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Edition 32 Volume 7 - August 20, 2009

The Lebanon-Israel territorial dispute

What's in a track?  - Joseph Bahout
Obama's Middle-East sherpas would be well advised to get quickly rid of three illusions regarding any Lebanese-Israeli process.

The Seven Villages dispute  - Nicholas Blanford
Hizballah occasionally raises the demand for the Seven Villages as part of its ongoing psychological warfare against Israel.

Israel should use its leverage  - an interview with David Welch
Having a Lebanon more like Jordan, remote as that might seem, is much more in Israel's interest.

Israel between Shebaa and Ghajar  - Eyal Zisser
Israel's assumption is that if these excuses are removed from the table, Hizballah will find new ones.

What's in a track?
 Joseph Bahout

War, peace, enforced truce: the Lebanese-Israeli issue has recently been caught in a web of diametrically opposed outlooks. On the one hand, ideas are floated that US President Barack Obama's Middle-East strategy would seek to tackle this track first, since it is considered the easiest. On the other hand, the drumbeats of war are sounding, induced by Hizballah's activities south of the Litani (the Hirbet Salim depot explosion) as well as by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's verbal escalation and threats.

In between, and much more realistically--though this realism remains to be coldly reassessed, lays the idea of a resurrection of the truce agreement that put an end to the 1948-49 war between the two countries. This agreement is still considered by some, especially in Lebanon, as the only workable device to ensure a durable ceasefire in this spot of the Arab-Israel dispute provided some "pending" issues are resolved, foremost among them the Shebaa Farms.

The Lebanese-Israeli track may seem the easiest to resolve. However, the historical sequence of events and geopolitical legacies, as well as the many entanglements and ramifications of this track, could just as well lead to the quite opposite conclusion. If it is true that the 1948-49 war ended with no territorial difference between Lebanon and Israel, it planted the seeds of a much deeper problem for the Lebanese polity, that of the Palestinian refugees and their fate. If it is also true that the subsequent 1967 war left Lebanon on the side, consequently unconcerned with the process induced by UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, the Shebaa Farms issue finds its nexus exactly here, since this tiny strip of land that was occupied then was formally Lebanese, even if de-facto Syrian controlled and lost to Israel by the Syrian army.

Soon after 1968, the Palestinian human factor became consolidated as an inseparable part of the Lebanese domestic political agenda, giving birth to the Cairo Agreement and the creation of Fateh-land, a Palestinian-controlled enclave in the south of Lebanon that two Israeli invasions, in 1978 and 1982, sought to sweep away. These in turn brought further UN resolutions such as 425 and 520. The PLO and its military wing were eventually ousted, but a substantial part of the Palestinian population remained in the suburbs of big Lebanese towns. Finally, the Israeli withdrawal of 2000 reminded everyone again of the forgotten Shebaa Farms issue, and the July 2006 war, ending with the latest in that line of resolutions, 1701, stressed the necessity to address it along with all other issues.

With this brief chronology of the Lebanese-Israeli dispute in mind, and if one has to be truly realistic, it is obvious that it is no longer a truce but Resolution 1701 that is today the only game in town to ensure a durable cessation of hostilities between Lebanon and Israel while we await a potential peace. And this is despite all the grievances each party has about the incomplete implementation of the resolution and its many shortcomings. If Israel is alarmed by persistent quasi-military activity by Hizballah south of the Litani and worried by the flow of weapons the resistance still receives, the Lebanese side feels constantly provoked by repeated Israeli military overflights, the several infringements across the Blue Line, the expansion of spy rings inside the country as well as the non-solution to the Shebaa Farms issue and other territorial questions such as the Ghajar village.

Mutual recriminations aside, however, the true question is how to consolidate, widen and upgrade the scope of Resolution 1701 in order to ensure a long-term cooling of the front. It is exactly at this point that the internal Lebanese political reality pops up, a reality that Netanyahu himself is stubbornly trying to constrain and alter. In the real world, any effective Lebanese government today is a government that will include an active and ever-more decisive Hizballah factor. This means that Israel, on its way to obtain any enhancement of 1701, including on its Shebaa element, will have to acknowledge that it is engaging Hizballah in one way or another, with all the regional implications that such a move might entail.

On a longer-term perspective, and if one is to accept that there is a US desire to obtain a rapid breakthrough on the Lebanese-Israeli track, it must be remembered that things are not as easy as they may appear. Lebanon essentially faces two options, either to enter into separate and direct negotiations with Israel or to join, at some point and in coordination with Damascus, the track of talks between Syria and Israel. The first is a choice completely ruled out by today's official Lebanon. President Michel Suleiman himself gave his word to Syrian President Bashar Assad, as a sine qua non guarantee before his consensual election, that Beirut would wait for significant progress by Damascus before getting into any separate process with Israel. The second is a choice the Lebanese majority still considers unacceptable, since it represents a sad return to the inglorious days of Syrian tutelage over Beirut's policies.

