Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 5 Table of Contents
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May 2001 

Syria and the Shebaa Farms Dispute
by Gary C. Gambill

Hezbollah guerrillas
When Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri told members of the US congressional Foreign Affairs Committee last month that Hezbollah's repeated attacks against Israeli troops stationed in the Shebaa Farms area were as legitimate as "France's resistance to Nazi Germany's occupation," one might have gotten the impression that the visiting premier considers Israeli control of the disputed enclave to be an intolerable affront to the Lebanese nation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Hariri's exaggerated analogy was just for show. However, the target audience was not the American congressmen assembled before him, but Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose military continues to maintain an iron grip on Lebanon. For months, Hariri had criticized Hezbollah attacks against Israeli forces, arguing that they scared away much-needed foreign investment in the Lebanese economy. But when Hariri's newspaper openly questioned the wisdom of an April 14 Hezbollah operation that killed an Israeli soldier and prompted the Israeli air force to demolish a Syrian radar station,1 Assad angrily canceled a scheduled meeting in Damascus with the Lebanese premier and refused to receive him for an entire month. Pro-Syrian ministers in Hariri's own cabinet virulently criticized their ostensible superior to his face and Assad's allies in the Lebanese media launched a series of unsavory invectives.

The Shebaa Farms "dispute" is a figment of no one's imagination, but a deliberately-crafted Syrian pretext for sponsoring paramilitary attacks against Israel and a justification for its continuing occupation of Lebanon.


The internationally-recognized border between Lebanon and Israel is based on the territorial line between Palestine and the states of Syria and Lebanon drawn by Britain and France in 1923. This same border was established as the Armistice Demarcation Line (ADL) between Israel and Lebanon in 1949.2 Until 1978, neither state occupied any territory in violation of this demarcation line.

When Israeli forces invaded southern Lebanon in 1978, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 425, which called upon Israel to "withdraw forthwith its forces from all Lebanese territory" and established the UN Interim Force in Lebanon [UNIFIL] "for the purpose of confirming the withdrawal of Israeli forces."3 The official position of the UN has always been that Resolution 425 required Israeli forces to withdraw to the pre-1978 line of separation, that is, to the 1949 ADL.

Until recently, successive Lebanese governments explicitly endorsed this position - the 1949 ADL was considered sacrosanct. In fact, the 1989 Ta'if Accord which established the Second Lebanese Republic explicitly calls for adherence "to the truce agreement signed on March 23, 1949" and implementation of Resolution 425.4

However, as Israel forces began preparations for a unilateral withdrawal to the international border during the Fall of 1999, Lebanese officials abandoned this long-held position under pressure from Syria, which feared that an Israeli pullout would deprive it of a valuable bargaining chip - the ability to subject Israeli forces to costly attacks by Hezbollah and other Syrian-sponsored paramilitary groups in Lebanon, without risking reprisals against its own territory.

Initially, the Syrians were convinced that Israel would not pull out of Lebanon unless doing so would lead to an Israeli-Lebanese peace treaty based on the 1949 ADL. Thus, in December 1999, Lebanese Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss announced that seven villages on the other side of the 1949 demarcation line (Tarbikha, Abil al-Qamh, Hunin, al-Malikiyya, al-Nabi Yusha, Qadas and Saliha) rightfully belonged to Lebanon and that their recovery "remains a Lebanese demand."5

However, it soon became clear that Israel was willing to settle for the mere cessation of hostilities. Since the seven villages mentioned above are internationally recognized as Israeli territory, Israeli officials were confident that the Syrians and their Lebanese client regime would not try to use this claim to legitimize continued Hezbollah attacks. As Israel's preparations for a pullout continued unabated throughout the Spring of 2000, the Syrians realized that a more viable pretext for the continuation of paramilitary attacks was now needed to discourage an Israeli withdrawal.

On April 17, Israel officially informed the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of its intent to withdraw its forces from south Lebanon "in full accordance" with UN Security Council Resolution 425. Shortly thereafter, Annan dispatched his special Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, and a team of experts to meet with Israeli and Lebanese officials and verify that both sides were in agreement on the conditions required by Resolution 425. Upon arriving in Beirut, the UN team encountered an eleventh hour objection from Lebanese officials. As a UN report later characterized the incident, "the Government of Lebanon informed the United Nations of its new position regarding the definition of its territory."6 This new territorial claim had never before even been mentioned by a representative of the Lebanese government.

The Shebaa Farms

Shebaa Farms
Roed-Larsen was told that, in addition to the areas occupied in 1978, Israeli forces seized a piece of Lebanese territory during the 1967 Six Day War called the Shebaa Farms, a 25 square kilometer area consisting of 14 farms located south of Shebaa, a Lebanese village on the western slopes of Mount Hermon. Since Lebanon was not a participant in the Six Day War, UN representatives were understandably skeptical, pointing out that the 1923 Anglo-French demarcation and the 1949 Armistice line clearly designated the area as Syrian territory.

