HERODION -- Not far from the ruined palace of biblical King Herod is a small valley protected from the Middle Eastern sun by a grove of fragile pines. Here in this geological rift east of Bethlehem, where two layers of earth rub against each other, an American company headed by a Christian fundamentalist wants to drill for the one resource that in this arid region is as precious as gold: water.
But this is the West Bank, occupied and administered by Israel, inhabitated mostly by Arabs -- a place where even a drink of water can provoke political controversy. So the elaborate drilling plan, one that would use new, untried and expensive technology to tap an underground sea, has become a struggle for power and control.
Arab opposition is fed by estimates that Jewish settlers already use 42 percent of the area's water although they make up less than 10 percent of the population.
The Israeli brigadier general in charge of the military occupation of the West Bank resigned last week in part, friends say, because he was bypassed and his opposition to the project ignored by his superiors.
Gilman Hill, the fundamentalist Christian from Englewood, Colo., who heads the company that would drill for the water and hopes to finance it through like-minded American investors, dismissed political objections recently, declaring that "Jesus did not concern himself about the trivial matters of occupation armies. . . . "
Everyone agrees the area needs more water, but that is about all they agree on. Local Palestinian leaders, who learned of the $15 million project only when it was disclosed in an Israeli newspaper, suspect it is a plot to steal their water, divert it to nearby Jerusalem and put them more firmly under Israel's rule.
Israeli officials are divided, with two ministries supporting the project as a way of bringing more water to a thirsty region, while a third opposes it because of the resistance it has aroused locally and internationally. Egypt and Jordan have denounced the plan, while the United States and the European Community have cast doubts on its legality.
Hill, a geologist who heads the Moriah Energy and Technology Corp. of Englewood, says he sees the project as a religious quest to provide water to the Holy Land.
He has promised local Arab leaders he will not go ahead with the plan without their support, but Israel's Cabinet last month gave the project preliminary approval and it has developed a momentum here that some say will be difficult to stop. Still, Hill wrote in a recent letter, "this project will be difficult to accomplish without a major miracle of God."
Such a miracle is necessary, some say, because when God made this the Promised Land he neglected to install running water. Rain is an elusive visitor and the soil is parched and unforgiving. "For us, water is like petroleum," says Nader Hatib, surveyor and engineer for the Bethlehem Water Supply Department. "Whoever controls it, controls our lives."
The West Bank is located atop a spinal column of hills that have the most abundant underground aquifers. Since capturing the West Bank from Jordan in 1967, Israel gradually has asserted control of water supplies in the same general way it has taken control of much of the land.
Mekorot, the state-controlled water supply company, has taken over most of the area's water system, freely mixing West Bank supplies with those of Israel proper. The rates for Jewish settlers, subsidized by Zionist institutions, are about one-quarter those of their Arab neighbors, according to a recent study by the West Bank Data Base Project, a nonprofit research group.
Three years of drought have aggravated problems for both sides and in recent summers several Arab cities have had to rely on water trucked in by tankers. Jerusalem, Israel's capital and national showpiece, a burgeoning population center for both Arabs and Jews, also faces a potential water crisis in the next decade that could curtail its growth.
The short-term solution is to drill more shallow wells. But drilling permits are closely guarded by the authorities, who say they fear too many wells will destroy the aquifer. They began looking for a long-term answer.
The man who came up with one was Avraham Melamed, a hydrological consultant for the Moriah company. Melamed singled out the "With more water available, there will be more Jewish settlers, more settlements and more loss of our land."
-- Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij
Herodion area, site already of five smaller wells, because it is near the large aquifer that flows east to the Dead Sea.
The idea is to intercept the sweet water before it reaches the sea. But rather than drill one narrow borehole, Melamed proposed sinking a large vertical shaft, then branching out once inside the aquifer with several horizontal shafts to get the maximum amount.
It is so expensive a technique that few have tried it and professional hydrologists disagree on its prospects for success. Many say the amount of water available is not worth the cost. Some say they fear that draining water so rapidly will dry out all the other wells in a wide area and that the project could siphon off underground water that feeds important fresh water springs to the east.
Nonetheless, Israel's Agricultural Ministry approved the plan, as did the Defense Ministry, which oversees the West Bank, after certain objections were met. Moriah and Mekorot, the two parties to the contract, had to agree to give priority to Arab needs in the area, ministry officials said, and also agreed to furnish free water to anyone whose well was dried out by the project. Also, officials say they revised the planned destination of the new supplies: rather than 75 percent of it going to Jerusalem and the rest of Israel, they have insisted that half must go to Arab residents of the West Bank.
There was another feature that appealed to the Israelis: Moriah agreed to fund the entire project by raising money from private American investors.
"We risk nothing," said a senior military official in charge of administering the area, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Right now we estimate we are using only 10 percent of the total rainfall in the area. So as long as these conditions are in the contract, what do we have to lose?"
One official who disagreed was Brig. Gen. Ephraim Sneh, the West Bank's senior military administrator. Sneh argued that local residents would bitterly oppose the plan, but he found himself increasingly isolated within the Defense Ministry to the point where he was not asked to attend a series of key meetings on the project. He resigned last week, and although he has refused to comment publicly, friends say the Herodion project was a major factor. Ministry officials deny this.
Local Arab leaders learned about the project only when Joel Greenberg, Arab affairs reporter for The Jerusalem Post, disclosed it in late June, months after it was proposed. They were not pleased.
"Obviously the Israelis did not want us to know about it," said Elias Freij, Palestinian mayor of Bethlehem, who is considered one of the West Bank's leading political moderates but who takes a very harsh view of the Herodion project.
"Israel has no right to do this project. With more water available there will be more Jewish settlers, more settlements and more loss of our land. And if they find big water, the Israelis will never under any condition withdraw from this area. This would seal our political future; it would be a very big nail in the coffin of the peace process."
Freij went to his friend, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, to enlist his help in killing the project. Israeli legal experts said the project could be justified under international law so long as the water supply of the local population was not disturbed, just as Israel pumped oil from the Sinai Peninsula until it returned the area to Egypt.
Peres said he will support the project provided Arab water needs are met. Nonetheless, senior staffers in his own ministry strongly opposed it.
They object, according to a senior Foreign Ministry official, on the grounds that the technology involved is experimental, the project could provoke international condemnation and they do not trust the Moriah company to deliver on its commitments.
The officials especially feared that Moriah would launch a fund-raising drive among Christian fundamentalists by emphasizing that much of the water would go to Jerusalem -- a diplomatic red flag because most of the world does not recognize Israel's annexation of the Arab sector of the city or its designation as Israel's capital.
A recent 11-page letter from Hill to Freij did little to ease their fears. In it, Hill cites a number of New Testament passages to justify the project and, after observing that "Jesus did not concern himself about the trivial matters of occupation armies or government decrees," Hill asked, "Should we do any less? Should you and I remain immobilized out of fear, hatred and bitterness over our circumstances, waiting for some man-made political solution that may be further delayed?"
Hill and Israeli authorities concede they erred in not notifying Freij and other Arab leaders earlier. Still, Hill told Freij he wants to go ahead and wants the mayor's support plus that of Jordan, which exercises informal veto power over such development projects in the West Bank.
Others are not so sure Hill will succeed. "The situation is sensitive to say the least," said a senior Foreign Ministry official. "Even if the project never gets under way, the impression is being created that we are allowing them to take West Bank water for Israeli territory. The political damage will be done."