U.S. Moves to Defuse Mid-East Water Tensions

The United States is trying to defuse a water dispute between Israel and Lebanon which Israel has said could lead to war, according to the BBC News.

The news agency reports that an American water expert recently held talks with Lebanese leaders in Beirut to discuss the project aimed at diverting water from the Wazzani, a border river.

The Wazzani is a tributary of the Hasbani river which flows into the Jordan – a major source of drinking water for Israel.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer has said the Hasbani water system provides 10 percent of his country's water, and that Israel could not tolerate a diversion.

Richard Lawson, a U.S. State Department water expert, had talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri last week. No details of the meetings have emerged. Lawson will also reportedly meet with Israeli officials.

The move follows a visit to southern Lebanon on Monday by another U.S. water expert, Jim Franckiewicz, to determine if work on the Wazzani - which has already started - was consistent with regulations and agreements over the years.

On Sept. 17, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres brought up the issue in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations in New York.

"We understand the sensitivity of the issue but we don't want to see a new crisis developing over the diversion of water out of the river," Powell said.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud has said the project will continue and officials insist Lebanon is not is breach of any international agreements.

The leader of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group - which controls southern Lebanon - says the group will resist militarily if Israel uses force to stop the scheme.

Last week Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Lebanon's Wazzani plan could be a cause for war between the two countries.

The Israeli army has been closely monitoring the work from their side of the border.

The AFP news agency says Israeli soldiers last Wednesday threatened to fire on Lebanese laborers when the engineer leading the project knocked over a UN border marker.

The soldiers pulled out after UN troops arrived to prop up the marker, according to AFP.

In 2001, Lebanon went ahead with a pumping project from Hasbani river to irrigate the drought-stricken border village of Ghajar, despite strong Israeli objections.

BBC News

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