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Hydroconspiracy theories: The "hydraulic imperative," and "hydronationalism"

As mentioned in the introduction to this section on history, I have culled instances of water-related conflict and cooperation from the vast geopolitical forces at work in the region. If one were not wary of this fact, and in view of the extensive history of the linkage between Middle East water resources and strategic thinking, it would not be difficult to develop and "prove" a theory citing water as the motivating factor for regional conflict. Two historic themes that have found favour among some authors in academic literature and the popular press do just that. Both themes, the "hydraulic imperative," ("Israel's territorial conquests have actually been quests for greater water resources") and that of "hydronationalism" ("Israeli water security depends on retention of the entire West Bank and Golan Heights in perpetuity"), are described and critiqued more fully below.

The hydraulic imperative

Proponents of a "hydraulic imperative" theory - which describes the quest for water resources as the motivator for Israeli military conquests, both in Lebanon in 1979 and 1982 and earlier, on the Golan Heights and West Bank in 1967 - usually point to some combination of the following to support their argument for Lebanon (see, for example, Davis et al. 1980; Stauffer 1982; Schmida 1983; Stork 1983; Cooley 1984; Dillman 1989):

  1. Early Zionist lobbyists and planners, from Chaim Weizmann at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, through the Hays and Cotton plans of the 1940s and 1950s, have advocated inclusion of either the Litani River in Israeli borders or of Litani water into the Jordan watershed.
  2. The 1979 Litani Operation left Major Sa'ad Haddad to protect Israeli interests in southern Lebanon. Along with helping to prevent terrorist incursions, the South Lebanon Army is reported to have protected the Hasbani headwaters and the likely area for a Litani diversion project.
  3. In the early stages of the 1982 war in Lebanon, Israel "captured the Qir'awn Dam and seized all hydrographic charts and technical documents relating to the Litani and its installations." After Israeli withdrawal from the country, the "Security Zone" still leaves Israel in control of the area from Taibe and slightly north where a water diversion could be effected.

Particularly during the years of Israeli occupation from 1982 to 1985, several analysts developed and elaborated on the "hydraulic imperative" theory. 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, 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.

Many have been convinced that Israel is, in fact, diverting water from the Litani into Israel. According to John Cooley, "It was small wonder that the first Israeli diversion plans for the Litani have come into being" (cited in Sofer 1991, 6). More recently, Fred Pearce (1991, 39) described tensions in southern Lebanon, "where Israel is widely reported to be diverting the flow of the River Litani south into Israel," and Thomas Naff, who had sharply critiqued the hydraulic imperative in his 1984 study (Naff and Matson 1984, 75-80), has noted that

Although water may not have been the prime impetus behind the Israel acquisition of territory, as the "hydraulic imperative" alleges, it seems perhaps the main factor determining its retention of that territory. (Frey and Naff 1985, 76)

Professor Naff testified to Congress in 1990 that "owing to serious shortages, Israel is presently conducting a large-scale operation of trucking water to Israel from the Litani River ..." (US House of Representatives 1990, 24). He has since modified the contention to "water, it seems, was instead trucked to units of the Israeli-supported Lebanese Army of South Lebanon in the 'security zone' and, perhaps, to some Shi'i villages in the same area as a reward for their cooperation" (Naff 1992, 6). Lebanese diplomats, however, on hearing the original charges, were prepared to bring the matter to a UN Security Council resolution against Israel (press reports, September 1990).

Building retroactively on the Lebanon experience, Israel's conquests in 1967 also were included in the "imperative." It is clear that tensions between Israel and Syria over water since 1964 had contributed to the developments leading to fighting in 1967, that Israel was approaching its hydrologic limits, and that it made tremendous hydrostrategic gains in the war itself. Making the link between the three, it has now become common to claim that water resources were one of the strategic goals for Israel during the war. Many of the authors cited above make such claims, as does Peter Beaumont:

To avoid each of the states (Lebanon and Syria) controlling their own water resources, Israel invaded southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights of Syria in 1967. The pretext given was strategic reasons, but the control of the water resources of the area seems a more compelling and realistic reason. (Beaumont 1991, 8)

One might expand a conspiracy theory, if one were so inclined, to include information that has not yet appeared in the literature. For example, one might include the taking, by Israeli forces in the 1967 war, of the Awali town of Ghajar, at the junction of borders between Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. Ghajar had no strategic importance in the military sense in that it neither contained combatants nor was situated in a strategic position, but it does directly overlook the Wazzani springs, which contribute 20-25 MCM/yr to the Hasbani's total annual flow of 125 MCM/yr. During dry summer months, the Wazzani is the only flowing source of the Hasbani. Ghajar was the site of the projected dams for the 1964 Arab Diversion.

