- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 16, 2002

RAJAR, Israel In a region infamous for land disputes, the planned inauguration today of a Lebanese pumping station on the Wazzani River has sparked a debate over water rights that is worrying U.S. officials.
The river, more properly a shallow stream, wends through the parched, brown land on Lebanon's southern frontier before joining the Hatzbani River and flowing on toward the Sea of Galilee, Israel's main source of fresh water.
Lebanon says its purpose is to provide running water for the first time to 170,000 of its citizens living in an area that was occupied by Israeli troops until two years ago.
But Israel considers the project a brazen attempt to tamper with its biggest reservoir, and the United States fears it could ignite a conflict that would compromise its attempt to rally Arab support for a war on Iraq.
Chuck Lawson, a U.S. water expert sent to the region by the State Department, has been conducting quiet talks with officials on both sides of the border in recent weeks. The European Union and the United Nations have also sent delegates to mediate.
But the sides have so far resisted any accord, and Mr. Lawson is expected to leave today, though the U.S. mediation effort will continue.
"This is dangerous business," said Paul Patin, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Israel. "The northern border with Lebanon has always been a number-one concern to the Americans, because it could easily get out of hand and go regional."
Tension surrounding water rights on the border of Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan dates back almost 50 years to when Israel began diverting the biblical stream for its own water needs.
Intervention by U.S. Ambassador Eric Johnston helped prevent an all-out war with Syria and resulted in the informal adoption of national water quotas that allowed Lebanon 1.25 billion cubic feet of water a year about three times the capacity of the new pumping facility.
The quotas never formally adopted by any Arab government were moot until Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon 2 years ago, abandoning its self-declared "security zone" after a war of attrition with Hezbollah guerrillas.
Lebanon now wants to claim what is sees as its own water, arguing that its pumping plan complies with international law and has been submitted to the United Nations.
"Lebanon doesn't want any problems with anyone. They just want to drink water," said a spokesman for Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who declined to be named. "You don't need to know where the border is. You just see the green farmland on the Israeli side, which looks like California, and you see the brown on the Lebanon side."
But for Israel, the water dispute feeds a sense of insecurity that has been heightened by two years of intifada.
The Sea of Galilee is at record lows after five years of drought, and public-service radio announcements remind Israelis on an hourly basis to turn off their taps. The pumping station is seen as an attempt to force Israel to choose war or allow Lebanon to dictate its water quota.
"It's not a political issue, it's an existential one," said Ra'anan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "There's broad consensus that Israel can't reconcile itself to any change in the water allocation."

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