In heated conflict between Israeli and Arab neighbors, water remains a prize

January 28, 1992|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Water has been an incentive for warfare in the Middle East since the first wanderer found a spring in the desert and decided to protect it with his life.

In the hundreds of clashes between Israel and its Arab neighbors, water often has been the sought-after prize. Armies have fought over malarial swamps and small streams because as a measure of local wealth water is rivaled only by land and oil.

Most battles in the water war have been fought in a small pocket of territory lying east and north of the Sea of Galilee, along the borders that existed before 1967 between Israel, Syria and Jordan. The prize is the series of tributaries feeding major water systems to the south.

Three streams emerge within that pocket and eventually form the Jordan River. One, the Dan, lies wholly within Israel. The two others, the Hasbani and Banias rivers, arise inside Syria's Golan Heights. Another, more southerly tributary, the Yarmuk River, forms part of the border between Syria and Jordan, and joins the Jordan River south of the Sea of Galilee.

Conflict over these waters began in the early 1950s and has never entirely stopped:

* In 1951, Israel began draining a large, swampy area north of the Sea of Galilee, lying partly inside a demilitarized zone separating Israeli and Syrian territory. Both countries sent soldiers into the area. Israeli aircraft bombed a village there.

* From 1953 to 1956, Israel sought to divert the Jordan River at a point inside the demilitarized zone. Work was stopped after the United Nations supported a protest by Syria and the United States threatened to withhold economic aid to Israel.

* In a clash over fishing rights, Israeli and Syrian forces exchanged fire for two days in 1955 around the Sea of Galilee. Israeli troops then attacked a village northeast of the lake.

* Syria and Jordan in 1964 began construction work to prevent water from the Dan and Hasbani rivers from reaching the stretch of the Jordan controlled by Israel. Israel's response escalated from artillery shelling to a bombing raid.

RF * In 1965, Fatah, the faction of the Palestine Liberation Organiza

tion led by Yasser Arafat, carried out its first armed raid against Israel. The target was a water pumping station.

* Tensions over water escalated until they became part of the 1967 Six Day War. In 1966, to stop Syria's water diversion work, Israeli aircraft bombed the Syrian dam construction site. In April 1967, two months before the outbreak of the war, Israel's aircraft attacked the waterworks.

* While historians say the water dispute did not cause the 1967 war,it was part of the long buildup. When the war was over, Israel controlled the Golan Heights. It captured the waters of the Hasbani and the Banias, and held enough of the Yarmuk to block any significant water project by Jordan.

Control of the Golan is a central issue in the Arab-Israeli peace talks, since Syria demands return of the territory before agreeing to sign a peace treaty. Israel maintains that the area has too much strategic importance to be returned -- at least, not without guarantees against Syria again trying to divert its waters.

Israel and Jordan have occasional skirmishes at the Yarmuk. A pipeline on Jordan's side of the river directs water into the East Ghor Canal, the kingdom's main irrigation system. A short distance downstream is where the Yarmuk comes under Israeli control -- and where a not-so-friendly rivalry occurs.

Jordan needs Israel's permission to clear away silt and rocks that collect around the pipeline. Permission has not always been forthcoming, since the obstruction sends more water into Israel.

Jordan has complained that after the rocks were cleared, Israeli crews sometimes move them back, to block the pipeline. In 1979, both countries mobilized troops there. Since then, they have relied on mediation by the United States.

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