There is a third, fragile alternative, that of sticking to the global umbrella of the Arab Peace Initiative, within which Lebanon itself insisted on adding the clause on the right of return of Palestinian refugees, given the inflammatory and sensitive character of this question for domestic Lebanese politics.

Obama's Middle-East sherpas would be well advised to get quickly rid of three illusions regarding a Lebanese-Israeli process. Any serious authority in today's Lebanon is one that will not ignore Syria's own progress in talks. Any talks that ignore Hizballah will backfire sooner rather than later, torpedoing the whole venture. And any structural solution that ignores the Palestinian dimension is a sure recipe for Lebanese turmoil.

The Lebanese track may seem an easy path to go down. It is not.- Published 20/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Joseph Bahout teaches Middle East politics at Science-Po Paris, and is a senior researcher at Academie Diplomatique Internationale.

The Seven Villages dispute
 Nicholas Blanford

While Lebanon's campaign for the return of the Shebaa Farms has became well known over the past nine years, it is not the only outstanding territorial dispute between Lebanon and Israel.

A more arcane--and generally misunderstood--Lebanese grievance with Israel is the fate of the Seven Villages, originally populated by Shi'ites who found themselves in the French mandate of Greater Lebanon in 1920 before being transferred to Palestine in 1924.

Hizballah occasionally raises the demand for the Seven Villages as part of its ongoing psychological warfare against Israel, hinting that winning back the Shebaa Farms alone is insufficient reason for the party to disarm. In fact, Hizballah long ago dropped conditioning the retention of its military wing on the return of Israeli-occupied Lebanese territory.

Today, Hizballah claims its resistance is a vital component of national defense against future Israeli aggression. As Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah's leader, said as long ago as 2000, before Israel had withdrawn from Lebanon, "so long as our neighbor is an entity that has committed aggression, is aggressive by nature and could attack our country at any moment, we should adhere to our resistance, if only to defend our country."

The Seven Villages dispute arose because of an overlap in the early 1920s between the initial administrative line separating the French mandate of Lebanon and the British mandate of Palestine and the time it took to ratify the international boundary between the two countries.

At the end of World War I, the British and French established military-run Occupied Enemy Territorial Administrations (OETA) covering Syria and Palestine. The line separating the northern French OETA and the southern British OETA ran eastward from Ras Naqoura more or less horizontally terminating just north of the now dried-up Lake Huleh in Upper Galilee. In December 1920, the British and French signed an agreement that defined the borders of the Middle East territories under their supervision, including that of Lebanon and Palestine.

The Lebanon-Palestine border was demarcated between March and July 1921, and the final documents--a sketch map of the boundary line and a detailed written description--were submitted to the British and French governments in February 1922. The following month the French mandatory authorities in Beirut authorized elections for a Representative Council, the forerunner of the Lebanese parliament. A census--of highly questionable accuracy--was conducted covering the area of the French administered OETA, which included the Upper Galilee and its villages and farms and its Jewish populated areas such as Metulla. Those covered by the census were given Lebanese identity cards entitling them to vote in the April 1922 elections.

Although Britain and France were awarded their respective mandates at the San Remo peace conference in 1920, the League of Nations only formally approved the mandates in February 1923. That step allowed Britain and France finally to ratify the Lebanon-Palestine border, which replaced the OETA line.

The final act came in April 1924 when around 24 villages and farms that had found themselves north of the OETA line (thus under French administration) but south of the new border were formally transferred to the jurisdiction of British mandate Palestine. Of these, 12 were populated by Sunnis, two were Maronite, one was Greek Catholic, two were Jewish, six were Shi'ite and one was divided between Shi'ites and Greek Catholics. The six Shi'ite villages were Terbikha, Saliha, Malkiyah, Nabi Yusha, Kades and Hunin. The mixed Shi'ite-Greek Catholic village was Ibl Qamh. Collectively, these villages today form what is known as the Seven Villages. During the 1948 Arab-Israel war, most of the residents of the Seven Villages met the same fate as other Palestinians and were driven from their homes to become refugees in Lebanon. They were granted Lebanese citizenship in 1994.

Lebanon's argument for the return of the Seven Villages is premised on the fact that the residents were Lebanese citizens before they were transferred to Palestine and became Palestinian citizens. But citizenship does not denote sovereignty, otherwise the Shebaa Farms dispute would have been resolved in 2000. Lebanon was unable to persuade the United Nations of the validity of its claim over the Shebaa Farms because it could not satisfactorily prove sovereignty over the area, despite the former residents possessing Lebanese citizenship and property deeds registered in Lebanon.