However, Lebanese officials insisted that Syria had officially given the territory to Lebanon in 1951 (why such a "gift" would have been made was never plausibly explained). According to the Lebanese claim, there are no international records of the boundary adjustment since Lebanese and Syrian officials decided not to register it with the UN (why such a decision would have been made has also not been explained). In fact, the officials in Beirut were unable to produce any documents concerning the transfer. One senior government source in Beirut later explained that this was because the border adjustment was "a kind of oral agreement" between the two countries and "nothing was documented specifically."7

Lebanese officials pointed to the fact that a number of residents in the area have land deeds stamped by the Lebanese government, but UN officials remained unimpressed. It is not difficult to see why. A Lebanese newspaper described the land deed of one Shebaa resident as "handwritten and signed on a yellowing piece of paper in pencil and ink."8 Moreover, nearly all of the deeds date back to the 1940's, before the alleged transfer agreement was signed, so they do not attest to Lebanese sovereignty over the area (it is quite common for Lebanese to own land in Syria and vice versa).

Both military and civilian Lebanese maps produced after 1951 locate the Shebaa Farms on the Syrian side of the border. Lebanese army maps published in 1961 and 1966 specifically pinpoint several of the Shebaa Farms, including Zebdine, Fashkoul, Mougr Shebaa and Ramta, all of which are designated as being located inside Syria. Lebanese Ministry of Tourism maps also show the Lebanese-Syrian border running west of the Shebaa Farms. Timur Goksel, a spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) told the BBC that "on all maps the UN has been able to find, the farms are seen on the Syrian side [of the border]."9

On May 22, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan gently rebuffed the Syrian/Lebanese claim in his report to the UN Security Council and recommended that the line separating the areas of operation of UNFIL and the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights (which would exclude the Shebaa Farms) be used for the purposes of determining Israel's compliance with Resolution 425. His justification for this decision merits a direct quotation:

This UNIFIL-UNDOF line coincides with the border line most commonly found on maps issued by the Government of Lebanon, including those published after 1966. This line has also been accepted by the Government of Lebanon for 22 years in the context of the UNIFIL area of operations. In addition, this same line was approved by the Governments of Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic in their 1974 Disengagement Agreement.
The report called upon the Lebanese government to "resume the normal responsibilities of a State throughout the area," and added that "the Lebanese armed forces should ensure that all national territory falls under the effective authority of the government."10

The Syrians had no intention of permitting the Lebanese government to do either.

The Campaign to "Liberate" the Shebaa Farms

Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in late May 2000 and quickly secured the UN's recognition that it had complied fully with the terms of Resolution 425. Under American pressure, the Lebanese regime grudgingly announced that it would abide by the blue line delineated by the UN. However, Damascus permitted the Lebanese government to deploy only a token force of 500 police and 500 soldiers to areas of south Lebanon evacuated by the Israelis. This force was not allowed either to disarm Hezbollah guerrillas or to take up positions along the blue line.

For several months, Hezbollah refrained from launching any operations against Israeli forces. Then, in September, internal developments in Lebanon necessitated that the Syrians change course. On September 20, the Council of Maronite Archbishops issued an unprecedented statement calling upon Syria to "completely withdraw" its military forces from Lebanon.

Initially, the Syrians reacted by pressing Muslim religious figures in Lebanon to virulently condemn Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. This clearly backfired -most Christian politicians expressed support for the document, while Muslim politicians began calling for a "national dialogue." Syrian officials decided that the calm in south Lebanon had gone to the heads of the Lebanese. A distraction was needed to refocus attention on Israel.

On October 7, Hezbollah launched a daring attack into the Shebaa Farms area and abducted three Israeli soldiers. All subsequent Hezbollah operations in the Shebaa Farms closely followed major outbursts of Lebanese opposition to the Syrian occupation. Attacks on November 16 and November 26 occurred just days after major demonstrations took place in Lebanon.

A February 16 attack that killed an Israeli soldier came just four days after a Lebanese television station conducted a live interview with Michel Aoun, the country's leading opposition figure in exile, and broadcast the results of a viewer poll showing that over 90% of Lebanese agreed with him. Ironically, just one day before the attack, Prime Minister Hariri confidently reassured a group of investors in Paris that there would be no more outbreaks of violence in south Lebanon. "We have a clear agreement with our Syrian brothers in this matter," said Hariri, "There will be no provocations on our part."11

The Hezbollah attack on April 14 came just days after demonstrations by Lebanese nationalists to mark the anniversary of the Lebanese civil war were called off amid a series of violent attacks against opposition figures (see "Syria's Campaign to Silence Lebanese Muslims" in the April 2001 issue of MEIB).

