Understanding the Shebaa Farms Dispute: Roots of he Anomaly and Prospects for Resolution

The analysis of regional security in the Middle East presents a very complex challenge given the many perspectives from which it must be considered. Even problems that are viewed as micro-level conflicts have, in some cases, macro implications for the security of the region. The Shebaa farms controversy is one such case. As in similar disputes, public discourse is underlined by political motivations rather than historical or factual knowledge. The objective of this paper is to analyze the roots and course of this conflict and illuminate its place in the macro context.
Since Israel withdrew from South Lebanon on May 25, 2000, the Shebaa farms - on the southwest ridge of the Hermon mountain range, an area occupied by Israel in June 1967 as part of the Golan Heights - have become a new territorial bone of contention between Israel and Lebanon. The area, which is 14 kilometers in length and one to two kilometers in width and consists of some 14 agricultural properties, has become the major battlefield between Hizbullah and Israel. On several occasions, skirmishes in the area have almost created a spark that could have dragged the region into yet another war. Although this conflict may seem initially minute and inconsequential for the understanding of larger regional security issues, it is my contention that this micro-conflict can shed light on macro regional problems. Issues such as border formation in the region, inter-Arab relations and the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, are all manifest in this small piece of land.
According to the official Israeli stance, the area is an integral part of the Golan Heights and should be negotiated with Syria, if and when peace talks are resumed. Lebanon, however, supported by Syria, claims the area is an integral part of South Lebanon, and should have been included when Israel withdrew from Lebanon. Israel views this dispute as a Hizbullah fabrication, invented to continue its armed struggle against Israel. Arab public opinion, on the other hand, considers it yet more proof of Israel's expansionist nature. The UN, for its part, sided with Israel on this matter and concluded that the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon was, indeed, complete. Nevertheless, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged an ambiguity in the area of the farmlands, due to the absence of any official border demarcation in the region. He recommended, therefore, using the line separating the areas of operation of UNIFIL and UNDOF [the UN forces in South Lebanon and the Golan Heights, respectively] along the relevant portions of the Lebanese-Syrian boundary, which ultimately put the Shebaa area within the Syrian Golan Heights and, therefore, under Israeli control1.
That Hizbullah needed a pretext to continue its armed struggle against Israel may very well be the case. Yet, as I will explain, the Shebaa dispute was not "invented" by the Shi'ite organization, even if Hizbullah exploited it for its own political advantage. This essay provides a brief summary of the evolution of the area of the Shebaa farms from the 1920s when France, the mandatory power, supposedly set the Syrian-Lebanese border, to May 2000, when Israel withdrew from South Lebanon and the area became the new battlefield between Hizbullah and Israel2. The essay concludes with a few thoughts about the regional implications of this conflict and the prospects for resolution.

