By Cesar Chelala
Shebaa Farms is a sliver of land located in the border area between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. It can play an important role, much larger than its size.
An agreement on that area — located some 16 square miles on the western slopes of the Hermon Mountain range — can help create a much-needed momentum for peace in the region.
After Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah justified its attacks against the country by claiming Israel’s withdrawal was incomplete, that the Shebaa Farms belonged to Lebanon. Neither Israel nor the United Nations shared this perspective at the time. But there is now renewed interest in that area. During a visit to Lebanon last June, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “The United States believes that the time has come to deal with the Shebaa Farms issue.” Ms. Rice also called on the United Nations to use its “good offices” to deal with this issue.
The Shebaa Farms were captured during the 1967 Six Day War — concurrent with the capture of the Golan Heights from Syria, at a time when Lebanon was not an active participant of the war. Israel considered the area part of Syria, and extended Israeli law when it annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. This unilateral annexation was not recognized by the United Nations in its non-binding 497 resolution. That resolution, adopted unanimously, states that “the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect.”
When Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon’s occupied territory in May of 2000, it marked the beginning of an important controversy regarding the Shebaa Farms' status. Although the United Nations certified that Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon had been complete, both Syria and Lebanon disputed it.
Damascus has declared that the Farms belong to Lebanon, though no formal agreement was ever reached between Lebanon and Syria to clearly define and allocate this border area. Official Lebanese maps printed in the 1960s show the Farms to be within Syria, as do earlier maps dating from the French mandate in Lebanon in the 1920s.
There are some elements, however, to give credence to Lebanon’s ownership of the Farms. Area residents in the 1940s and 1950s have land deeds stamped by the Lebanese government that support the Lebanese government position. Dr. Asher Kaufman, a professor at The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, while doing research on this subject found important documents in French government archives. According to those documents, the Shebaa Farms could be considered to be located within today’s Lebanon boundaries.
In May of 2000, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouq Al-Shara, told UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Syria supported Lebanon’s ownership of that area. At a news conference in France, Syria’s president Bashar Al-Assad stated that both Beirut and Damascus will determine their countries’ border at Shebaa Farms after Israel withdraws from the region, and then they will submit a map to the United Nations.
There are several risks involved in Israel’s relinquishing control of the Shebaa Farms. This action will certainly embolden Hezbollah, which will take it as further proof that only armed action can yield positive results. It will also fail to disarm Hezbollah, since the group may claim it needs arms for defensive purposes. Even more seriously, there is concern in Israel over the fact that Hezbollah has greater arms than it had before the last conflict with Israel. These disadvantages, however, pale in comparison to the advantages to be gained by a positive move towards peace.
Returning Shebaa Farms ownership to the Lebanese involves important concessions from all involved. For Hezbollah, it will mean accepting some limits on their possibility of staging attacks against Israel. For Syria, it will mean relinquishing any claims to ownership of that area. For Israel, it will mean abandoning an important buffer zone of military and strategic importance in its Northern front. But the advantages still outweigh the disadvantages.
An agreement on the Shebaa Farms area would oblige both Syria and Lebanon to further define their borders, and, following their recent agreement to open embassies on both countries, further distinguish their characters as separate countries. For Israel, it can lead to further agreements that would open the possibility of peace deals with her Arab neighbours. For the region, it would mean the elimination of one further barrier to peace.
As sad as the recent prisoner exchange with Hezbollah is for Israelis, it shows that, albeit difficult, it is possible to reach an agreement with a hardened enemy. It has created a momentum for further moves toward peace, of which all parties should take advantage. Solving the Shebaa Farms conundrum provides a unique opportunity to foster peace in that beleaguered region.
Dr. Cesar Chelala, a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, is the foreign correspondent for Middle East Times International (Australia). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
First Published: July 21, 2008