The OETA line was a purely administrative boundary, not a legal and internationally-recognized border, much as the UN-delineated Blue Line also is not a border but a temporary military line drawn up in 2000 to confirm that Israel had pulled out of Lebanon in conformity with UN resolutions.

The case for the Seven Villages is further undermined by past precedent. Previous Lebanese governments have recognized the legitimacy of the southern border with Israel on many occasions, including in 1949 when it formed the basis of the Armistice Demarcation Line and in 1978 when UN Resolution 425 called on Israel to withdraw from all Lebanese territory "within [Lebanon's] internationally recognized boundaries".

There is nothing to prevent Lebanon and Israel mutually agreeing to amend the border in the future if they so wish. But demanding an amendment that would place the Seven Villages inside Lebanon would also allow Israel to press for its own alterations to a border with which it has never been satisfied.- Published 20/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.

Israel should use its leverage
an interview with  David Welch

BI: Are the Israel-Lebanon territorial issues relevant to regional peace and stability?

Welch: I don't think they specifically are very critical to regional stability. But I do believe that, more generally, Lebanon is important for regional stability.

BI: Can you distinguish between the Ghajar issue and the Shebaa Farms issue?

Welch: They are part of the same bundle of questions. There are different ways to look at them: the political context in Lebanon, the political context in Israel and [the interplay] between the two.

Ghajar is the one place where the Israel Defense Forces are physically present in an area that even Israel recognizes as Lebanese land. There have been various attempts, including by the IDF, to figure out how to withdraw while preserving the security of the village and of Israel itself.

Regarding Shebaa, there are contending definitions. This scrap of rock has assumed a life of its own. It's a cause celebre for Hizballah and an article of faith for some Israeli politicians [who argue] that you cannot concede to terrorists. It has security implications for Israel, but the issue of IDF listening stations in the region can be dealt with.

BI: And Shebaa as a Syrian-Lebanese issue?

Welch: I always thought that by defining Shebaa Farms as Syrian, Israel was forsaking a political opportunity. It could turn the tables on Hizballah simply by agreeing to bargain over Shebaa. Instead, Israel presents giving up Shebaa as a victory for Hizballah. Especially after May 6, 2008 when Hizballah took to the streets of Beirut, we have to ask why this organization is still armed. Giving up Shebaa would call that into question.

BI: Can you comment on the US role since 2000?

Welch: The year 2000 is an interesting mark, since it's the point when the IDF pulled out after 22 years. The US had a key role, and I personally was involved, in defining what would be recognized as withdrawal. I think this is one place where the US can be effective because it takes some ingenuity to bring the actors together: the UN, the Lebanese in all their configurations. That's the role we attempted to play in 2000 [and again] in much less promising circumstances in 2006.

BI: And the Lebanese-Israeli situation today?

Welch: I don't see why Lebanon should be allowed to exempt itself from peace negotiations. If the Palestinians want to have them and the Arabs back that demand, and if Syria wants them, then why is Lebanon so shy? This is the fault of Lebanese politicians in failing to redefine the problem as an Arab interest. Why are they allowing the issue to be defined for them? That's the counterpoint to my argument about how Israel is giving away leverage over Hizballah [on the territorial issues].

BI: So are Israeli territorial concessions important for Lebanese government formation and stability?

Welch: I don't like the word concession. [Rather] this is using leverage more creatively. Perhaps some in Israel think it is better for Israeli security that there be a Lebanon divided internally, including Hizballah with its military capability. Rationally, I don't accept that argument. It's much more in Israel's strategic interest that its northern frontier be protected not only by the IDF but by a Lebanese government with an interest in stability. Having a Lebanon more like Jordan, as remote as that might seem, is much more in Israel's interest. By using Israeli leverage to deteriorate Hizballah's rationale for a military existence, you are absolutely moving Lebanon in that direction.- Published 20/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

David Welch is former US assistant secretary of state responsible for the Middle East and former ambassador to Egypt. In 2006 he was the US envoy to Israel and Lebanon during the war between Israel and Hizballah.

Israel between Shebaa and Ghajar
 Eyal Zisser

In recent weeks, international pressure on Israel to advance a solution for the Ghajar village and Shebaa Farms problems has increased considerably. The pressure has intensified in particular in light of the June 7 Lebanese parliamentary elections that gave an unexpected victory to the moderate March 14 camp led by Saad al-Din al-Hariri, head of the Sunni community in Lebanon. It goes without saying that the electoral successes of Hariri and his partners constitute a painful defeat for the Hizballah organization, its partners in Lebanon and of course its foreign patrons, Syria and mainly Iran.

The pressure on Israel in regard to Ghajar and the Shebaa Farms thus stems to a large extent from the hope among many in the international community that a resolution of these disputed issues will assist the moderate camp in Lebanon in its struggle against Hizballah and consequently erode that organization's legitimacy inside the country, especially in regard to the matter of bearing arms and using them against Israel. In other words, it is assumed that an Israeli withdrawal from the northern part of Ghajar and from the Shebaa Farms in the framework of a political arrangement will remove Hizballah's justification for continuing "muqawama" or armed resistance against Israel.

