Struggle over the Nile


On the whole, when it comes to the common water resources shared with Palestinians and other Arabs, Israel ... acts like a great sponge. -- Sharif Elmusa

  "Historically, the most important relationships Israel built on the African continent were with Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. And it is no coincidence that all of them are upstream countries where the Nile originates. They did build relationships with other countries. But the River Nile was the major factor behind the formation of Israeli policy and strategy."

Israeli schemes for bringing Nile water to Israel must be seen in the context of Israel's thirst for, and appropriation of, Arab water. Arguably 50% of the water that Israel uses comes from water in Arab lands that would otherwise be used by the Arabs themselves. Israeli per capita water consumption is a multiple of Palestinian consumption -- anywhere from three to ten or fifteen times as high.

Zionist interest in the possibility of diverting Nile water across the Sinai desert began decades before the establishment of the State of Israel. As early as 1903, Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, visited Egypt and authorized a technical report on the transfer of Nile water across the Suez Canal. The project had to be dropped soon afterwards when British and Egyptian authorities turned him down.
More recently, Dr. Elisha Kally, from 1964 to 1976 the head of the Long-Range Planning Group of TAHAL, the Israeli water planning agency, published a study in 1974 in which he argued for the feasibility of Nile water going to Gaza. He has repeated his arguments in subsequent reports and in his books, The Struggle for Water (2nd ed. 1978) and Water in Peace (1989). His 1986 paper includes a map which shows the El Salaam Canal beginning near the mouth of the Nile, crossing the Suez Canal (through an underground tunnel), heading east across the North Sinai desert past El Arish and reaching Gaza and the Israeli National Water Carrier.
In his 1991/92 paper, "Options for Solving the Palestinian Water Problem in the Context of Regional Peace," Kally writes: "The Nile is the preferred foreign source for supplying the Gaza Strip with water because of physical and political reasons. It is, however, a less obvious choice for supplying the West Bank. For the West Bank, the Yarmuk [River on the border of Jordan, Syria, and Israel] and perhaps the Litani [River in Lebanon], are preferable sources."
The history of public statements by the Egyptians on diverting Nile water to Israel goes back to 1978, when President Anwar Sadat, in connection with the peace initiative which concluded with the Camp David Accords of 1979, declared in Haifa to the Israeli public that he would transfer Nile water to the Negev. Shortly afterward, in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Sadat promised that Nile water would go to Jerusalem: Sadat wrote:
As we embark on the comprehensive resolution of the Palestine issue, we shall make these waters a contribution from the Egyptian people and in the name of the hundred millions of Muslims, a monument to the peace accord. The Nile waters will become Zamzam wells to all believers [Zamzam is the well that supplies water to the Muslim holy shrine Ka'aba at Mecca]. These waters will be an evidence that we are promoters of peace, life and prosperity.
At the same time, an article published on January 16, 1979, in the Cairo weekly,October, under the heading "The New Zamzam Project," informed the Egyptian public that Nile waters would reach occupied Jerusalem. A few days later, Sadat mentioned the project again in a letter addressed to King Hassan II of Morocco, who had pleaded with him to return to the Arab coalition. Sadat wrote, "I have gone to the utmost extreme with the Israeli Prime Minister,"
"As an incentive, I proposed supplying Israel with a part of Egypt's share of the Nile water to be used in reclaiming the Negev with the condition that the occupied Jerusalem and West Bank issues be solved."
Prime Minister Begin wrote back explaining that if getting Nile water meant making concessions on Jerusalem he wasn't interested: "The transfer of Nile water to the Negev is a magnificent idea and truly a monumental vision, but we have to differentiate between a cultural and historical value...Let us separate the two subjects: Jerusalem is an issue and Nile water to the Negev is another issue."
Why would Sadat make public declarations to send Nile waters to Israel in the face of powerful regional and national objections? Sadat may have been responding to Israeli pressure. In the 1970s Israel sent arms and advisers to the Ethiopian governments of Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam to aid in their battles with Somalia over the Ogaden region and also to support their internal battle with the Eritrean rebels. Israeli aid to Ethiopia may have been a signal that Sadat couldn't ignore.
In the Mubarak era, observers point to published reports that Israeli experts were helping Ethiopia to plan 40 dams along the Blue Nile. Stephen Lonergan, a Canadian based researcher reported in 1990 that "Egypt has complained of Israeli water engineers working in Ethiopia and Sudan, designing new irrigation systems which would reduce the flow of the Nile, Egypt's only source of fresh water."
In 1994, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al Bashir complained about a visit to Israel by the leader of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA). President Al Bashir claimed that Israel had its eyes on the untapped natural resources in Southern Sudan and on the sources of the Nile as an effective leverage over Egypt.

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Old Japanese proverb