egypt (then the "United Arab Republic"), Jordan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia (United States Departments of Interior and State 1967).

In the same month, President Nasser, who had earlier formed the "United Arab Republic" with Syria, demanded the withdrawal of UN forces from the Sinai, announced a blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, cutting off the Israeli port of Eilat, and declared that "the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel." On 5 June, Israel attacked the airfields of Egypt, Jordan,

Iraq, and Syria. Six days later, the war was over and Israel gained possession of the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan, and Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.

Aside from territorial gains and obvious improvements in geostrategic positioning, Israel had also greatly improved its "hydro-strategic" position (see appendix I, map 4). With the Golan Heights, it now held all of the headwaters of the Jordan, with the exception of a section of the Hasbani, and a commanding position over much of the Yarmuk, together making the Headwater Diversion impossible. The Mukheiba Dam was destroyed and the Maqarin Dam abandoned. The West Bank not only provided riparian access to the entire length of the Jordan River but also overlay three major aquifers, two of which Israel had been tapping into from its side of the Green Line since 1955 (Garbell 1965, 30). Jordan had once planned to transport 70-150 MCM/yr from the Yarmuk River to the West Bank; these plans, too, were abandoned.

In the wake of the 1967 war, former President Eisenhower, who, 10 years earlier, had sent Eric Johnston to the Middle East to negotiate a regional water plan, made public a new cooperation scheme that he, former Atomic Energy Commissioner Lewis Strauss, and Alvin Weinberg, Director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, had formulated and which they called simply "A Proposal for Our Time." Their plan called for three nuclear desalination plants - one each on the Mediterranean coast in Egypt and Israel, and one on the Gulf of Aqaba in Jordan - producing a combined output of about 1,400 MCM of fresh water a year (roughly the usable flow of the entire Jordan River) as well as "an enormous amount" of electric power (Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Summary Report 1971; Strauss 1967).

Recently declassified documents show that an additional site was considered, at Gaza (Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Gaza Area 1970). At this site, a major consideration was the possibility of refugee resettlement, although sections of the report dealing with that aspect were excised from declassification (see appendix I, map 26).

As Eisenhower saw it, the availability of these new sources of energy and water would make possible entire "agro-industrial complexes," making an additional 4,500 km2 of barren land arable, and providing work and agriculture to help settle more than a million Arab refugees (Eisenhower 1968). The project, which would cost about US$1,000 million (in 1967 terms), would be funded by an international corporation set up for the purpose, and be supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Moreover, Eisenhower predicted that

... the collaboration of Arab and Jew in a practical and profitable enterprise of this magnitude might well be the first, long step toward a permanent peace. (Eisenhower 1968, 77)

In the summer of 1967, Eisenhower communicated his project to President Lyndon Johnson. On 28 July, the State Department announced the appointment of an interim Director of Water for Peace (Strauss 1967, 1008). On 14 August 1967, Senator Howard Baker from Tennessee introduced Senate Resolution 155, which read, in part:

Whereas the security and national interest of the United States require that there be a stable and durable peace in the Middle East; and the greatest bar to a long term settlement of the differences between the Arab and Israeli people is the chronic shortage of fresh water, useful work, and an adequate food supply;

Be it resolved that . . . (providing) large quantities of fresh water to both Arab and Israeli territories and, thereby, will result in -

  1. new jobs for the many refugees;
  2. an enormous increase in the agricultural productivity of existing wastelands;
  3. a broad base for cooperation between the Israeli and Arab Governments; and
  4. a further demonstration of the United States efforts to find peaceful solutions to areas of conflict.

The resolution was approved unanimously by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and adopted without dissent by the Senate. The project was studied in detail over the course of the next five years by a technical group made up of Arabs, Israelis, and Americans centred at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories. Although joint US-Israeli studies on nuclear desalination dating back to 1964 had looked promising (US Department of State memorandum, 14 December 1977, unpublished), the "Proposal for Our Time" eventually faltered on economic grounds, along with the dangers of introducing nuclear technology to the region, but the effort was finally called off because of political resistance. Nevertheless, two years of cooperative research in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, along with lessons learned during the Johnston negotiations 12 years earlier, showed that, on the technical level at least, cooperation over regional water resources and planning was possible. The Agro-Industrial Complex, which was to be the last attempt at region-wide water cooperation, was finally shelved in the early 1970s. Even after diplomatic ties were established between Egypt and Israel in 1977, an invitation was sent in 1980 by Israeli nuclear scientists to their Egyptian counterparts to renew the research effort. The response was, in effect, "Not yet. Let's wait for closer ties."

