- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2006

JERUSALEM — Shebaa Farms, a disputed rural area embracing a dozen abandoned farms now under Israeli occupation, may hold the key to any diplomatic resolution of the confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel.

In recent days, would-be peacemakers and a Hezbollah official have suggested Hezbollah could agree to substantial concessions if Israel withdrew from the area at the junction of the Lebanese, Syrian and Israeli borders.

The fertile 8-square-mile area was farmed by residents of the nearby Lebanese village of Kafr Shuba but under effective Syrian control when it was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War together with the adjacent Golan Heights. Caught in a no-man’s-land between Syrian and Israeli forces, it has since fallen into disuse.

No formal agreement between Lebanon and Syria ever clearly defined the border in the area. Maps dating from the French mandate in Lebanon in the 1920s show the farms to be within Syria, as do official Lebanese maps printed in the 1960s.

Local residents, however, regarded themselves as Lebanese, and several farmers held land deeds issued by the Lebanese government in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The status of the farm area became an international issue when Israel pulled out of Lebanon in 2000 to a line designated by the United Nations on the basis of old maps and treaties as the international boundary between Israel and Lebanon.

The government of Lebanon challenged the line and demanded that Israel withdraw from Shebaa Farms, but U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s office declared the Lebanese claim “not valid.” Hezbollah took up the issue and declared that its objective of driving Israel out of Lebanon would not be achieved until Shebaa was handed over.

Hezbollah’s critics charge it with simply using the issue to justify its existence as an armed force and to continue serving as an outpost of Iran’s Islamic revolution. But would-be peacemakers say that if Israel relinquishes the area, Hezbollah will have no excuse to continue its armed role and could better be pressured to transform itself into a normal political party.

This suggestion has been made by Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and by representatives of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, who have put forward a joint peace plan. Even Hezbollah’s representative in the Lebanese Cabinet, Energy Minister Mohammed Fneish, said last week that once Israel withdrew from the Shebaa Farms area, Hezbollah’s role as a “liberating army” would be concluded and that it then would stick to a defensive role.

Some political observers think an Israeli pullback from Shebaa would afford Hezbollah a face-saving way out of its predicament, permitting it to claim a victory while accepting Israel’s demand that it keep away from the border and perhaps even accept international demands that it disarm.

For Israel, the Shebaa area is of little strategic importance and has always been subject to return to Syria in peace negotiations. Israel probably would accept an earlier pullback if Syria formally ceded the area to Lebanon.

Syria has verbally supported Lebanon’s claim to the area, but it has shunned any official redefinition of its borders because it still regards the territory of Lebanon, Jordan and Israel to be part of the Greater Syria that existed before World War I.

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