Moreover, after the 1979 "Operation Litani," engineers from Mekorot developed plans to divert from 5 to 10 MCM/yr from the Wazzani springs for irrigation in Shi'ite southern Lebanon and in Israel. To allow the project to flow on gravity alone, a slight northward modification of the Israeli-Lebanese border was considered (Khativ and Khativ 1988; interviews, Haim Paldi, Avner Turgeman, October 1991).

One might add the backgrounds in both water and security issues of many Israeli policy makers, dating back to the 1920s, as proof of a deep-rooted plan linking the two: Aaron Aaronsohn, who formulated Zionist borders for the 1919 peace talks, was both an agriculturalist and a spy against the Turks for the British; Levi Eshkol, Prime Minister during the 1967 war, was one of the founders of Mekorot, the Israeli water company; Moshe Dayan, Defence Minister during the war, was Agricultural Minister immediately beforehand; Ariel Sharon, Defence Minister during the Lebanon war, was also a Minister of Agriculture; Rafael Eitan, a recent Minister of Agriculture, is a retired Army Chief of Staff; and Nahum Admoni, current Director of Mekorot, is the retired Director of the Mossad, Israel's secret service. One would have to add, however, that in a country where every citizen does military service, axgenerals are found in any number of civilian roles, including those of the Mayor of Tel Aviv and the Director of the Archaeological Service.

As mentioned earlier, the hydraulic imperative has been critiqued for political and technical weaknesses by Naff and Matson (1984, 75-80), as well as on economic grounds by Wishart (1989, 14). Nevertheless, because a thorough analysis of the region's options for the future depends in part on a clear understanding of what has happened in the past, it is worth investigating the theory in greater detail. To examine the validity of the hydraulic imperative, two questions must be answered: was the location of water resources a factor in the military strategy of Israel in 1967, 1978, or 1982, and is Israel now diverting water from the Litani River?


It is occasionally difficult to distinguish between military strategy, defined concisely by one officer as "from where are they shooting and from where will we shoot back," and hydrostrategy, the influence of the location of water resources on strategic thinking. A river, for example, is also an ideal barrier against tanks and troop movements, and, as clear landmarks, rivers often delineate borders. High ridges, ideal for military positioning, are also often local watershed boundaries. Nevertheless, by examining the strategic decision-making of those involved in a particular event, some distinctions can be made.

In the events leading up to the 1967 war, it has already been noted in some detail how conflict over water resources between Syria and Israel contributed to tensions leading to the fighting. The war itself, however, started in the south, with Egypt expelling the UN forces in the Sinai and blocking Israeli shipping to Eilat. The Sinai Desert was the first front when war broke out on 5 June 1967, with the straits of Sharm-el-Sheikh the primary objective.

The hydrostrategic points over which Israel gained control during the war were on the West Bank, including the recharge zones of several aquifers, some of which Israel had been tapping into since the 1950s; on the Golan Heights, including the Banias springs, which Syria had attempted to divert in 1965; and, further south, at El-Hama and at an overlook on the proposed site of the Maqarin Dam (the former was controlled by Jordan, and the latter by Syria).

Before the war, and even in its first days, Israel had agreed not to engage in combat with Jordan, as long as Jordan did not attack. However, Jordan did launch several artillery barrages in the first days of the war, which opened up the West Bank as the second front (Sachar 1979).

Finally, despite attacks from Syria, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan was extremely reluctant to launch an attack on the Golan Heights because of the presence of Soviet advisers, and the consequent danger of widening the conflict (Slater 1991). For the first three days of the war, Dayan held off arguments from several of his advisers, including the Commanding Officer of the Northern Command, David Elazar, to launch an attack on the Golan Heights. Finally, a delegation from the northern settlements, which had often experienced Syrian sniping and artillery barrages, travelled to Tel Aviv to ask Dayan to take the Heights to guarantee their security. Only then, on 9 June, did Israeli forces launch an attack against Syria (Slater 1991, 277).

