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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 / July 9, 2008

Watchful: UNIFIL soldiers patrol the edge of the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms. An Israeli army outpost tops the hill behind them.

Nicholas Blanford

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Shebaa Farms, Lebanon

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.

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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."

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.