As the 1960s came to a close, the PLO mounted an intensive guerrilla campaign against Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley. Israeli retaliation raids led to occasional conflict with Jordanian and Iraqi troops stationed in the eastern part of the valley. In April-May 1969, Israeli water authorities measured the Jordan River's base flow to be 686 mm below its average for that period. Suspicion that Jordan was over-diverting the Yarmuk may have combined with Israel's policy of holding the host country partly responsible for Palestinian attacks and led to two Israeli raids in June and August 1969, to destroy one of the most vulnerable targets in Jordan - the East Ghor Canal. The political rationale was that damage to the country's irrigation would pressure King Hussein into action against the PLO.

At the same time, the Jordanian Army, which saw too much latitude in PLO behaviour in Jordan, was putting pressure on the King in the same direction. Secret negotiations in 1969-1970 between Israel and Jordan, mediated by the United States, led to an agreement. Israel was persuaded that the drop in Jordan base flow was natural and Jordan would be allowed to repair the Canal. In exchange, Jordan agreed to adhere to the Johnston Plan allocations and "pledged to terminate PLO activity in Jordan" (Naff and Matson 1984, 55). In "Black September" 1970, the Jordanian Army expelled the PLO from Jordan. Estimates of the number of Palestinians killed in the process are as high as 5,000.

After the expulsion of the PLO, Jordan set out on a two-stage Jordan Valley Development Plan with Crown Prince Hassan, the King's 23-year-old Oxford-educated brother, taking charge (Cooley 1984, 19). The first stage, which included a small "King Talal Dam" on the Zarqa River, new irrigation networking, and catchments on several wadis, was built during the late 1970s, partially with US financing.

During the war between Israel and the combined forces of Egypt and Syria in 1973, water played only an incidental strategic role. Touring the Golan Heights with the then Water Commissioner Menahem Cantor in the fall of 1973, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan expressed concern that Israel's development of small-scale dams on the Golan Heights was proceeding so slowly. Dayan saw the strate gic potential of these dams as tank barricades against Syrian forces. Cantor cited budget limitations, and was given encouragement and budget to proceed more quickly. Dayan was scheduled to tour the sites again on Sunday 7 October, but the war broke out on the previous day. It is unclear how the dams performed in their strategic function (interview, Menahem Cantor, November 1991).

In the mid -1970s, water rationing in large Jordanian cities such as Amman and Irbid pointed to the need for a major water project. The 1975 "seven year plan" included "Stage II" - the revived concept of a large (486 MCM storage) dam on the Yarmuk at Maqarin. The dam would store winter run-off to provide irrigation water to the Jordan Valley, 20 MW of hydropower, and a more even downstream base flow year-round. The total cost of the project, as estimated in 1979, was US$1,000 million (S. Taubenblatt in Starr and Stoll 1988, 48).

The Carter administration became interested in the plan and in 1980 pledged a US$9 million USAID loan for development in addition to US$10 million that had previously been allocated. Also in 1980, Congress committed US$150 million over three years to the plan on one condition - that Israel, Jordan, and Syria resolve their riparian problems before funds would be appropriated. The dam would straddle the Syria-Jordan border and relations between those countries had been deteriorating throughout the 1970s. Downstream, Israel asked for an increase in its Yarmuk allotment from 23 MCM/yr to 40 MCM/yr, as well as an additional 140 MCM/yr for the West Bank (Davis et al. 1980, 11; Kahhaleh 1981, 46).

In 1977, Jordanian water officials approached their Israeli counterparts through US intermediaries and requested a high-level meeting to discuss rebuilding the low dam at Mukheiba. One meeting was held that year in a Zurich hotel with three ministerial-level representatives from each side present. Israeli representatives expressed approval of the dam, the northern side of which would abut on Israeli territory - a more even year-round flow would benefit both sides and agreed to further discussion on this and other regional water planning issues (unpublished minutes, 6 May 1977). In elections that year, however, the Israeli government shifted from Labour- to Likud-led for the first time, and the new ministers did not pursue the dialogue with the Jordanians. Direct ministerial negotiations were not held again on water issues except for a brief meeting in Jericho in 1985, although the "Picnic Table talks," on allocations of the Yarmuk River, continued at the technical level.

