July 11, 2012 01:09 AM
By Mohammad Zaatari

WAZZANI, Lebanon: The owner of the tourist resort in south Lebanon at the center of Israeli concerns about the diversion of water from the Hasbani River has described Israel’s reaction to his development as “jealous.”

Khalil Abdallah, who returned to Lebanon from the Ivory Coast three years ago to commence work on his dream development – a 40,000-square-meter resort on the western bank of the Hasbani River – claims his project “has been 100 percent successful.

“It has drawn droves of tourists to the area,” he says, adding: “In any case, the Israelis felt danger because it is not in their interest to have tourist resorts, which are a sign of peace, close to them, because they don’t like peace and are afraid of it.”

A report in The Jerusalem Post Monday quoted an anonymous Israeli officer as saying that Israel is currently studying responses to the possibility of Lebanon diverting water from the Wazzani springs.

The officer also expressed concern about the growing size of Abdallah’s resort and the possibility it could be used as a launch site for attacks against Israel.

“This could become a strategic problem,” the officer said, adding: “It [the resort] has our attention and we are keeping a close eye on what is happening there.

“Our concerns range from the diversion of water to the possibility that the tourism resort will be used as a cover to launch attacks against Israel.”

The officer also highlighted that the Hasbani River provides 25 percent of the water of the Jordan River.

According to the newspaper, Israel has shared its concerns with the leadership of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon and is planning to discuss the issue at an upcoming tripartite military meetings with UNIFIL and representatives of the Lebanese and Israeli armies in Ras Naqoura.

The resort, Hosn al-Wazzani, is located 1.6 km upstream from where the river flows into Israel.

It continues to expand and has so far cost over $3 million to build, excluding the value of the land.

Both foreigners and local tourists visit the area to enjoy the natural surroundings. However, armored hummers provocatively patrol and survey the area along the Israeli side of the river, while UNIFIL and Lebanese Army patrols also monitor the locale.

Mohammad Nahban, a visitor from Senegal, dismisses Israel’s worries as based on envy, saying: “I’m here on a leisure trip, and Israel’s real concern is the tourism here.

“With their binoculars the Israelis monitor the traffic on this side and become demoralized, and are defeated psychologically like they were defeated militarily in 2006.”

Mohammad Mustafa, another holidaymaker, says, “I heard on the radio, which I take with me everywhere … that Israel is concerned about what is taking place at Hasbani River.

“I was surprised and laughed and said to myself, ‘Let Israel worry, we are building projects on our land and we are free.’”

In front of Israeli soldiers, builders on the Lebanese side work to develop the resort, as Hosn al-Wazzani expands along the hill facing the already operational site – some parts of which are a mere three meters from the Blue Line, demarcating the border with Israel.

The first stage of the project saw the construction of guesthouses along the riverbank, in addition to swimming pools and two restaurants.

Upon entering the resort, visitors encounter straw huts with an African cultural flavor, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and two structures built using local grey basalt stone.

Currently, 60 chalets are being built at the foot of the mountain adjacent to the river along with nine villas atop the mountain. The project will eventually also include a horse riding club, an Internet center, a supermarket, a clinic, a tennis court and a gym.

Hosn al-Wazzani will also adopt eco-friendly technologies, such as solar energy, and play a role in conserving the nearby natural environment, particularly two waterfalls.

There are also plans to plant trees along the roads leading to the resort.

The Hosn al-Wazzani project initially drew attention of Israeli officials in March 2010. Thirty fully equipped Israeli soldiers were deployed opposite the construction site, while 11 troops crossed the Blue Line and entered Lebanese sovereign territory.

UNIFIL subsequently intervened, and the Israeli soldiers returned to their posts in the border village of Ghajar.

Today, UNIFIL describes the project’s site as sensitive due to its proximity to the Blue Line. The peacekeeping force has been in contact with both sides to request that they refrain from action which could be perceived as provocative.

Incredulous at Israel’s anxieties, the resort’s 60-year-old owner asks: “Who builds a tourist project that costs millions of dollars and a lifetime’s work near the border, out in the open, and plans for it have military ambitions? What are its qualifications to be such a thing, according to their [Israel’s] claims?

“They watch us while we work. We’ve gotten used to them. Nothing scares us. We are peaceful. We want to live,” Abdallah says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 11, 2012, on page 4.

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