Water and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process - by Mike Ammons

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Water and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process
by Mike Ammons
November 16, 1999

The maps that he references in this article are small and hard to read so I didn't bother to link them here. You can go to the website linked above if you have eagle eyes and would like to try and read them. smiling I added the maps below that I think show most of the areas he discusses. (Note that the bottom map shows 1922 borders.)


Although the core issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the Palestine question, water has been a continuous matter of dispute that is intrinsically linked to it. Because half of Israel’s water demands are being met outside of its internationally recognized borders (Scheumann-Schiffler p.50), water rights between Israel and Palestine are directly linked to the scope of Palestinian sovereignty. Most of the surface and major ground water resources in the Jordan River basin are trans-boundary. Thus, a regional water settlement will depend on the outcome of the entire peace resolution.

The root of the Arab-Israeli water issue can be traced back to 9 March 1916, when the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed between the British and the French. The agreement divided the Middle East into regions of British and French control; however, it made no direct mention of water rights. "The spheres of influence of the Sykes-Picot Agreement would have left the watersheds in the region divided in a particularly convoluted manner; the Litani and Jordan headwaters to just south of the Huleh region would be French; the Sea of Galilee would be divided between international and French zones; the Yarmouk Valley would be split between British and French; and the lower stem of the Jordan would be international on the west bank and British on the east." (Wolf p.18)

As World War I drew to a close in 1918 and the outcome became evident, each party with national interests in the region began adding water resources to its claims. The Zionist position formulated its boundary plan on three requirements: historic, strategic, and economic considerations.(Wolf p.22). The economic consideration was based on water. The vast number of immigrants would require large-scale irrigation. Additionally, because the region was devoid of the rich fossil fuels of the gulf region, hydroelectricity was the only other alternative for power. "The plans were completely dependent on the acquisition of the headwaters of the Jordan, the Litani River, the snows of the Hermon, the Yarmouk and its tributaries". (Wolf p.20)

Emir Feisal represented the Arab delegation and supported the Zionist’s position in part, because he saw it as useful in his own nationalist aspirations. Feisal and Chaim Weizman mutually agreed that all water and farm boundary issues should be settled between the two parties. However, Feisal abstained from negotiations for Lebanon (because it was largely Christian and had its own delegates) and Palestine.

Once testimony from all concerned parties had been heard, the plan for drawing the boundaries between the mandates was left for the British and French to decide. On 4 December 1920, a final boundary agreement was reached between the British and French. Although the consideration for water resources had been important, it was clear that the boundary decision had been based on British and French rights to railroads, pipelines and political alliances. The boundaries were drawn in a manner in which no developing state could fully achieve its historic, strategic, and economic goals. The Palestinian boundaries were particularly unfavorable, guaranteeing a long running dispute.

As nationalism developed and immigration to the Jewish homeland increased, so did tensions in the region. The British and French gradually relinquished control to the developing nations, as required by mandate, but not without difficulties. Historical claims and questions of the region’s ability to absorb the large number of Jewish immigrants became matters of dispute that increasingly led to open conflict between the Jews and Arabs. These disputes culminated in the 1948 Palestine War.

Israel’s war strategy focused on three areas deemed necessary for the creation of a viable Jewish state; "[the Galilee region within the Jordan headwaters, the coastal zone within the population centers, and the Negev Desert to absorb anticipated immigration]." (p. 42 Wolf) By the end of the war, Israel had gained approximately twenty percent more land than that which had been allocated to it by the 1947 partition plan. More importantly, it had seized much of the upper cachement system of the Jordan River, making it possible to execute the Lowdermilk-Hayes plan (Lowi p.47-51), the plan to irrigate Israel’s coastal plain and the Negev Desert. (see map 1)

Israel’s gains were particularly hard on Jordan. In the aftermath of the war, 450,000 Palestinians fled to Jordan in need of food and shelter. Jordan was forced to contend with the large number of refugees in addition to those it was already supporting in the West Bank. With its population tripling within a two-year period, Jordan was in desperate need of economic development. Israel’s need for economic development was no less daunting. Since its declaration of statehood, all barriers to immigration were dropped and Israel saw its population of 700,000 Jews double within its first four years of statehood. Both states began intensive unilateral programs for water development but with different interests. Israel was interested in the development of the coastal plain and Negev, while Jordan wanted to keep the water in the Jordan Valley for development.

On the Syrian border, the water dispute was more of a strategic dispute than a true dispute over water rights. The 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and Syria established a demilitarized zone (DMZ) of "an area of less than 100 square miles stretching from above Lake Huleh to south of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias)." (Muslih p.613) The DMZ consisted of three sectors. The northern sector was comprised of Syrian, Palestinian and Israeli villagers. The other two areas straddled the Jordan River and were strategically valuable because of their ability to control the river flow (see map 2).