Israel's response to these pressures has been marked by skepticism and hesitancy. A number of considerations inform Israel's reluctance to act. First, while many in the West may view the Lebanese government as an actor that can assure quiet and stability on the Israeli-Lebanese border, Israelis tend to view the Lebanese government as part of the problem and not the solution. This is because the Lebanese government lacks teeth in confronting Hizballah. In practice it has never--certainly not in the last three years since the Second Lebanon War--done anything to prevent Hizballah from arming itself or its members from bearing arms. Indeed, not only is the Lebanese government powerless vis-a-vis Hizballah, but in practice it shelters and embraces the organization: the government, after all, includes Hizballah representatives.

The conclusion from Israel's point of view is that the Lebanese government cannot be relied upon, and the hope that an Israeli withdrawal from Ghajar or the Shebaa Farms would assist and encourage it to act against Hizballah is nothing but a fantasy or illusion lacking any basis in reality. In this regard, we should recall the threat issued by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who warned that if Israel's northern border heated up again, Israel's military response would be addressed to the Lebanese government because of the legitimacy it grants Hizballah.

Second, Israel is convinced that the Ghajar and Shebaa Farms issues are simply excuses to justify Hizballah's continued military action against Israel. Israel's assumption is that if these excuses are removed from the table, Hizballah will find new ones. For example, it might call for the return of the bodies of prisoners that Hizballah claims Israel still holds, or the handing over of the seven Shi`ite villages located in mandatory Palestine that were destroyed in the 1948 war or any number of other matters from the past that could be raised. In other words, Israel holds that not only will any concession to Hizballah fail to assure quiet and stability, but just the opposite.

Finally, the explosion at the Hizballah ammunitions depot in the Shi`ite village of Hirbet Salim in mid-July proves that under the nose and half-closed eyes of UNIFIL, Hizballah continues to construct a military infrastructure for itself, not only in the north but also in southern Lebanon, south of the Litani River. From Israel's point of view, given UNIFIL's limitations and ineffectiveness in preventing Hizballah activity in southern Lebanon, handing over the northern part of Ghajar to the UN organization is liable to create enormous difficulties.

For example, UNIFIL is prohibited from entering villages, and consequently homes, without a Lebanese army escort, and UNIFIL's ability to act vis-a-vis Lebanese citizens in general is definitely limited. Yet the compromise proposal formulated by UNIFIL provides for the northern part of Ghajar to be handed over to its full control, and in return it would prevent the infiltration of Hizballah into the village.

Nevertheless, in Israel's view there is a fundamental difference between Ghajar and the Shebaa Farms. Israel acknowledges that the northern part of Ghajar village is located on Lebanese territory. Consequently, Israel is aware that sooner or later it must withdraw from the area. The only question is how to find a suitable policing arrangement that will meet Israel's security needs. Against this backdrop, the declaration made by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in July is interesting. Lieberman, who was appointed to deal with the Ghajar issue, stated that it is a humanitarian matter and the option should be weighed of removing the residents who live in the northern part of the village, on Lebanese territory, to the southern part, which will remain in Israel's hands, and in this way to put an end to the affair.

It goes without saying that the village's residents are opposed to such a solution, which involves significant legal problems similar to those that arose with the evacuation of the residents of the Katif Bloc in the Gaza Strip in summer 2005. On the other hand, any other solution that presently appears possible, such as dividing the village and letting UNIFIL become responsible for the northern part, would surely entail insoluble security problems for Israel.

In contrast to its attitude toward the northern part of Ghajar, Israel views the Shebaa Farms as Israeli territory in every sense, since it is part of the Golan Heights that Israel took over in 1967 and annexed in 1981. This means there is no apparent solution to the Shebaa Farms issue at this time. Israel does not acknowledge any obligation to withdraw from this territory, and it is difficult to see any real resolution of the issue in view of the impasse between Syria, Lebanon and the UN over the question of Syria formally relinquishing the territory to Lebanon. Damascus' position is that the resolution of the Shebaa Farms issue can only come as part of the resolution of the entire Golan Heights issue.

In sum, since Israel has no interest in continuing to hold the northern part of Ghajar, which it recognizes as Lebanese, this issue will evidently find its solution in the near future. In contrast, the question of the Shebaa Farms will continue to occupy Israel and the international community until a way is found for Israel and Syria to make peace or, alternatively, until Damascus is reconciled and recognizes the area as Lebanese, which seems highly unlikely.- Published 20/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Eyal Zisser is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and holds the Yona and Dina Ettinger Chair of Contemporary Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University.

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