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Water is a vital resource. People go to war for it. Thus, acts undertaken in recent days to divert the waters of the Wazzani River threaten the stability of the Israel-Lebanon border, since they could take away 3.5 million cubic meters of water from Lake Kinneret each year.

The direct assault on its water sources is not the only reason way Israel cannot accept this Lebanese provocation. Another problem is that the current act could set a precedent for future attempts to block Israel's water sources. Hence the evolving crisis on the northern border could become explosive; if the right steps are not taken quickly, the situation could erupt.

The Lebanese attempt to divert the river's waters is a provocation because it has come two years after Israel complied with every letter of United Nations Security Council Resolution 425, and withdrew its troops from Southern Lebanon; this pull-out removed any pretext for dispute with this country (in fact, if anybody has violated international agreement, it is Lebanon, which has allowed Hezbollah to fire on Israeli troops). This is a provocation because it contravenes international law, which stipulates that disputes about natural resources are to be resolved via agreements.

Israel and Lebanon are not the only countries in the world whose borders are crossed by rivers. The division of water between the two states is worked out under agreements. Rules in the current issue date back to the 1955 Johnston Plan for the use of the Jordan River waters. This plan, proposed by U.S. President Eisenhower's emissary, was never translated into a formal agreement since Arab countries refused to sign a document jointly with Israel; but water quotas allocated under the plan to Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon refused de facto, if not de jure, received international recognition. Years before the two countries signed a peace agreement, Jordan and Israel undertook water projects based on allocations worked out by the Johnston plan. It was an Arab summit which tried to disrupt the fragile water balance by encouraging Syria and Lebanon to try to divert waters from the Banyas and Hatzbani in a fashion that would have dried out the Sea of Galilee. Israel took military action (in 1965), and these water diversion efforts came to a stop.

Now Lebanon's government has come and tried to change the status quo. The pretext used to justify this effort remains a mystery; at any event, Lebanon's act is unilateral. And this crisis has been instigated by Rafik Hariri's government, and not by Hezbollah, which has, however, joined up with the Lebanese effort, and threatens to take reprisals against Israel, should Jerusalem oppose the diversion effort.

It can be assumed that officials in Beirut chose the present time to carry out the water diversion attempt due to a calculation that Israel would not dare order a military response that might disrupt the apparently evolving American campaign again Saddam Hussein and his government in Baghdad. Lebanon's government might have also reasoned that Israel would be loathe to furnish Hezbollah with a pretext to use missiles it now deploys along the border.

For more than a year, Hezbollah has tried to lure Israel into opening a second front in the north. Up to now, the Sharon government has managed not to fall into this trap. Now the Lebanese government has conjured a provocation of its own - either on its own initiative, and with an eye to its own internal water needs, or at the behest of external Arab forces which seek to use this water issue as a ploy to undermine the American offensive against Baghdad.

Israel now faces a tough choice: it can respond, or not respond. Prime Minister Sharon has already declared that if Hatzbani waters are pumped off course, Israel will take action.

Lebanon's government, and the world as a whole, would be wise to relate to Sharon's warning with the appropriate degree of seriousness: no sovereign country would put up with a provocation of this sort, even if it reduces a relatively small amount of its water reserves and even if it has plans to initiate a major desalination project.

The U.S. government has sufficient means to pressure authorities in Beirut and Damascus to bring this crisis to an end. The Americans can propose an alternative plan to Lebanon that promises water for villages in its southern areas - they must demand an end to unilateral efforts to divert the Wazzani's waters.