Between 1949 and 1967, many of the Arab-Israeli conflicts were created by Israel’s creeping infringement on the DMZ. "Israel’s territorial encroachments were based on five points: when Israel and Syria entered into the armistice agreement negotiations, their intention was to reach a military arrangement that would exclude the armed forces of both parties from the DMZ; since the agreement was purely military in nature, it followed, therefore, that the parts of the DMZ could not be separated from the sovereign to which they formerly belonged, namely from "Israeli sovereignty"; since Israel’s "sovereignty" over the zones remained unimpaired, all laws in force in Israel were in force in the DMZ, and this entitled Israel to perform "non-military" duties in the area, including the building of fortifications." (Muslih p.614) Israel’s policy was to use legalistic tactics to help achieve its economic plan: namely, drain Lake Huleh, gain control of Lake Tiberias, and complete the National Water Carrier Project.

Syria argued that the armistice agreement stipulated that the DMZ was neither under Syrian control nor Israeli control. Therefore, any encroachment upon the DMZ, since it belonged to neither side, could be construed as in violation of the armistice and countered with military force.

Jordan signed an agreement with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in 1953 to construct a dam along the Yarmouk River at Maqarin for water storage. A second dam was planned at Addassiyah to divert water flow along the East Ghor. The water would help open new areas for irrigation and offer resettlement for 100,000 Palestinians. While Syria agreed to the project, Israel protested that its riparian rights were not being recognized.

In July 1953, four months after Jordan’s attempt to develop the Jordan River, Israel began work on its National Water Carrier. Construction began north of Lake Tiberias and in the DMZ. Syria responded by deploying its armed forces and firing upon the construction with artillery. Both sides appealed to the UN to resolve the problem. Israel received a majority vote that would have allowed it to continue its work in the DMZ. However, thanks to an USSR veto Israel was forced to move its construction site.

Israel relocated its intake site to the northwestern shore of Lake Tiberias. This move proved very costly to Israel for two reasons. First, the salinity level was too high in Lake Tiberias to be suitable for agriculture. Israel was forced to divert some of the saline springs away from the lake and filter the water for the water carrier. Second, the lower elevation of the site required the water to be pumped up to a higher location where it could flow by gravitational forces. The first site for the carrier would not have required any such additional pumping.

In light of the tense situation, President Eisenhower sent Special Envoy Eric Johnston to the region to help mediate a comprehensive settlement. Johnston’s plan focused on a regional approach versus the previous unilateral approaches by all sides. The major features of the plan included dams on the Banias, Habani, Dan and Yarmouk. Lake Tiberias would be utilized for additional storage, and gravity flow canals would run down both sides of the Jordan River. Each riparian would be allocated a specific amount of water (see figure 1, below) commensurate to its population and water needs.

Johnston worked until the end of 1955 to reconcile counter proposals that would amendable to all sides. The United States even tried to sweeten the deal by offering to fund a large portion of the project. However, the Arab League ultimately rejected the plan in part as a Zionist scheme to grab more land under the guise of economic expansion. They also feared that recognition of Israel’s water rights meant state recognition.

The struggle for water became particularly intense in the sixties. In 1964, Israel completed enough of its national water carrier to begin actual diversions from the Jordan River basin. This diversion prompted Egyptian President Nasser to call the First Arab Summit in January 1964 to discuss a joint water strategy. Three options were proposed: issue a complaint to the UN, divert the upper Jordan tributaries into Arab states (as Jordan & Syria had discussed since 1953), or go to war. A military readiness assessment by the Arabs determined that the "war option" would be untenable.

When the second summit convened in September 1964, the Arab states settled on their second course of action. They agreed to finance the Headwater Diversion project in Lebanon and Syria and assist Jordan in construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Yarmouk. Under a previous agreement between Jordan and Syria, Syria would receive two-thirds of the power produced by the dam, while Jordan received the water. The plan was technically difficult and economically inefficient. It called for a diversion of the Litani River into the Hasbani River, where it would be pumped via pipeline to the

Johnston Plan (1955)

Water allocation (million cubic meters /year)






















Side Wadis



Figure 1 (Source: Murakami p.236)

Yarmouk River. The water was to be pumped as high as 350 meters, in itself no small engineering feat. (See map 3) The plan would divert 125 MCM per year, drastically reducing the water supply for the Israeli carrier, and increasing the salinity of Lake Tiberias.

Israel strongly opposed the project and threatened military retaliation. It declared that the project was an "infringement of its sovereign rights." (Wolf p.51) In March, May and August of 1965 Israel attacked the Arab construction sites and ended any Arab hopes of completing the diversion project.