In the taking of the Golan Heights, the water sources mentioned above were incidental conquests as Israeli forces moved as far east as Kuneitra (see appendix I, map 28). Below the Heights, Israeli troops stopped directly outside Ghajar. They reportedly did this because, on Israeli maps, Ghajar was Lebanese territory, and Israel did not want to involve Lebanon in the war. Ghajar, it turned out, was Syrian - it had been misplaced on 1943 British maps. As Ghajar had been cut off from the rest of Syria during the war, a delegation had travelled to Beirut to ask to be annexed: Lebanon was not interested. Three months after the war, another delegation travelled to

Israel and asked that the village become Israeli; only then did Israeli control extend north through Ghajar (Khativ and Khativ 1988; interview, Gamal Khativ, October 1991). Only the village itself was included, however, and most of its agricultural land remained in Syria. Mekorot engineers did install a three-inch pipe for drinking-water for the villagers from the Wazzani springs, which, although literally a stone's throw from the village, was left under Lebanese control (interviews, Gamal Khativ, Haim Paldi, October 1991).

Extensive literature exists on the detailed decision-making on the events before, during, and after the 1967 war. What is noticeable in a search for references to water resources, either as strategic targets, or even as a subject for propaganda by either side, is the almost complete absence of such references. In International Documents on Palestine, 1967, a compilation of documents, statements, and speeches by Israelis, Arabs, Americans, and Soviets for all of 1967, the only reference to water is in a document submitted by Israel to the United Nations after the war, which includes mention of the successful resumption of water works in Jerusalem (Institute for Palestine Studies 1970, 327). In Decisions in Israel's Foreign Policy, Michael Brecher (1974) includes chapters on both "Jordan Waters," and "The Six Day War," but mentions no link. In a detailed study of the roots of the 1967 war, Walter Laqueur mentions that "in 1967, [water] was not among the major causes of Arab-Israeli conflict, certainly not one of the immediate reasons for hostilities" (Laqueur 1967, 50). Stein and Tanter (1980) do not mention water at all.

The same absence of documentation is true for Israeli reasons for launching operations in Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 (see, for example, MacBride 1983). As noted previously, Israel's ally in southern Lebanon, Major Sa'ad Haddad, had made clear to Israel in 1979 that water was a taboo subject. It was Haddad, too, who quashed Israel's plans in 1979 for a diversion of the Wazzani springs. Both Major-General Avraham Tamir, who helped to outline Israel's strategic needs in 1967 and in 1982, and an officer who acted as the liaison officer between Israeli and South Lebanese forces, have described in detail the military strategy of both the 1967 war and of the 1982 war in Lebanon, the former participant in his book A Soldier in Search of Peace (1988), and both in interviews (October and December, 1991). Again, mention of water is conspicuously absent, although the liaison officer acknowledges that plans were investigated, but never used, to cut water to Beirut to enforce a siege. Furthermore, although Israeli studies have been conducted on the possibility of integrating the Litani and Jordan watersheds, each concludes that such a project can proceed only with international (especially Lebanese) assent.

It should also be noted that, immediately after the wars in 1967 and 1982, strategic needs (none of which related to water) were spelled out by the Israeli government; these needs, if met, would result in Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory. According to Moshe Dayan, the Golan Heights were negotiable even without a peace treaty and, with such a treaty, so was the rest of the territory captured in 1967, except East Jerusalem (Slater 1991, 286290). The same strategy of holding conquered land as an inducement to peace talks was followed immediately after the 1982 war in Lebanon. In 1983, an Israeli-Lebanese agreement was signed that called for an Israeli withdrawal from all of Lebanon. The agreement was abrogated in 1984, however, and consequently Israel justifies its continued presence in the "security zone" (Tamir 1988).

Althought the official line of the Israel Army Spokesman is that "water is a political issue, not military" (personal communication, August 1991), the Israeli army planning branch, which Tamir developed, does have one officer whose responsibilities include evaluating the strategic importance of water resources. Both the officer with those responsibilities during the 1982 war and Tamir insist that water was not, even incidentally, a factor in the war. When pressed on the subject, Tamir replied:

Why go to war over water? For the price of one week's fighting, you could build five desalination plants. No loss of life, no international pressure, and a reliable supply you don't have to defend in hostile territory. (Interview, December 1991)


While one of the most difficult tasks is to prove the absence of something, an extensive search for any evidence of a diversion or trucking operation has turned up nothing to suggest that any Litani water enters Israel at the time of waiting. My search took the following tracks.

