Page last updated at 10:39 GMT, Friday, 6 June 2008 11:39 UK

Water crucial to Golan talks

By Wyre Davies
BBC News, Golan Heights

Steve Applebaum
The Golan Heights provide Israel with one-third of its fresh water

Israel recently confirmed that it was in talks with Syria, mediated by Turkey, over the thorny issue of the Golan Heights. The prospect of progress on the Syrian-Israeli front comes as Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is weakened by allegations of corruption at home.

Although Steve Applebaum does not think that talks over the Golan will ever get anywhere, precisely because of Mr Olmert's domestic "issues", he is nonetheless unimpressed by the prime minister's intentions.

Known as "Apple Steve" for more than just the obvious reason, Mr Applebaum moved to the Ortal Kibbutz, at the northern end of the Golan plateau 25 years ago.

The kibbutz grows some of the best, most desirable fruit you can find. Crunchy apples, sweet cherries and apricots.

Mr Applebaum, who is in charge of irrigation and water supplies on this huge communal farm, knows how important water is to the kibbutz and to Israel.

Detailed Golan map

The rain and snow that falls on the Golan, added to natural spring-water, ultimately provides Israel with about one-third of its fresh water.

This strategic plateau, about 1,200 km sq (460 miles sq) and all of its water resources were lost by Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Since then it has been occupied, and annexed, by Israel.

According to Mr Applebaum that is just how it should remain.

'Life or death'

He says the land is Israel's. It and the water he depends upon to irrigate his orchards can never be shared or entrusted to someone else's control.

"For us it's life and death," Mr Applebaum says. "If the water dries up, we have no income, we have no way to live."

"I wouldn't count upon anyone else to say it's going to be OK. I'd rather the water be in my hands, especially round here, you can't trust people's words."

A few miles across the stunning scenery of the Golan plateau, the view could not be more different, apart from a deep sense of mistrust.

Taiseer Maray is Development Director in the handful of northern Golan villages that still have Syrian-Arab populations but are under Israeli control.

Sea of Galilee

If there is to be a permanent peace here, he says the issue of water cannot be ignored.

Taiseer Maray
This is Syrian land and we have the right to take it back
Taiseer Maray
Development Director, Galan villages

"This is Syrian land and we have the right to take it back," says Mr Maray.

"If there is to be peace, Israel should give back all of the properties and land which was taken from the Arabs. Land and water," he says.

One of the great vantage points in the Middle East is to stand high in the Golan and look down on what Israelis call Lake Kinneret, better known to some, of course, as the Sea of Galilee.

The strategic and military importance of these mountains sometimes overshadows the importance of the lake itself below.

It is fed by water running off the Golan and by the upper reaches of the River Jordan.

But because of excessive human activity and drought, water levels in the lake are now dangerously low.

Toxic algae

At a recent conference on water supplies, experts warned that the whole ecology of the Sea of Galilee was on the verge of changing.

Druze shepherd and Druze farmer meeting in the Golan Heights
About 20,000 Syrians live in the occupied Golan, most of them Druze

Toxic algae could proliferate and the salt content of the water could become critically high.

Uri Shani, the man in charge of co-ordinating Israel's water supplies, says that desalination plants and more efficient use of recycled water will help.

But he told me that current shortages will not make peace talks with Syria any easier.

As the years pass more Israeli settlers come here and make their homes in the Golan.

They produce more, valuable, crops for the domestic market and for export.

They also use water and are accused, by local Arab residents, of abusing a finite, natural resource.

Mr Olmert says more he is serious about starting out on what will undoubtedly be difficult talks with Syria, even though his government is still wary of Damascus, accusing it of supporting Palestinian militants.

To be realistic, as things stand, there is more chance of failure than success.

But, one day could this land and this water be traded for peace?

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