Why regional conflict molders in south Lebanon

Israeli troops left south Lebanon a year ago.

Abu Haidar gazes through the bushes at an Israeli military outpost breaking the skyline of a distant ridge. Dressed in US Army fatigues, his face smothered in green and black paint, and standing beside his Soviet-era Sagger antitank missile, Abu Haidar explains why he and his fellow Hizbullah fighters are here.

"Our land will not be liberated through negotiations, but through blood," he says, echoing the familiar strain of the Hizbullah, or Party of God, the Islamic organization supported by Syria, which long fought Israeli occupation of Lebanon's southern border.

But one year after Israeli troops withdrew from the "security zone," a narrow strip along the south Lebanon border, ending its 22-year occupation, a new conflict has erupted in a mountainous territory known as the Shebaa Farms.

Given the escalating tensions in the Mideast, the Shebaa Farms is widely viewed as a potential flashpoint that could spark a war between Israel and Syria, the dominant powerbroker in Lebanon. "It's a very dangerous situation," says Timur Goksel of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). "The Shebaa Farms is definitely a potential ignition point. Escalation is very possible."

The 15.6-square-mile area - with its mountain peaks of frost-shattered limestone and plunging, scrub-covered ravines - is the focus of international concern and repeated calls for restraint on both sides.

Hizbollah's 18-year war of attrition against Israeli troops in south Lebanon sapped public support in Israel for the "security zone."

The 14 farms of Shebaa were originally owned by Lebanese nationals, but the territory was included inside Syria when Lebanon's borders were demarcated in the 1920s.

Syria ceded the district to Lebanon in the 1950s, but the agreement was never formally ratified. The area was later occupied by Israel during the invasion of the adjacent Golan Heights in the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967.

To Lebanon's irritation, the UN last year decreed that Israel was not obliged to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms in fulfilling UN resolutions calling for a withdrawal from Lebanon.

The calm following Israel's withdrawal lasted five months. Then, on Oct. 7, Hizbollah abducted three Israeli soldiers in a lightening raid into Shebaa Farms. Hizbollah has said it will release the soldiers in exchange for 11 Lebanese and hundreds of other Arab prisoners in Israel.

Since then, three Israeli soldiers have been killed in Hizbollah strikes. For six months, Israel refrained from retaliating. But when the third soldier was killed last month, Israel unleashed its warplanes in an air raid against a Syrian military radar installation on the mountains east of Beirut, killing at least one Syrian soldier. It was the first raid against a major Syrian position since Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Syria vowed it would not go unpunished.

The looming anniversary of Israel's withdrawal has sparked considerable tension along the border. Israel was on high alert for attacks from Hizbullah yesterday when a Lebanese plane entered Israeli airspace without permission. After 15 minutes of unsuccessful attempts to contact the Lebanese civilian pilot, an Israeli military helicopter shot it down, killing the Cessna pilot.

Meanwhile, prodded by Syria, Lebanon has lent its support to the campaign to win the Shebaa Farms. But as tensions grow in the region, many doubt the wisdom of an armed struggle against Israel.

Each attack in the Shebaa Farms threatens to undermine the efforts of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to attract foreign investment needed to rebuild the war-shattered economy and reverse a public debt of $25 billion.

Despite calls for negotiation by several Lebanese politicians, diplomacy has been sidelined by Hizbollah's military campaign in what is widely viewed as a bid to squeeze concessions from Israel over the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

This strategy is doomed, says Farid Khazen, a professor at the American University of Beirut. "Israel was a hostage when it was trapped in south Lebanon, but now Lebanon and Syria are hostage to their own policy," he says. "How can you pressure Israel when no one in Israel cares about Lebanon anymore?"

But Hizbollah is unrepentant. "The government says it's our land, and we will resist and liberate it," said Hajj Mustafa, a senior Hizbollah commander, giving only his nom de guerre.

Earlier this week, on a remote hilltop three miles from the Shebaa Farms frontline, Hajj Mustafa and several other veteran fighters gave reporters a rare briefing on military tactics.

These men rank among Hizbollah's elite, most of them with more than a decade's combat experience against Israeli troops.

Skilled in the use of antitank missiles, explosives, Katyusha rockets, and communications and surveillance technology, the fighters of the Party of God are also bolstered with a deep-rooted belief in the concept of martyrdom. "My biggest wishes are victory over the enemy and martyrdom," said Abu Haidar.

But the residents here are tired of war. Some genuinely support Hizbollah's campaign, many just pay lip service to the organization, and a few quietly mutter about wanting an end to fighting.

Qassem Zohra, a goatherder, and his family were forced to leave their farmstead near the village of Kfar Shuba in February when it came under regular fire from a nearby Israeli outpost, killing several of his goats. "Last year, we were liberated," Zohra said. "But now we're worse off than before."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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