First, it is clear that Zionist and Israeli plans for regional development have often investigated the possibility of integrating the Litani and Jordan basins. However, since 1944, all of these plans have concluded that such integration would be impossible without Lebanese approval. To gain such approval, some plans have included provisions for an exchange of hydropower for water, or even buying ex cess water outright. Recent studies also question the economics of a diversion: with 300 MCM/yr available below the Qir'awn Dam, only 100 MCM/yr would be available for export after considering the needs of southern Lebanon.

It should be mentioned that both Syria and Jordan have also expressed interest recently in diverting or buying Litani water. In fact, because of the proximity of the two watersheds - one with water surplus, the other overextended - it is hardly surprising that any number of plans have been put forward to integrate the two watersheds since a British plan first proposed the idea in 1918 (Dane and Benton 1918). The Lebanese position was (and continues to be) that rights to Lebanese water should be retained for future Lebanese development.

Second, reports of a secret diversion tunnel were investigated by UN forces, as well as by members of the international press, to no avail (Sofer 1991). Satellite photos (LANDSAT and SPOT), air photographs (Israeli Air Force), Mekorot maps, and field investigations (June 1987; June, October, December 1991), all show only the two water pipelines previously mentioned crossing the Lebanon-Israel border - a 3-inch pipe to the town of Ghajar and a 10-inch pipe from Israel into the Lebanese village of R'meish.

Third, hydrologic records show neither any unaccountable water in the Israeli water budget after 1978 nor any increases in the average flows of the Ayun or the Hasbani, the most likely carrier streams for a diversion. Because of three years of drought, on 14 October 1991 the Israeli Water Commissioner asked the Knesset to allow pumping of the Sea of Galilee below the legal "Red Line," the legal water level below which the entire lake is in danger of becoming saline. On the same day, a field investigation showed that both the Ayun and the Hasbani above the Wazzani springs were dry.

Fourth, a hypothetical trucking operation is even more difficult to prove or disprove. Both officials in Mekorot (interview, Avner Turgeman, October 1991) and Israeli officers responsible for southern Lebanon acknowledge that witnesses may have seen Israeli military water trucks in southern Lebanon. Each has suggested that the most likely explanation is that the trucks were carrying drinking water from Israel for Israeli troops stationed in the "security zone." Israeli military code, they point out, insists that soldiers drink water only from official collection points, all of which are in Israel.

An officer who has acted as liaison officer between Israeli and South Lebanon forces doubts that anyone saw Israeli trucks filling at the Litani, pointing out that the 20-ton "Rigs" that are used to carry water could not make the grade of the military road that leads away from the Litani, if the trucks were full (interview, October 1991). Sofer (1991, 7) has calculated that a cubic metre of water trucked from the Litani into Israel would cost about US$4-US$10, compared with about US$1.50 for a cubic metre of desalinated water.


The use of water resources to bolster political claims has not been restricted to questioning Israel's motives towards its neighbours. Nationalists within Israel have also claimed water as an overriding incentive for their political ends.

In August 1990, the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, headed by Rafael Eitan of the right-wing Tzomet party, took out full-page advertisements in the international press, subheaded "The Question of Water - Some Dry Facts." The advertisement described the hydrologic relationship between Israel and the West Bank and emphasized the danger to both water quantity and quality of territorial compromise. The advertisement concluded that Israeli control over the entire West Bank was necessary to protect Israeli water sources:

It is important to realize that the claim to continued Israeli control over Judea and Samaria is not based on extremist fanaticism or religious mysticism but on a rational, healthy and reasonable survival instinct.

Attacked for using Ministry funds for political purposes, the Ministry issued a five-page position paper expanding on the hydrologic argument and suggesting that Eitan was within his rights to publish the advertisement (see appendix III).

The questions raised by the incident go beyond the validity of the advertisement or the position paper, but rather point to one primary issue: how much of the territory over which Israel took control in 1967 will it view as necessary to retain to guarantee its water supplies? Although not as prevalent in the academic literature as the "hydraulic imperative," Israeli proponents of holding West Bank territory to control Israeli water resources are prevalent and cross political boundaries, as explored previously in this work in the section on Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. In order to allow for greater flexibility in negotiations, as is described in chapter 4, it is worth investigating the hydrologic validity of the claim.

