Water wars in the Promised Land

The recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah on the Lebanese border has seen the usual absence of depth and context in the majority of mainstream media coverage. Riding on unquestioned waves of habit and unconscious history, we’re usually satisfied with the sensational froth of righteousness, anger, vilification, violence, and devastation. Not to belittle the gravity of the feelings and suffering, of course; it’s just that the flat conception of “current affairs” is part of the problem.

The reliably astute George Monbiot stepped up recently to clearly document the argument that Israel’s attack was far from being the expedient defensive reflex we’ve been told it was by “the news”. But his subsequent account of the motives behind it—highlighting neo-conservative American strategies for the Middle East and the domination of Israeli politics by military figures—may be just part of the story.

Via Peak Energy, I came across an excellent post from The Anthropik Network that makes a clear case for these premeditated attacks being strongly motivated by Israel’s ongoing need for clean water sources. Specifically, the motive seems to be to gain access to the Litani River in southern Lebanon, which flows south through Lebanon parallel to the Syrian border, and makes a near-right-angle westward bend about 4 km from the Israeli border. Anthropik contributor Jason Godesky outlines the long history of interest in capturing this valuable ecological resource that Israel has had, together with the ongoing water supply problems Israel has had that make another Litani push very likely.

Perhaps the most revealing fact he quotes regards the vastly disproportionate distribution of water in the region:

At present, Israelis receive five times as much water per person as Palestinians. In Gaza, the disparity is even more striking, with settlers getting seven times as much water as their Palestinian neighbors. Stated differently, on average, Israelis get 92.5 gallons per person per day, while Palestinians in the West Bank get 18.5 gallons per person per day. The minimum quantity of water recommended by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Health Organization for household and urban use alone is 26.4 gallons per person per day.

Godesky seems to take a “cultural materialist” view on matters, noting that while religion is frequently cited as the source of conflict, more often it is just an excuse used to take action necessitated by more worldly concerns: usually, land and resources. I tend more towards a kind of “chicken-and-egg” approach, and find such reductionism useful to a point, but only to a point. Any reduction begs a question, and while worldly action demands that we stop asking questions, pick a side, and do something, writing is a space where we can keep asking questions. Like, why the gross disparity in allocation of water? Sure, plain old greed and perceived superior worthiness weigh in heavily. Though I do wonder about more emotional and spiritual motives, such as those embedded in the Lord’s images in the Torah:

And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey…

Exodus 3:8

It’s too painful now, I suppose, to hear the Lord saying, “Sorry, maybe I forgot to mention the fact that there’s bugger all water.” Israel’s done wonderful things with the little water there is, but at the expense of its neighbours, and probably for the most part thanks to the economic subsidies it receives from the USA, and the precarious energetic subsidies it (and the rest of us) receives from fossil fuels.

In any case, it’s clear that Israel is correct in saying that it’s fighting for its existence; it’s just severely misguided, in the public arena at least, about the threat it faces.

Without the Litani, Israel’s water crisis will deepen; the very survival of Israel is at stake. Either Israel will seize the Litani, or it will perish. Historically, Hizb’allah has been primarily a nuisance to Israel, but never a genuine threat to its survival, unlike Israel’s lack of access to the Litani.

Jason Godesky


This adherence to an image from the Torah, to the concretized vision of a Promised Land abundant in actual resources, surely gives pause to anyone serious about Judaism’s injunctions against idolatry. By “serious about”, I mean serious enough to not take the injunctions wholly literally, at face value (an act of idolatry in itself, I suppose). Douglas Rushkoff is deeply serious in this sense, and critiques the literalism of Zionism in his excellent book Nothing Sacred:

Biblical warnings against the false gods of state abound. The first thing God says to Abraham in Genesis (12:1) is, “Get thee out of thy country.” The sad irony underlying the current Jewish obsession with territory is that the religion itself was founded on the disengagement from the land. As twentieth-century reformer and social activist Rabbi Abraham Heschel explains in his many books on the subject, “Judaism must be a religion which sanctifies time more than space.” For example, after escaping Egypt, the Torah’s Israelites spend forty years in the desert. They are not wandering aimlessly, but following a cloud of smoke as it moves back and forth across the flat earth. Wherever the cloud stops, the Israelites place their holy ark. This becomes the new Holy Land for a moment; then the cloud moves on. The Israelites must endure this process for four decades. Why? To learn, before they get to Canaan, that the Promised Land has nothing to do with a specific place. In stark contrast with the pagan, land-based religions from which Judaism was created to distinguish itself, for the Israelites sanctity is in the moment. (p. 166)

In a world where millennia of monotheism have severed us psychologically from natural matrix that sustains us, leaving us belatedly flailing in the ecological corner we’ve painted ourselves into, we have much to recover in re-absorbing the pagan impulse to divine deeper relationships to the biosphere. But in a world also facing severe instability, with populations shifting rapidly even before we face the surely huge upheavals implicit in climate change, we may have a lot to learn from Judaism’s rootless roots. Perhaps we can find primal common ground between pagan rootedness and the flexibility of Jewish “disengagement from the land” in the roving animism of hunter-gatherer societies. Not, of course, as another idealized model or goal; but as a source of inspiration among the many ways we have adapted, as we face the future’s essentially opaque and ever-shifting demands.

No comments here for now, but if you want to you can chip in on Facebook or Twitter.