Water-related conflict between Jordan and Israel came close to breaking out two years later. In July of the drought year 1979, Jordan sought American mediation to gain Israeli permission to service the intake of the East Ghor Canal, which had been silting up. Days after having cleared the intake, Jordan charged the Israelis with replacing the rocks so that more water would flow downstream, and brought military forces up to the cease-fire line. The Israelis responded by mobilizing their own forces in the area. An armed conflict was averted only with urgent American mediation.

According to the Israeli officer responsible for that sector at the time, although initial preparations took on the scale of a full military operation, the discussions that followed the stand-off felt less formal. If, for example, an Israeli negotiator wanted to contact his Jordanian counterpart, he would simply shout across the river to the Jordanian forces and a meeting, usually taking place on the rocks in midstream, would be arranged (interview, October 1991).

Philip Habib was sent to the region in 1980 by the US State Department to help mediate an agreement. Although Habib was able to gain consensus on the concept of the dam, on separating the question of the Yarmuk from that of West Bank allocations, and on the difficult question of summer flow allocations - 25 MCM would flow to Israel during the summer months negotiations ran into difficulties regarding the winter flow allocations, and final ratification was never reached. The plan was indefinitely postponed late that year, but has very recently been revived by Jordan and Syria as the "Unity Dam."

One other conflict between Israel and Jordan was solved by technology and hydrology, rather than by the military. In 1983, a Jordanian well along the Yarmuk just across the border from Israel struck water with such force that a drilling rig 400 m high was toppled. Initial output of the well was close to 700 m3/h. Hoping that the aquifer was hydrologically connected on both sides of the Yarmuk, but fearing that, if it were, the Jordanians would deplete Israel's share, Israel launched its own drilling operation on its side of the river. Both sides would be disappointed: it turned out that the aquifers were not intricately connected, and the Israeli well produced only 200 m3/h, while the Jordanian well quickly lost most of its head and today produces only about one-third of its assumed capacity (press reports, February 1983; interview, Elias Salameh, November 1991).

Meanwhile, tensions were being somewhat reduced along other borders. In 1978, Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David peace accords - the first between Israel and an Arab country. At a meeting in September 1979 with Israeli newspaper editors, President Anwar Sadat discussed plans for a pipeline to bring Nile water to the recently returned Sinai Peninsula. "Once we bring it to Sinai," he asked, "why should we not bring some of this water to the Negev?" (Spector and Gruen 1980, 10). The offer was reiterated and elaborated upon in discussions with Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1981. Israel would be provided with 365 MCM/yr in exchange for "solution of the Palestinian problem and the liberation of Jerusalem" (R. Krishna in Starr and Stoll 1988, 32).

The offer was immediately rejected by almost all parties concerned. Prime Minister Begin objected to the quid pro quo, stressing that Israel would not trade its sovereignty over a unified Jerusalem for economic gain. Nationalists on both sides were also opposed to the idea: Egyptians did not want to share this vital resource with Israel, and Israelis did not like the idea of being vulnerable to upstream control. Israeli Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon is quoted as saying "I would hate to be in a situation in which the Egyptians could close our taps whenever they wished" (Spector and Gruen 1980, 10).

Interestingly, the strongest opposition to the offer came from another region entirely. Ethiopia, 2,500 km up river, charged that Egypt was misusing its share of Nile water. In a sharp retort, President Sadat warned against Ethiopian action:

We do not need permission from Ethiopia or the Soviet Union to divert our Nile water ... If Ethiopia takes any action to block the Nile waters, there will be no alternative for us but to use force. Tampering with the rights of a nation to water is tampering with its life and a decision to go to war on this score is indisputable in the international community". (R. Krishna in Starr and Stoll 1988, 33-34)

President Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Although technical and economic details of a Nile River diversion have since been developed (see, for example, Kally 1989; Dinar and Wolf 1991), the plan was never implemented except for a small irrigation diversion into the western Sinai.

In 1982, Israel for the second time mounted an operation against the PLO in Lebanon. The first time, during "Operation Litani" four years earlier, Israel had stopped its advance at the Litani River and, before withdrawing, had turned over portions of southern Lebanon to the South Lebanon Army under the command of Major Sa'ad Haddad. Haddad was reportedly to protect Israeli interests in the region, par ticularly defending against attempted Palestinian incursions through the area to Israel. In addition, the militia is reported to have protected the Jordan headwaters of the Hasbani by closing some local wells and preventing the digging of others. As a result, some or all of the 35 MCM allocated to Lebanon in the Johnston Plan now flows to Israel (Naff and Matson 1984, 49).