As mentioned above, and in the previous section on history, several points have been identified by Israel historically as strategically important to its hydrologic security. On the Golan Heights, these include the Banias springs, El-Hama, and some strategic overlooks over the Yarmuk River and the Sea of Galilee. The West Bank is somewhat more convoluted.

As mentioned earlier, Israel has been tapping into the Yarkon-Taninim, or western mountain, aquifer since 1955. It also relies on two other aquifers that recharge on the West Bank - the north-east and the eastern mountain aquifers; the former discharges into the Jezreel Valley and the latter into the Jordan Valley. The three aquifers combine to provide about 30 per cent of Israel's water supply.

The claims of the Ministry of Agriculture cloud the issue somewhat by combining the three aquifers into one political argument. It is clear from examining hydrogeologic maps (e.g. Goldschmidt and Jacobs 1958; Weinberger 1991), for example, that, provided with an alternate source of water, Israel might be able to relinquish control over most of the eastern mountain aquifer without endangering its supply on the west side of the Judaean hills.

The western mountain aquifer is a more complex case, however, and most of the quotations used in the Ministry's position paper refer to this problem. Again, a historical perspective might be useful. In 1977, as Israeli Prime Minister Begin was preparing for negotiations with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, he asked the then Water Commissioner Menahem Cantor to provide him with a map of Israeli water usage from water originating on the West Bank (see appendix I, map 29) and to provide guidelines as to where Israel might relinquish control, if protecting Israel's water resources were the only consideration.

Because of the disparate depths to water for the western mountain aquifer in the coastal plain and in the Judaean hills (about 60 m in the plain, 150-200 m in the foothills, and 700-800 m in the hills) (Gold-Schmidt and Jacobs 1958; Weinberger 1991), and the resulting differences in the cost of drilling and pumping wells in these areas, Cantor concluded that a "red line" could be drawn, beyond which Israel should not relinquish control, north to south, following roughly the 100-200 mm contour line. This still left control over water on about two-thirds of the West Bank open for negotiations.

Some settlement plans for the late 1970s referred in part to this line, and about five settlements around Elkanna were reportedly sited in part to guarantee continued Israeli control of the water resources on its side of this "red line" (Pedhatzor 1989; State of Israel memoranda, April-June 1977) (see appendix I, map 30).

Israeli water planners still refer to this "red line" as a frame of reference (interviews, Zeev Golani, October 1991; Shmuel Cantor, December 1991), and inclusion of a discussion along similar lines was one of the reasons for the censorship of the 1991 Jaffee Center Study by the Minister of Agriculture, as mentioned earlier.


My purpose in this discussion has not been to enter into the fray of political charges on either side. Rather, I feel that it is helpful to agree on a common history before planning for the future. Furthermore, as I examine, later in this work, a series of possible negotiating scenarios, it is important to examine the hydrologic facts behind the bargaining position for each entity. I therefore offer some conclusions regarding the "hydroconspiracy" theories of each side.

First, water resources were not a factor in Israeli strategic planning in the hostilities of 1967, 1978, or 1982. By this I mean that the decision to go to war, and strategic decisions made during the fighting (including which territory it was necessary to capture), were not influenced by water scarcity or the location of water resources. The location of water resources was not considered to constitute a strategic position (except in the purely military sense), nor was it a factor in retaining territory immediately after the hostilities. In the mid-1970s, however, a narrow band of the West Bank did begin to be claimed as crucial to retain for hydrologic reasons. This is true also of the Banias springs, El-Hama, and some strategic overlooks on the Golan Heights.

Second, there is no evidence that Israel is diverting any water from the Litani River, either by pipe or by truck. In fact, since 1985, when central southern Lebanon lost its own water supply, an average of 50,000 m3/month has been piped into that region from wells in northern Israel.

Third, the claim that Israel requires the entire West Bank for its water security is not hydrologically sound. Israeli technical and government officials have, since the mid-1970s, developed a "red line" informed by the watershed boundary and population centres, as well as by security needs, beyond which Israel probably would not withdraw control of the water resources, even in the event of an exchange of "land for peace." This amounts to a narrow band of the most western part of the West Bank, drawn approximately along the 100-200 m contour line (see appendix I, map 29).

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