US mediates in Israel-Lebanon dispute over river pumping


MIDDLE EAST: The US has begun an attempt to mediate a water crisis between Israel and Lebanon which Israel's Prime Minister, Mr Ariel Sharon, has warned could lead to war.

A four-member team from the United States Agency for International Development, including an expert in international water law, visited the site yesterday on the Wazzani River in south Lebanon where, to Israel's fury, a new pumping station is being completed.

Welcomed by both Lebanon and Israel, the US team began a mission which officials suggested might last several weeks, but which Israeli officials describe as an urgent.

The rapid deployment of the team - just days after Mr Sharon was quoted as intimating that he might resort to military action to prevent Lebanese pumping of Wazzani River water which would otherwise flow into Israel - suggested that the US, privately at least, also recognises the urgency.

Twice in the past year, the Lebanese government has undertaken minor projects to pump relatively small additional quantities of water to supply nearby villages in the south of the country from the Wazzani, which flows into the Hatsbani, one of the three main sources of the Jordan River into Israel.

Lebanon has recently intensified work on a more substantial pumping station, believed to be capable of increasing the annual quantity of water which Lebanon pumps from the Wazzani from the current seven million cubic metres to nine million.

If it goes ahead, the loss would represent less than 1 per cent of Israel's annual water consumption. However Mr Sharon and other Israeli officials have indicated that they fear further such pumping if this project is not blocked, and also that they regard the initiative as an attempt, endorsed if not initiated by Syria, Lebanon's patron state, to draw Israel into a conflict which could raise Middle East tensions and complicate US moves towards an attack on Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Mr Sharon told cabinet colleagues last week that Israel "could not stand idly by" if the project reached fruition - which is believed to be a matter of weeks.

That statement, deliberately leaked to the media, appeared to indicate that Israel's patience with behind-the-scenes diplomacy had been exhausted; it had for months been sending warning messages to Syria via US diplomats. The Bush administration promptly urged Mr Sharon to lower the rhetoric and begin making plans for yesterday's despatch of mediators.

Lebanon's Minister of Energy, Mr Mohammad Abdel Hamid Beydune, has accused Israel of making a fuss about nothing. The Lebanese President, Mr Emile Lahoud, said he would not be deterred by Israel's threats and that the decision to use the Wazzani "to irrigate parched land and villages in the south is final and irreversible".

Arab plans to divert the River Jordan's headwaters in the mid- 1960s and thus to prevent much of the flow into Israel, were a key factor in the descent into war in 1967. Down the decades since, as water has grown more scarce, almost every Arab and Israeli leader has highlighted the potential for water disputes to deteriorate into full-scale conflict.

Israeli troops shot dead an Egyptian man in Gaza yesterday and handed over the body to Palestinian authorities, Palestinian police officials said. An eyewitness said the man confronted troops who were stopping cars and asking drivers to get out at a Gaza junction. The Israeli army said he had thrown grenades at soldiers.