A small team of United Nations peacekeepers and Lebanese Army officers puffs toward a sweltering summit along Lebanon's frontier with Israel and Syria.
Instead of toting weapons and flak jackets - the standard here during more than two decades of Israeli occupation - these soldiers are carrying maps, compasses, laptop computers, and hand-held satellite positioning units.
Though UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week declared that Israel has completely pulled out of Lebanon - a view supported by the Security Council - Lebanese complaints of a string of continuing Israeli violations complicated the UN chief's Mideast trip this week.
For Mr. Annan it was a hard lesson in the power of cartography, in a region where every line drawn in the sand carries the freight of centuries of history and conflict. To be sure, borderlines anywhere in the world can be, and often are, flashpoints.
And in the Mideast, where the political dialogue is often suffused with strategic opacity, the precision of any exact demarcation is anathema.
Still, as the Arab-Israeli conflict matures toward a possible resolution of half a century of conflict, the maps of would-be peacemakers across the region are taking on significance like never before.
"Borders are important, because every inch is the difference between occupied or liberated land," says Brig. Gen. Amin Hoteit of the Lebanese Army, as he squints through binoculars at the northern Israel landscape. "There is an important human freedom at stake, when this land has cost so much in blood," General Hoteit says.
In the end, Mr. Annan's visit this week helped defuse a crisis: Israel promised it would resolve what one Western official called "hanky-panky" on the border, referring to encroachments by Israel.
Violations may appear small to outsiders - they include an Israeli Army tent pitched just inside Lebanese territory, a truck that has been moved back and forth across the line, and a couple of lookout posts 50 to 100 yards on the wrong side of the line. But the Lebanese are taking assiduous care in dealing with them.
"Establishing borders in the Middle East means bringing peace to these countries," says Vladamir Bessarabov, a Russian cartographer with UN. "Until very recently, Israel did not have any borders here, and this part of the Lebanon-Syria border was never fully defined."
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978, and then established a nine-mile deep occupation zone in southern Lebanon in a bid to stop cross-border attacks. In recent years, increasing casualties led Israeli public opinion to favor a pullout, which Prime Minister Ehud Barak carried out abruptly on May 24 as Israel's allied Lebanese militia crumbled.
There are no shortage of lines that crisscross the Middle East, like a tangled web that for decades has supported self-serving definitions of unpalatable realities. There are "green lines," armistice, cease-fire, and "operational" lines, and borders that date to the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
Many lines have been fluid, changing in 1948, 1967, 1973, 1978, 1979, 1982 and during the 1990s as the Jewish state conquered, lost, or returned Arab territory for peace. From Libya to Iran, numerous political "red lines" exist.
And now another line has been created by the UN to verify the Israeli withdrawal here, though it doesn't exactly match the 1923 border that Israel, Lebanon, and the UN all recognize will be the basis for the final boundary.
UN officials say they are not in the business of demarcating any final border. That is the responsibility of the parties to come with an accord, and survey teams will do it. But helping both the Lebanese and Israelis resolve military issues now is their mandate.
Lebanese leaders say they won't deploy troops to the south, alongside the UN Intervention Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) until the UN verifies the withdrawal to their satisfaction.
"I am not surprised by how meticulous they have been," says a UN officer, after painstakingly calibrating his GPS satellite units with Lebanese ones. "I would do the same in their situation, because for sure [the Israelis] can comply today, but tomorrow it can be a different story. It's their country, and they want to do it right."
The responsibility is heavy, in a region where every inch of land can literally be a casus belli. American officials used tape measures to help Israelis and Palestinians settle on a final configuration for the West Bank town of Hebron in 1997, while the Syria-Israel peace track has been on hold for months mostly over a dispute about a few yards of Sea of Galilee shoreline.
"In the end these are political issues," says Farid al-Khazen , a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. "Cartographers are dwarfed when you have ideologues and true believers who say that borders can be changed after 100 years.
"The notion of 'Greater Syria,' 'Greater Israel,' and the 'Greater Arab World' really clashes with the idea of borders drawn by experts," Mr. al-Khazen says. "The bottom line is that the controversy isn't over borders, but over mutual recognition of neighboring countries. It's a question of whether that country should be there at all."
The Mideast is not alone in its sensitivity. European borders were not formally set in stone after World War II ended in 1945 until a generation later, with the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. A two-year conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia over a barren strip of remote desert took tens of thousands of lives, before being settled in peace talks in Algeria this week.
After decades of sporadic clashes, Saudi Arabia and Yemen on Monday signed an agreement to end their simmering border dispute.
"Cartography has been important for ages, but it can take years" to find solutions, says a Western diplomat in the Lebanese capital Beirut. "Decolonization is another example - in Africa and the Mideast - where you see very strange, straight lines in deserts."
In the Middle East, the borders haven't always suited the perceived security needs of the warring sides. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, largely to create a strategic buffer against any land attack. But such calculations are changing with the era of ballistic missiles and unconventional warfare, such that peace itself often offers the best security possible.
"The military importance of this land is much reduced, and whether Israel has this outpost or hill is not going to be what keeps Israel secure," says Paul Salem, a political analyst in Beirut. "From this strategic perspective, cartography is not so important. But for symbolism, it is all-important.
Still, there are existential issues at play. "It's been an open question until now: What will the final borders of Israel be?" notes al-Khazen of Israel's Zionist roots. "We didn't know for years, so this isn't just a question of classic border drawing - it goes much deeper."
He points to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Syria's 30,000 troops in Lebanon - where Syria has always refused to recognize a separate sovereignty - and Israel's continuing occupation of much of the West Bank, as examples of risks for the future.
"The idea of conquest has not totally disappeared, though the international system today rejects it," he adds. "Deep down, there is an expansionist zeal in this part of the world."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society