The Shebaa Farms Area in Historical Perspective

The Syrian-Lebanese boundary was never officially determined. Generally, the process of border determination includes three steps: a) Allocation - assigning a particular piece of territory to a state; b) Delimitation - the actual description of a border in a written document; and c) Demarcation - the actual marking on the ground. Of these three steps, only the first phase was completed in Lebanon. France, as the mandatory power, did delineate a border between the two countries on various maps, but not even once did official or professional surveyors on the ground carry out this process. From the early days of the mandate, French maps located the Shebaa farms within Syrian territory. In practice, however, the residents of the area continued to consider themselves part of Lebanon. They paid taxes to Lebanon and conducted all their legal and administrative affairs in Hasbaya and Marj 'Ayun, rather than in Quneitra, the contiguous Syrian regional capital. French officers who served in the region noticed this anomaly and reported to the High Commission in Beirut on the discrepancy between maps and de facto practice, and suggested amending the maps so they would correspond with local practice. However, nothing was done to resolve the matter, neither by France, nor by the Syrian or Lebanese governments.
The border anomaly in the area of the Shebaa farms continued after Lebanon and Syria attained their independence in the mid 1940s. It should be emphasized that because the borderline between the two countries has never been determined, border anomalies existed throughout the Syrian-Lebanese boundary. Syria had not fully reconciled with Lebanon's independence, at least not formally. It, therefore, avoided discussions of border demarcation with Lebanon. Since borders are one of the prime attributes of independence and sovereignty, any Syrian initiative to discuss its boundary with its neighbor would implicitly have implied recognition of Lebanon as a sovereign state. Furthermore, from the early 1950s to 1967, Syria physically took control over the region of the Shebaa farms, imposing a de facto reality on what previously was no more than imperfectly drawn French maps. This reality concerning the Syrian-Lebanese border in general and the area of the Shebaa farms in particular continued uninterrupted until Israel occupied the Golan Heights in June 1967. Syrian and Lebanese border residents continued to live their lives for the most part disregarding the artificial and unmarked borderline. The farmers of the Shebaa farms had free access to their lands and it mattered very little to them whose sovereignty their private property was under. The Israeli occupation in 1967, however, created a reality in which, for the first time, access to their land was limited at first and finally prohibited.
The responsibility for this border anomaly should not be laid solely with France or even Syria, as it was the responsibility of the Lebanese government to guarantee the imposition of its sovereignty on the country's entire territory when it gained independence. Successive Lebanese governments, however, never cared much about issues that related to the periphery, let alone the southeast corner of the country, one of the most neglected locales in Lebanon. Furthermore, from early 1968, the area became a war zone between Israel and Palestinian guerrilla organizations, a fact that entirely altered the focus on the region. The start of the Lebanese civil war in April 1975 left no space in the public consciousness for "petty" issues such as the Shebaa farms. Additionally, following the Israeli military activities in South Lebanon from 1978 on, the international border between Israel and Lebanon lost its relevance. At least twice in the 1970s, Lebanon and Syria had the chance to claim or disclaim sovereignty over the region. In 1974, with the signing of the Syrian-Israeli Disengagement Agreement and the deployment of UN forces in the Golan Heights, Syria accepted the existing maps, which located the Shebaa farms within the occupied Golan Heights. Similarly, with the deployment of the UN forces in South Lebanon in 1978, the Lebanese government endorsed the same maps, which excluded the Shebaa farms from its sphere of sovereignty.
In the early 1980s, the issue of the Shebaa farms began to resurface in occasional reports on Israeli misconduct in South Lebanon. The establishment of Hizbullah in 1983 only accelerated this development. A new genre of writing then developed in South Lebanon focusing on Israeli activities in the region. Scores of books, brochures and pamphlets from that period document Israeli deeds and misdeeds in South Lebanon. In the long list of alleged Israeli crimes one can often find references to the claim that in June 1967 Israel occupied a Lebanese tract of land in the area of the Shebaa farms, despite the fact that Lebanon did not participate in the war. As is well known, Hizbullah was not only preoccupied fighting Israel militarily but was also busy documenting Israeli activities in Lebanon. It seems that in this project Hizbullah also brought back to the public consciousness all matters of Lebanese grievances against Israel. One of these was clearly the loss of land by the residents of the Shebaa farmlands in 1967.
The fact that the Shebaa farms became an issue for the Lebanese before April 2000 could also be seen in the list of demands Lebanon compiled in preparation for a possible peace accord with Israel. The withdrawal from Lebanon was at the center of Israeli public debate for years. Lebanon could not remain indifferent to these developments and indeed Lebanese specialists made lists of territorial, financial and other demands from Israel. One of the numerous accusations put forth by Lebanese border specialists was that Israel intended to annex the Shebaa farms even if it withdrew from South Lebanon and that the Lebanese government must therefore prepare for such a step and assert its rights over the area. The Lebanese government, however, made it an official Lebanese claim only on May 4, 2000, demonstrating again its unprofessional handling of the matter. Kofi Annan noted the fact that this was a "new position" of the Lebanese government regarding the definition of its territory, implicitly criticizing Lebanon. Syria was quick to line up with Lebanon's "new position" and to support the Lebanese claim of sovereignty over the Shebaa farms. On May 21, 2000, Hizbullah launched its first mortar attack in the area, and the Israeli-Lebanese Shebaa farms border dispute was born.

