Israeli bombing has knocked out irrigation canals supplying Litani River water to more than 10,000 acres of farmland and 23 villages in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, prompting accusations here that Israel is using its war against Hezbollah to lay claim to Lebanon's prime watersheds.
Heavy fighting and a series of targeted strikes on open water channels and underground water diversion pipes have suspended much of Lebanon's agricultural use of the Litani River along the coastal plain and in parts of the Bekaa Valley near Qaraoun Dam, said water engineers who have surveyed the south.
The damaged or broken facilities include a pumping station on the Wazzani River, whose inauguration by Lebanon in 2002 prompted Israel to threaten military action because it diverted water a few hundred yards from the Israeli border, in a watershed that feeds the Jordan River, Lebanese officials said. At the time, Hezbollah promised to defend the facility.
The strikes went largely unnoticed by the outside world in the nearly monthlong air assault targeting Hezbollah guerrilla strongholds in southern Lebanon. But Lebanese point to the extensive damage to their irrigation and drinking water system as evidence that border security and water issues remain intertwined in a region short on both.
"Whenever Israel throughout history has thought of its northern border, they don't talk, for example, of the mountains as a border. They always think of the valley of the Litani," said Mohammed Shaya, dean of the college of social sciences at Lebanese University in Beirut.
Israel has said repeatedly that it has no designs on Lebanon's water.
"There's a policy decision at the highest level not to target those water pumping stations," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "We don't claim an inch of Lebanese sovereign territory. We don't claim a gallon of Lebanese water. We have no hostile intentions whatever towards Lebanon as a country, towards the Lebanese people or towards Lebanese natural resources."
But the enduring suspicion in Lebanon that Israel regards the water of the Litani as its own and the lands to its south as a security perimeter help explain Beirut's reluctance to accept any U.N. cease-fire resolution that does not call for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from the region.
At a minimum, Lebanese officials fear that the repeated attacks on water facilities -- as well as bridges, highways, power plants and roads -- signal an intention to debilitate Hezbollah-dominated southern Lebanon and enable a long-term Israeli presence there.
"They started [bombing] with the Litani water reservoir, the Litani dam. And we all know that the Litani has a special place in this country," said Fadl Shalaq, president of the Lebanese Council for Reconstruction and Development. "It's a big reservoir of water, and the Israelis don't hide it that there are several parts of the Litani that they would like to take for themselves."
Officials in southern Lebanon said the attacks hit not only bridges, but open water canals, crippling irrigation to thousands of acres here in the Tyre region and in the Bekaa Valley.
During fighting near the Wazzani springs, a guard at the pumping station was killed, the pump was knocked out of service and the underground pipes through which water is transported were heavily damaged, said Hussein Ramal, an engineer for the Litani Water Authority, which operates irrigation systems in the region. "Now every one of these villages is without water."
The Litani flows 102 miles, entirely within Lebanon. It courses south through eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, before turning sharply westward just 2 1/2 miles from the Israeli border, then heading through the coastal plain, past the town of Qasmiya to the Mediterranean, north of Tyre.
Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who would become the first president of Israel, in 1919 included the Litani valley among the "minimum requirements essential to the realization of the Jewish National Home." David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, proposed including the Litani again in the 1940s on the eve of the creation of the Jewish state. In the 1950s, historical records show, Moshe Dayan, then chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, and others favored occupying and ultimately annexing southern Lebanon up to the Litani River.
Occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights, though motivated by security concerns, has provided Israel with an important source of water. Experts note that the small slice of land known as the Shebaa Farms, one of the issues in the current conflict, is graced with abundant groundwater flowing from the slopes of Mt. Hermon.
Israel also sees Shebaa Farms as a strategic asset because of its proximity to the Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese borders.
Israel has always argued that much of the Litani's water flows to the sea, wasted.
A large portion of the river's flow is diverted to a series of hydropower dams, leaving relatively little for irrigation in southern Lebanon. But the Lebanese government had planned to offer a $200-million contract this summer to irrigate major new sections of the region.
Both states would benefit if Israel sold Lebanon power and Lebanon sold Israel water, said Haim Gvirtzman, hydrology professor at Hebrew University.
"Should there be peace between Israel and Lebanon, then it will be possible to use the Litani's water as a trigger for a fruitful cooperation between the two countries," Gvirtzman said.
But the Lebanese fear that a prolonged Israeli occupation would give the Jewish state ample time to develop its own international "projects" for sharing the Litani's water.
"In this war, the whole symbol of water has come back with the insurgency now. Because Israel's declared war is to push out the Katyushas" -- the rockets being fired by Hezbollah militants -- "but the long-range aim, I believe, is to again enter the water issue and push it on the Lebanese," said Mahmoud Haidar, head of the Delta Center for Research and the Press in Beirut.
"If Israel is the winner in this war, in any settlement," he said, "water will become an issue. It will become part of the Israeli demands."
A report on Debka File, a website often described as reflecting the thinking of Israeli intelligence, described "Israel's recovery of control over its main sources of water" at Wazzani as "the most important gain from the crisis" in Lebanon.
"Israel will not cede this asset in a hurry," the website predicted. "Worth citing in this regard is Defense Minister Amir Peretz's statement after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left the Middle East, that Israel would retain control of a security belt in southern Lebanon until a multinational force takes over."
Israeli officials say any damage to water facilities is collateral to strikes on bridges and roads used by Hezbollah to transport weapons.
"The whole idea that we are trying somehow -- and this is going back to conspiracy theories -- that we are trying to steal Litani water is ridiculous," said Regev, the Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Here on the Litani, in the empty banana fields and citrus groves that stretch for miles, there is a sense among residents that the battle already has been lost.
The airstrikes on the main irrigation canal, the trunk of a system that waters 9,800 acres, has doomed this year's banana crop. No one knows when the canal system might be repaired. The farmers have fled, and the banana plants stand drying under the hot summer sun.
"All the farmers depend on this water. It's drying up. There's nothing left here. It's collapsing," said Mohammed Saghir, a Qasmiya shop owner who stayed behind because he had nowhere to run.
"In 1948, the British hit the irrigation canal, and now the Israelis want to hit it. They know all our families depend on this water," he said.
Special correspondent Vita Bekker in Tel Aviv and Times staff writer Henry Chu in Jerusalem contributed to this report.