Behind the dispute over Shebaa Farms

The resolution that quieted the fight between Hizbullah and Israel requires the UN to address who owns this land.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Until six years ago, the mountain range that rises beyond the verdant orchards of this farming collective at Israel's northern tip was best known as the site where Abraham received his divine covenant in the Old Testament.

Few Lebanese or Israelis knew the range as the location of the Shebaa Farms, the site of an arcane border dispute that ultimately unraveled into a month-long war between Hizbullah and Israel.

"It's an arid piece of land," says Adib Farha, a former aide to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and a native of the southern Lebanese village of Marjayoun. "Most Lebanese had never heard of it until Hizbullah brought it up in 2000."

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The UN Security Council is scheduled to revisit the thorny question of whom Shebaa Farms belongs to. A diplomatic solution, analysts say, could eventually bolster stability along the Israel-Lebanese border by weakening Hizbullah's justification for holding onto its weapons.

"It would lead to the marginalization" of Hizbullah's militia, says Gidi Grinstein, the president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv think tank. "The goal of eliminating Hizbullah from Lebanon is not achievable, therefore we should make Hizbullah's life more difficult through the politics of legitimacy."

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has often called for the resolution of the Shebaa Farms conflict as a means of neutralizing Hizbullah's military wing. In a seven-point plan he unveiled last month during the height of the war, he called for Israel to withdraw from the farms and for the 12-square mile territory to be placed under UN guardianship pending a formal agreement between Lebanon and Syria over its sovereignty.

At the time when Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hizbullah seized on claims that the farms belonged to Lebanon, thus justifying its attacks against Israeli forces occupying the territory. Israel and the UN said the real estate was part of the Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. Damascus has declared that the Shebaa Farms belong to Lebanon. But it has never attempted to formally ratify the sovereignty of the mountainside with the Lebanese to gain UN recognition and acceptance of the new border.

From Kibbutz Dan, a series of Israeli military lookout towers are barely visible along the western slope of a mountain range stretching northeast toward the strategic Hermon peaks.

The outposts overlook the 1926 border that lies at the root of the confusion over Shebaa Farms. When the French created Lebanon, they drew a border with Syria that severed Lebanese villages like Shebaa from fields on the mountain range to the south where villagers owned land.

Yossi Lev Ari, a Kibbutz Dan resident, recalls how a few months after the Six Day War, he met Lebanese villagers carrying white flags who were allowed to cross the border to work their land.

Israel closed the border in the early 1970s after Palestinian guerrillas from Yasser Arafat's Fatah militia used the mountains to stage raids on farming villages such as Kibbutz Dan. The mountain range also enables Israel to peer into southern Lebanese villages. "To withdraw would be suicidal" in the absence of a peace treaty, says Mr. Ari.

When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, a UN team confirmed the French-drawn border. Hizbullah, as well as the Lebanese government, took issue with that decision, pointing to the old Lebanese-owned plots of land on the other side. To draw attention to Shebaa Farms, Hizbullah guerrillas abducted and killed three Israeli soldiers in a cross-border ambush in October 2000. The bodies were returned in a prisoner swap in January 2004.

Now, even if Israel were to give the territory back to Lebanon, few expect Hizbullah to forswear its fight against the Jewish state. "They don't have a territorial, or political, or economic quarrel with Israel, but a fundamental objection to Israel's right to exist. Part of the logic of the permanent resistance is to always find a new pretext," says Mr. Grinstein. "Shebaa Farms is a symptom of this phenomenon. When you think about it, that Shebaa Farms would be a pretext for a conflict between Lebanon and Israel is ridiculous."

Hizbullah has said in the past few years that it will not dismantle its military wing, even if the Shebaa Farms are returned to Lebanon. It argues that its battle-hardened fighters provide the only viable defense against Israel and they can't be disarmed until Israel no longer represents a threat to Lebanon.

But even if Hizbullah wouldn't be won over to the peace camp by a resolution to the Shebaa Farms dispute, some argue that the issue can still be used to pressure the militia into disarming. The average Lebanese citizen is likely to be less sympathetic to Hizbullah's ideology of waging an open-ended struggle against Israel.

"I am not sure if Hizbullah is willing to lay down its arms if Shebaa Farms is returned," says Farha, who today resides in the US, "but the Lebanese government's hand will be strengthened tremendously and the Lebanese public – even those who support Hizbullah – are going to start questioning the justification of the alleged resistance."

Correspondent Nicholas Blanford contributed to this piece from Beirut.

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