The Shebaa Farms in Regional Context

The dynamics of the Shebaa farms controversy teaches us several issues about the colonial legacy of the Middle East, regional Arab politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. A negligent French mapping project gave birth to many border anomalies along the Syrian-Lebanese borderline, of which the Shebaa farms is only one. The lack of official border agreement between Syria and Lebanon continued after France evacuated the mandated territories. So long as this issue remained within inter-Arab affairs, it had no volatile implications and left no impact on "regional security." Yet, once Israel entered the picture, the anomaly over the farms acquired a new dimension related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and this neglected piece of land evolved, almost overnight, into a sacred territory and a test case of national pride for all parties involved. Thus, this case study reflects the obvious: The Arab-Israeli conflict is probably the largest cause of regional insecurity, and its persistence at the macro level feeds into micro-conflicts such as the Shebaa farms dispute.
In the current political climate in the Middle East, where the US is pretentiously trying to craft a new regional order and where the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is taking an immense toll on both societies, particularly on the Palestinian side, the dispute over the Shebaa farms seems petty and insignificant. Yet, as it appears now, this dispute is not going to disappear anytime soon from local headlines. For Hizbullah , the Shebaa farms front continues to preoccupy the armed wing of the organization and, in fact, to maintain its raison d'être - the muqawama - or resistance against Israel. Thus, despite the fact that the organization faces growing opposition in Lebanon to its military activities, Hizbullah has made it clear that it will not abandon its armed struggle against Israel and focus instead solely on internal Lebanese issues. Yet, it is clear that the organization is attuned to Lebanese public opinion and, therefore, has been very careful to pull the rope tight enough to assert its existence but not too tight to provoke an Israeli response that may alienate Lebanese society. Syria, for its part, has the power to put an end to this dispute but does not have the incentive to do so. As long as Israel occupies the Golan Heights and there is no sign of a future Israeli-Palestinian agreement, it is in Syria's interests to keep Israel "on its toes" pending a comprehensive peace deal. It is possible that American pressure might force the Syrian government to harness Hizbullah, but in my best judgment, such a scenario is not probable in the near future. Moreover, Hizbullah has demonstrated its independence several times by operating against Syria's interests and may very well demonstrate it again if there is a chance that its survival as a resistance movement is threatened.
The Arab-Israeli conflict operates according to the law of connected vessels and the Shebaa farms dispute is only a symptom of the dire situation in the region. Only a comprehensive peace effort would be able to release tension in the region and provide a broad resolution to small as well as large regional disputes. Thus, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the core of the problem, has to be addressed and resolved first. Then, a peace deal with Syria should be struck and this would lead to the elimination of petty issues such as the conflict over the Shebaa farms. When this happens it will be left to Syria and Lebanon to determine who owns this piece of land, yet not before the two countries establish a relationship of mutual respect of their sovereignty. Unfortunately, the direction towards which the Middle East is heading these days does not seem to indicate that either will happen any time soon or that any nonviolent resolution to this dispute, among others, looms on the horizon.

1 For a description of the Israeli withdrawal, see Frederic C. Hof, "Defining Full Withdrawal," Middle East Insight, Volume XV, No. 3 (May-June 2000); Idem, "A Practical line: The Line of Withdrawal from Lebanon and its Potential Applicability to the Golan Heights," The Middle East Journal, Vol. 55, No. 1, (2001).
2 For a detailed description of this issue see Asher Kaufman, "Who Owns the Shebaa Farms? Chronicle of a Territorial Dispute," Middle East Journal (Fall 2002); Idem, "The Shebaa Farms: A Case Study of Border Dynamics in the Middle East." The Gitelson Peace Publications, The Truman Institute, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, October 2002. <