In order to end the current hostilities between Israel and the Hezbollah, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert relayed to Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi the following conditions for ceasefire: the return of the captured Israeli soldiers and a Hezbollah pullback to the Litani River. With the reach of Hezbollah rockets extending farther into Israel than ever before, the use of the Litani River as the northern border of a safety zone seems increasingly arbitrary; however, a look at the history of the Litani might shed some light on its symbolic importance.
The headwaters of the Litani are found in the fertile Biqa’a Valley, the purported seat of Hezbollah power. Here, the river runs south and parallel to the Syrian border. As the Litani nears northern Israel and the Golan Heights, the course of the river bends dramatically westward. Near this bend, the Litani comes within 5 km of the Hasbani River and 4 km from the Israeli border. It empties in the Mediterranean Sea just north of Tyre, one of Lebanon’s largest cities. The Hasbani River then runs into the Jordan River and, significantly, into Israel.
As early as 1905, early Zionists considered diverting the Litani. Later, it was hoped that the river would be considered as a northern border, but the League of Nations nixed that proposal. Later still, some suggested leasing the water to the young Israeli state. Long after the Israeli borders were set, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion still wanted to see the Litani become part of Israel, and as late as the 1967 war Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was disappointed that the river remained entirely in Lebanese hands. The 1978 invasion of Lebanon itself was interestingly named the Litani River Operation. After the 1982 Lebanon War, Israel occupied varying areas of southern Lebanon until 2000. During that time period, rumors led many to fear that Israel had already diverted part of the river, but those allegations remain unsubstantiated.
The water itself is considered of high quality, though somewhat polluted as it reaches the sea. Lebanon uses it for agricultural, recreational and hydroelectric purposes. During recent fighting, Israeli warplanes bombarded bridges along the Litani that would have been used by evacuees from the south. Many have resorted to walking across the river or building earthen causeways to make their escape. On a side note, the last time that Israel threatened Lebanon was in 2002 when the Lebanese diverted the Wazzani River. Even if Israeli Defense Forces are successful in eliminating Hezbollah from southern Lebanon, the increasing stress on water supplies in Israel will likely keep the Litani River as a point of strategic interest for years to come.