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Israel Studies 9.3 (2004) 1-45

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Prelude to the Six-Day War:

The Arab-Israeli Struggle Over Water Resources

The struggle over water was a major factor in the deterioration of Arab-Israeli relations that led to the Six-Day War in 1967. The Arab states' struggle over Israel's water plans, especially the National Water Carrier (NWC) Plan that was designed to carry water from the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee to the Negev, was an integral part of both the overall Arab struggle against Israel and the inter-Arab dispute over the method of solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. This struggle was central to discussion on all aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Following the debates the Arabs prepared, for the first time, a military plan for liquidating Israel, and long-range and short-range strategic goals in their struggle against the Zionist state. Water became the main topic in the Arab media and in inter-Arab forums such as the Arab League Council (ALC), Arab Defense Council (ADC), Arab Chiefs-of-Staff Conference, and the highest forum—the Arab Summit Conferences—attended by the monarchs and presidents of Arab countries. Discussion in these forums centered on the modus operandi for meeting the challenge of Israel's water plan.

Since the Arab world viewed the Jordan River's water as a key element in the overall Palestinian problem and Arab-Israeli conflict, its solution became part of the Arab, Egyptian, or Syrian strategy. Egypt had determined the strategy in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Arab response to Israel's plans to divert the Jordan River. Just as Syria's position was the exact opposite of Egypt's on the first issue, so too was its position on the water problem.

Based on primary source material, this article will attempt to survey the developments in the Arabs' water struggle and its role in both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the inter-Arab debate on the manner of solving [End Page 1] the conflict. Special note will be made of the gap between the Arab states' plan to divert the Jordan's tributaries and their ability to implement their plan after Israel's unexpected response.

The Jordan River is formed by the convergence of three rivers at a point six km south of the Lebanese border: the Banias in Syria, the Hatzbani in Lebanon, and the Dan in Israel. From here, the Jordan flows south (west of Israel's international border with Syria) through an area that was a demilitarized zone until the Six-Day War, and spills into the Sea of Galilee. It then exits from the sea's southern end and flows through the Jordan Valley in Israel to Naharayim; from there until the Beit Shean Valley, the river forms the border between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan. From the Beit Shean Valley to the Dead Sea, the Jordan flows through the Kingdom of Jordan where it receives two major tributaries: the Yarmuk, whose sources lie mainly in Syria (the Yarmuk is an important source of the lower Jordan's waters, and its southern flank forms the Israeli-Jordanian border) and the Al-Zarqa River that originates in Jordan.

A regional cooperation plan for exploiting Jordan's water was first broached in the 1930s but until 1956, only fourteen per cent of the river was used for irrigating riparian areas in Israel, Jordan, and Syria. Naturally, the lack of cooperation stemmed mainly from the political situation: the Arab-Israeli conflict and differences of opinion among the Arab states.

On September 2, 1953, Israel began diversion operations of the river. For engineering reasons, the authorities had to choose an area south of the Banot Yaakov Bridge (in the demilitarized zone along the Syrian border north of the Sea of Galilee). The plan included digging a 2.5 km-long channel south of the bridge for transporting the water south to Tabha (on the northern shore) and using elevation differences to produce electricity. The plan called for the project to be...


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