Israelis involved in these issues contest these reports. Israeli hydrologic records, for example, show that the flow of the Hasbani into Israel exceeded the average flow only three times in the last 10 years, during particularly wet years (stream gaugings, Israel Hydrologic Survey 1981-1991). More to the point, an officer in Israel's Northern Command, who dealt with Haddad extensively, claims that the Lebanese major made perfectly clear to the Israelis that "We will cooperate with you, but there are two subjects which are taboo - our land and our water" (interview, October 1991). Nevertheless, the then Chief of Staff Ezer Weizman (Chaim Weizmann's nephew) was berated by a member of the Knesset after the operation for not seizing the Litani: "Your uncle knew at the time the historic significance of the Litani," M.K. Cohen shouted (cited in Hof 1985, 24).

In the 1982 operation, the Litani was again the initially stated objective, but, by July, Israeli forces had surrounded Beirut. This war, as in 1967, had clear military and political objectives, and water may, again, have played a minor role.

The Litani River has a natural flow of about 700 MCM/yr. A dam at Qir'awn in the Beka'a Valley and irrigation and hydropower diversions completed in the mid-1960s reduce the lower Litani flow to 300-400 MCM/yr (Kolars 1992). This lower section, flowing within kilometres of the Hasbani and the Israeli border, historically had presented the possibilities of diversions in conjunction with the Jordan system. The Israeli Cotton Plan and the Arab Headwaters Diversion Plan envisioned water diverted into and out of the Jordan basin, respectively. In fact, even before 1982, Israel had carried out seismic studies and received intelligence reports on the feasibility of a Litani diversion (Naff and Matson 1984, 76). These reports concluded that a diversion would be economically unattractive and, in any event, would be politically infeasible until cooperation could be developed with Lebanon (interviews, Haim Paldi, October 1991; Menahem Cantor, November 1991).

After the invasion was launched by the then Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, a 'water hawk" who had frequently spoken of seizing the Litani, Israel captured the Qir'awn Dam and brought hydrographic charts and technical documents relating to the Litani and its installations back to Israel (Cooley 1984, 22).

During the years of Israeli occupation from 1982 to 1985, several analysts developed and elaborated on a "hydraulic imperative" theory, which described water as the motivator for Israeli conquests, both recently, in Lebanon, and earlier, in the West Bank and Golan Heights (see, for example, Davis et al. 1980; Kahhaleh 1981; Stauffer 1982; Cooley 1984). The speculations for likely Israeli actions in Lebanon by proponents of this theory ranged from a simple diversion of the 100 MCM/yr available at the lower Litani to elaborate conjectures of a permanent occupation of the entire Beka'a Valley south of the Beirut-Damascus Highway, which (according to Stauffer 1982), along with a hypothetical destruction of the Qir'awn Dam and Marhaba Diversion Tunnel and forced depopulation of southern Lebanon, would allow diversion of the entire 700 MCM/yr flow of the river into Israel.

More is mentioned in a later section about this "hydraulic imperative" theory, which has already been critiqued on political, technical, and economic grounds (Naff and Matson 1984, 75-80; Wishart 1989, 14). The strongest rebuttal, however, at least with regard to Lebanon, comes from the fact that, despite method, more than eight years of opportunity, and (given a serious drought since the mid-1980s) ample motive, the Israelis are not now diverting the Litani River. However, the "Security Zone" that Israel retains since its withdrawal does still include the most likely diversion point at Taibeih. Moreover, former Technology Minister Yuval Ne'eman has mentioned in the past that, if the Lebanese ever cared to sell some of the Litani waters, "we could make good use of them in the Northern Galilee" (Cooley 1984, 25).

In the meantime, the opposite is true. Cut off from their water supply partly because of strained relations with Beirut, the villagers of Bint Jbil and five other villages in central southern Lebanon approached the Israelis for help in 1985. Israel, which since 1979 has had a "good fence" policy of influencing the residents of southern Lebanon in its favour with a combination of military and humanitarian aid, responded to the request for water by building a pipeline from a pump at Shtula, on the Israeli side of the border. Since that time, an average of 50,000 m3/month has flowed from Israel into Lebanon (Mekorot maps; interview, Avner Turgeman, December 1991).

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