Shebaa Farms: key to stability?

Claimed by Lebanon and occupied by Israel, it will get new attention as the two countries' last remaining major dispute if a Hezbollah-Israeli prisoner swap is successful.

By , Correspondent

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    Watchful: UNIFIL soldiers patrol the edge of the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms. An Israeli army outpost tops the hill behind them.
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A tiny sliver of rugged mountainside wedged between Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is being reassessed by the United States and Israel as a potential key to stabilizing the last frontline in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Shebaa Farms, claimed by Lebanon and occupied by Israel since 1967, lies at the nexus of major developments in the Levant, including the potential disarming of Hezbollah, the progress of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, and future bilateral relations between Beirut and Damascus.

"For the Israelis, the Shebaa Farms is a bargaining position, part and parcel of the negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights," says Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut and former official with the UN's south Lebanon peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL. "In Lebanon, it's part of Hezbollah's agenda [to liberate the area], while some [Lebanese] parties see its return as a prelude to the disarming of Hezbollah."

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The Shebaa Farms is likely to come into sharper focus following the imminent prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah, in which the last Lebanese detainees held in Israeli jails will be exchanged for two Israeli soldiers, whose condition is unknown, captured by the Shiite group two years ago. A successful conclusion of the prisoner swap will leave the Israeli occupation of the Shebaa Farms as the last outstanding major dispute between Lebanon and Israel and, therefore, justification for Hezbollah to remain armed.

Until recently, Israel was reluctant to yield the Shebaa Farms, calculating that Hezbollah might find a new reason to keep its weapons. The United States sympathized with Israel's stance and made little effort to push the agenda.

But Israel, which is engaged in indirect peace talks with Syria, shifted position last month, saying it was now willing to pull out its troops and turn the Farms over to the jurisdiction of the United Nations. The move was given further impetus when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in mid-June that "the time has come to deal with the Shebaa Farms issue."

Israeli troops seized the Farms and the Kfar Shuba hills – known collectively as the Shebaa Farms – during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when the adjacent Golan Heights of Syria was captured and occupied. The residents of the 14 farms that make up the 12 square-mile territory were expelled from their homes and today live on the Lebanese side of the line.

"The Israelis shelled and shot at us in the [1967] war until we reached a point where we couldn't take it anymore and left. We had no choice. That was the last time I saw my land where I had lived my entire life," says Afif Daher, who is 84 and who owned 70 dunums (17.3 acres or 83,700 square yards) of land at Zebdine farm.

In 2000, the UN ruled that the Shebaa Farms was Syrian territory, and its fate was tied to future peace talks between Israel and Syria. Lebanon, backed by Syria, disputed the ruling and Hezbollah launched a sporadic campaign of hit-and-run raids against Israeli troops in the Shebaa Farms.

Following the month-long war in 2006, Hezbollah halted its attacks, and the UN, at the behest of the Lebanese government, agreed to reexamine Lebanon's case for the Shebaa Farms, appointing a team to begin mapping the area.

The proposal, first suggested by Lebanon, is for Israel to pull out of the Farms and hand jurisdiction to UNIFIL. Like Israel and the US, Hezbollah's domestic opponents in Lebanon hope that Israel's departure from the Shebaa Farms will presage Hezbollah's disarmament. The future sovereignty of the area would be decided between Lebanon and Syria when both countries formally demarcate their joint border.

"UNIFIL is ready to respond to any new assignment, but it depends on what is required of UNIFIL," says Milos Strugar, UNIFIL's senior adviser.

For now, the closest UNIFIL troops come to the Farms is when they patrol the Blue Line, the UN name for the boundary separating Lebanon from Israel and Israeli-occupied Arab territory.

The patrol route follows an old Israeli military road which winds around rocky bluffs and rounded limestone hills midway up the mountain. The scent of wild thyme is carried on the hot breeze as soldiers trudge along the road, perspiring beneath body armor. The Israelis man hilltop positions from where they overlook much of south Lebanon and northern Israel.

Still, it may be some time before UNIFIL deploys into the Shebaa Farms. Analysts doubt a deal is imminent, and say its fate may hinge more on progress in Turkey-brokered peace negotiations between Israel and Syria. Israel, of course, is wary that Hezbollah will declare any Israeli withdrawal as a victory and validation of the group's argument that the Jewish state responds only to armed resistance.

Furthermore, Hezbollah will not disarm if the Shebaa Farms is liberated, arguing that its weapons are required to defend Lebanon as long as Israel poses a threat. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, stated last week that if "Hezbollah had had no weapons, the Farms or any inch of land in Lebanon would not have been regained."

Indeed, Hezbollah, which lately has strengthened its domestic position by preparing to join a government of national unity, may be planning to launch fresh attacks against Israeli positions in the Shebaa Farms after a two-year hiatus.

Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, Hezbollah's southern commander, said Monday that the group would refocus on the Shebaa Farms following the prisoner swap.

"The project of the Resistance – which is about to achieve a new victory for Lebanon, Palestine, and the nation through the swap deal with Israel – will enter a new phase, as it is responsible for guaranteeing that the Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Shuba hills are recovered," he said.

Hezbollah has recruited fighters from the Sunni-populated villages facing the Shebaa Farms and marshaled them into new multifaith resistance battalions that could be tapped. That could mean Mr. Daher will have to wait a little longer before returning home.

"I wish the Israelis would leave," he says. "I miss my old life and think about it every night."

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