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September 17, 2015 6:33 pm

EXCLUSIVE: Excerpt From Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World

avatar by Seth M. Siegel

David Ben Gurion, Israel's Prime Minister and Defence Minister. January, 1959.

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s Prime Minister and Defence Minister. January, 1959.

“The Champagne Pipeline”

On the night following Yom Kippur 1946, the pre-State Zionist leadership in the Land of Israel pulled off one of the most daring episodes of its cat-and-mouse struggle with the British over their continuing restrictions on immigration and settlement building. Water played a key part in this dramatic, nearly cinematic, event.

Yom Kippur is unique in the Jewish calendar. For many, it is a day of fasting, prayer, and contemplation. For a few others, Yom Kippur 1946 was a day for making final preparations to challenge the British in a way never done before. At nightfall, when the holy day came to an end, eleven convoys set out for predetermined locations across the northern Negev.

Working under the cover of darkness, each of the teams built at least one structure and made sure to complete the roof of each building before sunrise. Under British law, Jews were forbidden to establish new farms and settlements in Palestine, but there was a loophole: An Ottoman law that was still in effect, predating the British conquest of Palestine, held that no structure with a roof could be demolished by the government unless it was a safety hazard.

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By that next morning, there were eleven new farms along the northern fringe of the Negev. Not one had been interrupted by British intervention whose army had likely let down its guard because of the Yom Kippur holiday. (Even better luck for the Zionists, Yom Kippur came to an end on a Saturday evening when British troops often spent the night drinking, followed by Sunday mornings sleeping it off.) The settlers achieved their initial goal of getting the farms established.

Despite this overnight success, all eleven farms were missing one essential ingredient: water. Each of the convoys came with a water truck, but that was only a stopgap measure. Without significant amounts of water, these farms would soon wither. Water trucks might be enough for daily life, food preparation, and sanitation. But any crops they hoped to plant would not survive long without water for irrigation.

As with nearly every other water problem, the Zionist leadership turned to Simcha Blass. Blass was the water genius of the Zionist enterprise. He had immigrated from Poland in 1930 with an engineering degree and within a few years taught himself enough geology and hydrology to become known as Ish HaMayim, the Water Man. By 1946, he was established as the most important person in water which was itself as important to the Zionist leadership as weapons and immigrants.

Blass had been part of the planning team for the eleven settlements, helping to select their locations in places either most likely to have water underground or within a pipeline’s distance from a source. Now, it would be up to him to see if these farms could endure. Blass knew that he would have to drill wells in the Negev—likely to significant depths—in search of local water supplies. He began exploration and at Nir Am, one of the eleven new farms, water was found.

Blass had a problem, though: He needed hardware to move the water. World War II had created massive shortages of metal and machinery with most industrial goods allocated to the war effort. In the Land of Israel, many of Blass’s projects were hindered by a scarcity of pumps and pipes. In the aftermath of the war, shortages continued as there was a seemingly endless demand by the civilian sector in the US and the effort to rebuild all of war-ravaged Europe. Anticipating the need to pump water to these eleven farms, Blass had quietly made arrangements to purchase a large consignment of steel pipes from an unlikely source.

During the war, a special set of pipes had been laid to help put out fires caused by the Nazi blitz of London. With the war over, and the Nazi threat gone, this parallel London water system was superfluous. Blass quietly arranged to purchase all of those pipes. The expense was enormous, but high-quality pipes were hard to find. With his new trove of hardware, Blass was able to arrange for the desert farms to be linked up to Nir Am. Blass had established a regional water system that would have long-lasting impact on the Zionist cause and also on the to-be-formed nation’s approach to water.

It was an episode filled with irony. The discarded British pipes first used to frustrate Hitler’s effort to terrorize the people of London now served to undermine British efforts to stymie Jewish settlement construction. Because of how much the pipes cost, the Negev infrastructure was dubbed the “Champagne Pipeline.” For David Ben-Gurion and his fellow Zionist leaders, almost any cost would have been worthwhile as this one audacious creation of these settlements solidified the Zionist hold on the Negev.

Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World Copyright © 2015 by Seth M. Siegel and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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