The Golan water-shed is the
source for more than 55 percent of Israel’s fresh
water needs and forms part of the ground water reserves
that supplies Israel with most of their water supply.
Although the core issue of
the Arab-Israeli conflict has always 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 recognised borders, water has
become a major factor in all past disputes, especially over
the Golan Heights. The Golan water-shed is the source for more
than 55 percent of Israel’s fresh water needs and forms
part of the main aquifer-system that supplies Israel with most
of their water supply. Together with the Jordan river headwaters
originating near the disputed "Sheeba Farms" in south
Lebanon, Wazzani springs, the Hasbani and Banyas, are all receiving
their main sources from the 2800m Hermon mountain massiv. It
should be stressed that most of the tributary streams flowing
into the Jordan and Lake Tiberias originate on the Golan slopes.
As past history conflicts over these water disputes demonstrated,
only an Israeli presence in the basins of these streams can
assure their continued flow to Lake Tiberias.
In contrast to Israel's irreplaceable water lifeline from the
Golan Heights basin to the river Jordan below, Syria obtains
approximately 85 percent of the renewable water supplies from
the huge Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as well as the Orontes,
which also irrigates large parts of northern Syria.
major element in any future peace negotiations bweteen Syria
and Israel will be the so-called " Line of 4 June 1967
" issue, which has become part of the Arab-Israeli peace
process lexicon, for years. It encapsulates the extent of the
withdrawal demanded of Israel by Syria in the context of any
peace treaty. Conceptually, the line of 4 June 1967 was the
confrontation line, on the day before the outbreak of the 5
June 1967 war.
Only along one 15-kilometer stretch did this dubious line correspond
with the international boundary between Palestine and Syria
instituted by Great Britain and France in 1923. Neither did
it correspond to the mutually agreed UN brokered Armistice Demarcation
Line agreed to by the parties in 1949, after the first Arab
Israeli war. In fact, 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 Syria-Palestine boundary (later Israel) itself was a product
of the post-World War I Anglo-French partition of Ottoman Syria.
It was intentionally demarcated so that all of Lake Tiberias,
including a rediculous "ten-meter wide" strip of beach
along its northeastern shore, would stay inside Palestine. Under
the terms of an armistice signed on 20 July 1949, Syrian forces
were to withdraw east of the old Palestine-Syria boundary. Israeli
forces were to refrain from entering the evacuated areas, which
would become a demilitarized zone. However, following incessant
armed clashes over these territorial ambiguities, Israel, feeling
constantly threatened by the dominating Golan Heights over the
Jordan Valley rift, started a creeping annexation of the disputed
territory, which ended only with the occupation of the entire
Golan Heights after 1967. Israeli claimed sovereignty over Demilitarised
military zone (DMZ), on the basis that, "it was always
part and parcel of the British Mandated Territory". The
conflict over the Golan waters culminated in 1964, when Syria
decided, unilaterally to divert the Banyas and Hasbani and lead
their waters to the Yarmouk river on the Jordan border, thus
denying Israel its main water resources. Israel immediately
retaliated sharply by armed force destroying the Syrian construction
first by long-range precision tank fire and later, as the Syrians
shifted their work further eastward, with massive airstrikes.
A few years later the Six Day War broke out, capturing the Golan
Heights in June 1967.
One matter is crystal clear: from an international point of
law: The "June 4 line" should be excluded in any Syrian
demand. This line is not officially shown on any map. It is
not even part of any agreement or treaty. Moreover,as it contains
territories captured by the Syrian Army during the 1948/9 war
and thus relate to the same clausus, as stipulated by Syria
on the very claim to Israeli occupied Golan Heights-both being
direct results of acts of war.
Serving an example that mutual solutions can be reached even
the volatile Middle East, demonstrates the water agreement between
Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. On October 26 1994
Jordan and Israel signed a mutual peace treaty. Some specific
articles of the agreement deal with the Jordan River. Israel
and Jordan have agreed to share the river's waters. The parties
agreed to provide water to one another and according to the
treaty, both countries have established a joint water committee
to oversee issues regarding the quality of the water.
As goodwill gesture,
Israel agreed to an annual transfer 75 million cubic meters
of high quality water to Jordan, mainly from its Lake
Tiberias reservoir- which is strictly adhered too, even
when the lake is at sub level due to low average rainfall
limit of any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan to be such,
that Arab water sources remain fully under Israeli control.
If, through future peace negotiations, the Syrian border should
come closer to the 4 June1967 border rather than the internationally
acknowledged 1923 border, and all of Golan Heights should be
handed over to Damascus' demand, chances are high that Israel
would have to surrender its claim to over a third of its fresh
water supplies- the Jordan river tributaries, not to mention
losing full control of its sole national water reservoir-Lake
A report prepared by Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, which
remained classified for some time, shows the maximum limit of
any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan to be such, that Arab
water sources remain fully under Israeli control. Peace with
Syria is a strategic goal toward which Israel must work, a goal
that inevitably entails withdrawal from at least a large part
of the Golan Heights. Inspite of all pessimism regarding a settlement
between the two hostile nations, peace between Israel and Syria
is still possible. The two have concluded agreements in the
past, which were scrupulously mutually observed. The first Israel-Syria
agreement was the Armistice Agreement of 1949. In 1974, following
the Yom Kippur War, the "Separation of Forces Agreement
on the Golan Heights" was reached with the United States
acting as an intermediary. A third agreement, in 1976, also
reached through American mediation, was a tacit understanding
between Damascus and Jerusalem, the so-called "Red Lines"
agreement, in which Israel and Syria recognized each other's
security interests in Lebanon. Israel even silently accepted
a Syrian military presence in parts of Lebanon, with limitations
on surface-to-air missiles, while Syria accepted Israel's security
interests in southern Lebanon.
But Israel’s main objective remains imperative to control
its vital Arab water resources. All else is secondary. It is
believed that Syria will never surrender its rights as a riparian
state to the river Jordan and lake Tiberias and may ask for
compensation for its diverted resources in the last 50 years.
Both Israel and Syria still have a long way to go, until, if
at all, an acceptable solution can be reached over such vital
strategic issues. Only time will show if peace or war are in
the in the cards over the Golan Heights.
Read David Eshel's past commentary here