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August 12, 2006

Sheba'a Farms: Much Ado About Nothing?


Friday evening, the UN unanimously adopted Resolution 1701, a cease-fire between Israel and Lebanon; the resolution still awaits approval from the Lebanese and Israeli governments, who will meet over the weekend to address it. Although both countries have said they are ready to accept this version, it was touch-and-go this week as Lebanon rejected the first draft and Israel threatened to reject the second.

One of the touchiest issues as set out in Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's seven points was that of the Sheba'a Farms. The Lebanese refused to come to the table without discussion on the sovereignty of this spot of land wedged between Lebanon, Israel, and Syria. The Israelis did not would not hear of it; however, today's resolution clearly calls for the issue to finally be put to rest.

How has this postage-stamp sized area of about 10 square miles (15 sq. km) come to cause so much trouble? And why do the Israelis want it so badly that they have been willing to court war with Hezbollah and threaten to reject UN Resolution 1701 over it?

Sheba'a Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills sit at the base of Mount Hermon at the southern end of the Anti-Lebanon Mountain range. Thanks to snowmelt from nearby Mt. Hermon, Sheba'a Farms has access to plenty of water. The hills are green with vegetation, and springs dot the area. The mountain itself overlooks Israel's Hulah Valley, which used to be a mosquito-filled swamp but is now a rich agricultural area.

If you believe the Israelis, this land belonged to Syria until Israel captured it during the Six Day War. According to Israel, it is part of the Golan Heights and now part of Israel proper. If you believe the Lebanese and the Syrians, the land belongs to Lebanon and should be returned to them, even if Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights. The world community leans toward believing the area Syrian, but it also differs with Israel on the issue of the entire Golan Heights.

The fact that these lands were used as farms is a clue to one reason Israel prefers the Sheba'a Farms to remain officially Syrian, and thus under Israeli control the water. Although the land also provides a convenient overlook from which the Israelis can watch military activity in Lebanon, control of water has long driven much of Israeli policy toward her neighbors. Many, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, have acknowledged the water origins of the Six Day War that brought Sheba'a Farms under Israeli control, and as recently as 2002 Israel almost declared war on Lebanon for diverting water from the Wazzani Springs to border villages. Now, it seems that Sheba'a Farms will stymie the peace process, and the reason could very well be the water.

Much of Mt. Hermon's snowmelt happens to feed into the Jordan River system. With concerns that the river could run dry within a few years because of overuse, control of all the headwaters becomes even more vital to Israel's interests. Indeed, then-Minister of Agriculture Rafael Eitan in 1989 stated, "It is difficult to conceive of any political solution consistent with Israel's survival that does not involve complete continued Israeli
control of water and sewage systems." And Sheba'a Farms, at the base of Hermon, unfortunately fits into that viewpoint.

The ownership problem began after World War I, when France took full control of the area from the Ottoman Empire under the French Mandate. While under French military control, Lebanon's borders were vaguely established, but not thoroughly marked. In the age of personal GPS devices, it is easy to forget that many international borders were loosely defined when created and often followed the courses of ever changing rivers. This was the case in Lebanon. Even after the French left, the Lebanese and Syrians didn't bother marking the official border.

For the most part, the de facto border follows the crest of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains; however, at Sheba'a Farms where Lebanon's border meets Israel's, the situation got a little tricky. Old maps of the area give the Israelis the edge on their claims; however, there exists enough contrary documentation to give the Lebanese-Syrian allegations merit. According to old French documents some of them concerning water disputes officials had remarked on map discrepancies in the area as far back as the 1920s and '30s, but nothing was ever done to fix them. Perhaps correcting these errors by accurately surveying the land was more trouble than it was worth at the time.

The former residents who farmed the lands also have various other documents proving, if nothing else, that they believe they were farming in Lebanon. Deeds, bills-of-sale, and construction permits give Lebanese claims a strong defense. The residents also claim to have paid a fair amount of fees and taxes to Lebanon institutions, but there was no reason for them to ask that the border be marked, since the issue did not affect their daily lives.

It was only after the occupation that the precise location of the frontier became important. The land's strategic value grew exponentially when the Israelis took interest in the area, and continued to grow even after their withdrawal in 2000. Because there was no official border, the UN had to step in and create one for the purposes of determining whether the Israelis were conforming to Resolution 425 and withdrawing from Lebanese territory. This makeshift border is what has been referred to as the Blue Line, but it should not automatically be viewed as the official border.

Hezbollah, which formed in response to the Israeli occupation, rejected the Blue Line because it did not include the Sheba'a Farms region, and has been using it to justify attacks on Israel. The Israelis have also ignored the Blue Line for their own purposes. The only group wanting to abide by the Blue Line seems to be the UN, which agrees that Sheba'a Farms does not belong to Israel, but wants the Blue Line respected for the time being by both sides.

Besides the map issue, another source of confusion is that Syrian officials had maintained a presence in the area to deal with security issues between the two countries. A topographical map of the area shows how difficult the terrain is between the rest of Lebanon and the area in question. It would be far easier for Syria to handle trafficking and other issues, and they had tacit permission from Lebanon to do so. It is not unlike the U.S. Coast Guard boarding ships from other countries that might be carrying contraband through international waters. For this reason, the Syrians were in de facto control of Sheba'a Farms at the time of the Israeli invasion of the Golan Heights.

Regardless of whether Sheba'a Farms belongs to Syria or Lebanon, according to UN Resolution 242 (1967), Israel should have withdrawn long ago from this and other areas occupied after the Six Day War. At that time, the UN indicated that it believed withdrawal was the path to peace in the Middle East. Certainly, peace has not been found by taking the other, present route. The resolution was reaffirmed several times in subsequent resolutions, including Resolutions 258, 2799 and 338; its aims were restated in Resolution 476, but the Israelis still occupy many of these areas.

Several other resolutions addressed the civil rights of residents and asked Israel to adhere to the Fourth Geneva Convention on the treatment of people in occupied territories. Adhering to these resolutions should allow the Sheba'a farmers back on their lands regardless of which country Lebanon, Syria, or Israel controls it. However, the area has been heavily fortified by Israelis to such a degree that it would be dangerous to try to cross the current border as it is now. Thus, the Lebanese have also asked that the Israelis provide accurate maps of where they have placed land mines.

Lebanon, and by extension Hezbollah, would not gain as much as the Israelis. They do not need the water as badly as the Israelis do and the military gain is also small, but it would be a psychological victory against a country they grew to despise under occupation. As a symbol, Sheba'a Farms' return to Lebanon would be an embarrassment to Israel and perhaps fire up other Arab groups. There would still be other issues, and Hezbollah could always seek new motives to retain Israel as a convenient enemy. However, the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, as defined by Hezbollah, would be completely resolved by giving Shaba'a to Lebanon but at the cost of Israel's domination of the water supply.

News analysis by Margaret Griffis.


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