These events helped create a prolonged exchange of border conflicts, which culminated on June 5, 1967 in a full-scale war. By the end of the war, Israel had gained possession of the Golan Heights as well as the West Bank. (See map 4) Israel’s hydrological position had improved significantly. The Golan Heights provided Israel with a strategic position from which it could control the headwaters of the Jordan River. Seizure of the West Bank also gave Israel control of the lower Jordan River as well as the West Bank aquifer. It quickly moved to nationalize the waters of the West Bank and limit the amount of water withdrawn from existing wells. At the same time, Israel drilled 17 new wells to provide water to growing Israeli settlements. In some cases, the new wells, which were dug much deeper, undercut the water supply of existing Palestinian wells.(Wolf p.59-62).

The next 15 years proved to be unsuccessful in multilateral discussions over water development. Then, in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, pushing all the way to Beirut. Although the operation was directed against the PLO, the resulting occupation left Israel in control of the Litani River. Even after withdrawing to southern Lebanon, Israel maintained control of the narrow gap of land which could be used to divert the Litani to the Hasbani. Additionally, Israel seized the "[Qir'awn Dam and brought hydrographic charts and technical documents relating to the Litani and its installations back to Israel]." (Wolf p.59) Although the diversion of the Litani was not implemented, Israel has left open the possibility of purchasing some of the Litani’s water to irrigate the Galilee region.

By the mid-1980’s the hydrologic limits of the Jordan River Basin had nearly been reached. Syria, who had lost access to the Banias in 1967, had completed the construction of 20 dams along the headwaters of the Yarmouk by 1988. The Syrian improvements were in violation of a 1953 agreement with Jordan, which allocated seven-eighths of the Yarmouk’s water to Jordan for two-thirds of the electricity from the planned Maqarin Dam. Because the dam was never built, Syria argued that the agreement was no longer valid. Additionally, Jordan was losing precious winter run-off, which flowed almost unimpeded to Israel. Israel was benefiting from this situation and drawing more than the 25 MCM/yr. allocated to it in accordance with the Johnston accord. Although the accord was never agreed upon, it was the most suitable comprehensive plan and would be continually referred to by all sides. Jordan approached the U.S. to help resolve the situation, and in the fall of 1990 an agreement began taking shape. Two issues held up the agreement: first, the lack of Syrian input; second, the outbreak of the Gulf War.

When peace negotiations resumed after the Gulf War, water was again a major focal point. In 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. Annex II of the treaty referred to the utilization of the Jordan and the Yarmouk River as well as minor ground water resources in Wadi Araba. Israel and the Palestinian Authority also signed an agreement that addressed water rights, the Oslo II agreement of 1995. Both agreements acknowledge Israel’s right to existing water allocations "and seek to develop so far unexploited water resources for the Jordanians and Palestinians."(Dombrowsky p. 99) However, in both cases it is not clear what additional water resources the agreement refers to, and who is responsible for their development. Of particular interest is the fact that the Israeli-Jordanian agreement fails to address the claims of three other riparian states, which share the Jordan and Yarmouk waters; Syria, Lebanon and the West Bank Palestinians.

As mentioned earlier, the issue of water rights is intrinsically linked to the Arab-Israeli peace process. In order to reach a regional water settlement, the political disputes must first be resolved. However, as the need for water increases in the region, so does the complexity of the political situation. Israel is not likely to give up the resources it has gained in the West Bank. To do so would be perceived by many as an act of national suicide. This situation poses a significant problem for the West Bankers, who have the least amount of water per capita, and will be guaranteed an increase in population when statehood is achieved. How they fare as riparian recipients will have a great impact on their future economic development.


Allan, J.A., Water, Peace and the Middle East: Negotiating Resources in the Jordan
Basin, Tauris, New York, 1996.
Dombrowski, Ines, (The Jordan River Basin: Prospects for Cooperation within the

Middle East), Scheumann and Schiffler, Eds. Water in the Middle East, Springer,
New York, 1998.

Libiszewski, Stephen, Water Disputes and Arab-Israeli Struggle: a Conglomeration of

Differing Conflict Settings, 1995 http://www.fsk.ethz.ch/encop/13/en13.htm.

Lowi, Miriam R., Water and Power, Great Britain University Press, Cambridge, 1995.
Murakami, Masahiro, Managing Water for Peace in the Middle East, The United Nations

University, 1995.

Muslih, Muhammad, The Golan: Israel, Syria, and Strategic Calculations, Middle East

Journal, Vol. 47, No. 4, Autumn 1993.

Wolf, Aaron T., Hydropolitics Along the Jordan River, The United Nations University

Press, 1995.