Mideast pivots on disputed farmland


JERUSALEM -- In the hills northeast of Israel lies a small stretch of land that helps to tell the bigger and often bloody story of South Lebanon.

Shebaa Farms, as the Lebanese call it, looms as a major obstacle to a smooth Israeli withdrawal from territory it has occupied in southern Lebanon since 1985. Eventually, the United Nations Security Council may have to step in.

Lebanese officials say the agricultural area, stretching southwest from Mount Hermon, is theirs and they want Israel to give Shebaa Farms back when it pulls out of Lebanon. Israel says Lebanon can't have it because Shebaa Farms belongs to Syria. And Syria, which has demanded every square inch it could claim, is strangely silent on the subject, publicly at least.

Since Israel and Syria ended their last major war in 1973, their shared border has been peaceful, even as Israel annexed and expanded settlements on the Golan Heights, land taken from Syria in the 1967 war.

Instead, for almost two decades, after the Palestinians were driven out of southern Lebanon, the conflict there has been mainly between Syria and Israel, with the Lebanese residents the main victims.

Over the past decade, Syria, which controls the country, has allowed Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas to mount attacks against Israeli troops in South Lebanon and occasionally into northern Israel.

Israel has responded with air attacks on Lebanon, and twice this year bombed power stations supplying major urban centers. To end this continuous cycle of violence, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak pledged to withdraw from southern Lebanon by early July and approached Syria with the aim of trading the Golan Heights for peace on Israel's borders.

When Syria demanded a price Barak didn't want to pay - Syrian access to the shore of the Sea of Galilee - the peace effort stalled. But Barak remained determined to withdraw from Lebanon, and gained initial success in lining up international support.

With U.S. backing, the United Nations now plans to expand its peacekeeping force in South Lebanon and move into land to be vacated by Israel.

This was good news for Lebanon. But it deprived Syria of a way to keep the pressure on Israel and robbed Hezbollah of its main justification for fighting the Jewish state, that Israel was occupying Lebanese territory.

Suddenly, within the past two weeks. Shebaa Farms entered the picture. Lebanon said that unless Israel vacated the area, withdrawal wouldn't be complete and there would be no peace along the border.

The objection is believed to have been inspired by Syria.

"Somebody's putting a spoke in the wheel," said a usually well-informed diplomatic source.

Redrawn boundary

When France controlled both Syria and Lebanon in the 1920s, it created a boundary between the two that placed the village of Shebaa and some of the land around it in Lebanon, according to Israeli geographer Moshe Brawer of Tel Aviv University. France pulled out in 1946.

In the early 1950s, Brawer says, Syria took over some land west of the border, including Shebaa Farms. This area was under Syrian military control when Israel conquered the Golan and Mount Hermon in 1967.

Beirut says Syria had ceded the territory to Lebanon in 1951 but later kept police there to combat smuggling. Lebanese have title to the farmland near Shebaa.

Whatever Lebanon's argument for Shebaa Farms, it didn't satisfy U.N. special envoy Terje Larsen, who demanded more documentation.

Israel says the land is part of the Golan Heights and won't be returned until Syria makes peace.

"The Lebanese don't have a case," said an Israeli official.

This puts the United Nations in a difficult spot, because it needs Lebanon's consent to deploy its peacekeepers.

"It's a potential obstacle," says a U.N. official.

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