However, despite impressive attempts by Syria and its allies in Lebanon to mobilize popular support for "liberating" the Shebaa Farms, public opinion on the matter is decidedly unenthusiastic. Even among Lebanese Shi'ites, who were strongly supportive of Hezbollah's resistance to the Israeli occupation, there is growing opposition to the group's attacks into the Shebaa Farms area. After the February 16 attack, for example, former MP Habib Sadek, the president of the Southern Lebanon Cultural Council, co-signed a statement which said that the Lebanese should not be required to bear the "burden" of the Arab-Israeli conflict alone, criticized the "complete failure of the Lebanese authorities in assuming the minimum of national responsibility in the South" and called upon the government to "rectify Lebanese-Syrian relations."12

In the two Lebanese towns closest to the disputed area, Shebaa and Kfar Shouba, few people consider the Shebaa Farms to be worth fighting for. Local residents deeply resent the Hezbollah guerrillas who have attacked Israeli forces from positions nearby, drawing Israeli retaliatory fire. "The Shebaa farms belong to us, but for the moment they are a trial of strength between Syria and Israel, and we are paying the price," Ismail Dalli, who owns the largest shop in Shebaa, told a reporter for Agence France Press this month.13

The Road Ahead

The renewal of hostilities has proven to be a severe setback for Prime Minister Hariri's efforts to raise money for debt-relief loans and other subsidies from the international community. Earlier this month, Kofi Annan issued a formal recommendation that the UNIFIL force in south Lebanon be reduced in stages from 5,600 to 2,000 peacekeepers over the next 14 months. Lebanese officials vehemently objected, and for good reason - the departure of UN peacekeepers from a tense conflict area is generally perceived in the international business community to be an indication of increased investment risk.

However, the downsizing of UNIFIL is largely the result of the Lebanese government's unwillingness to recognize the UN blue line and its refusal to allow peacekeepers to deploy at key areas along the border, most notably at the Fatima Gate, where Hezbollah regularly busses in supporters to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers stationed on the other side of the border. In February, most residents of Kfar Shouba signed a petition asking UNIFIL to deploy in their village, but the Lebanese government refused to permit it.

Despite Lebanese objections, on May 16 the UN Security Council endorsed the UNIFIL reduction and subjected the Lebanese government to remarkably unequivocal criticism for its stance on the Shebaa Farms. Afterwards, Security Council president James B. Cunningham stated that members of the council were "deeply concerned by assertions that the Blue Line is not valid in the Shebaa Farms area. This area is governed by UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which are applicable to the occupied Syrian Golan."

The most recent setback came earlier this month, when the US House of Representatives voted 216-210 to approve an amendment to the State Department's authorization bill that will terminate $35 million in American economic assistance unless the Lebanese government deploys its army along the border within six months. Although the American ambassador in Lebanon, David Satterfield, quickly assured Lebanese officials that the State Department opposes "any legislation to terminate assistance," Senate approval of the measure appears likely.

There is very little that Hariri can do about this state of affairs. Syria has permitted Hariri to exert control only over ministries and government agencies dealing with economic and financial matters. The security and foreign policy organs of the state are all under the direct or indirect control of loyal allies of Syria. President Emile Lahoud, who maintains a strong personal dislike of Hariri, is fiercely loyal to the Assad regime (largely because he has little countervailing support within his own Christian community). The Interior Ministry is headed by Lahoud's son-in-law, Elias Murr. Defense Minister Khalil Hrawi has close, long-standing ties to Maj. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon. Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud is a political ally of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an ex-militia warlord whose loyalty to Syria is unswerving.

Earlier this month, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz published an editorial calling for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw Israeli forces from the Shebaa Farms. "The Lebanese government will then be unable to escape from deploying its army on the grounds that Israel is still occupying the Shebaa Farms," said the editorial. "The official pretext for Hezbollah to continue holding on to its arms and continue fighting will also be eliminated." This view is gradually becoming more prevalent in the Israeli media.

However, an Israeli withdrawal from Shebaa will have little impact on Syrian-sponsored paramilitary attacks against Israeli forces. Lebanese officials and Hezbollah leaders have already begun making claims to a village called Nkhaile on the Israeli side of the blue line. During a press conference on May 22, senior Hezbollah commander Hajj Mustafa pledged to continue fighting for "as long as there is an inch of land under occupation." Asked if Hezbollah will fight to liberate Nkhaile in the event that Israel pulls out of the Shebaa Farms, Mustafa replied, "This is for [consideration] afterward."14


  1 Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), 15 April 2001.
  2 For an in-depth discussion of this process, see Frederic C. Hof, "Defining Full Withdrawal: Re-marking the Lebanese-Israeli Border," Middle East Insight, May-June 2000.
  3 UN Security Council Resolution 425, articles 2 and 3.
  4 The full text of the Ta'if Accord was republished in Habib Malik, Between Damascus and Jerusalem: Lebanon and Middle East Peace (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1997), pp. 113-123.
  5 Hof (2000).
  6 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Implementation of Security Council Resolutions 425 (1978) and 426 (1978), Document S/2000/460, 22 May 2000, p. 3. Italics added for emphasis.
  7 The Daily Star (Beirut), 9 May 2000.
  8 The Daily Star (Beirut), 29 May 2000.
  9 BBC News (London), 25 May 2000.
  10 Report of the Secretary-General on the Implementation of Security Council Resolutions 425 (1978) and 426 (1978), pp. 3, 5.
  11 Quoted in Nicholas Blanford, "Hizbullah Hoist by Its Own Petard," The Middle East, April 2001.
  12 The Daily Star (Beirut), 24 February 2001.
  13 AFP, 23 May 2001.
  14 The Daily Star (Beirut), 23 May 2001.

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