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Monday, 23 July, 2001, 14:23 GMT 15:23 UK
The next Middle East flashpoint?
the border with Lebanon
Israeli soldiers patrol the border with Lebanon
By the BBC's Middle East correspondent, Frank Gardner

Israeli troops regularly patrol the Lebanese border. In armoured jeeps, they drive along a dirt strip, flanked by orchards, rolling hills and an enemy that is out to kill them.

The troops are consolidating Israel's defences on its northern border with Lebanon, close to the disputed area known as Shebaa Farms.

Since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon last year, this has become her front line, in a low-level war with Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters.

"Hezbollah is here to kill me," said 20-year-old Rafi Cohen, an Israeli Army corporal.

"They're here to take my homeland and I'm here to protect my homeland."

"I came here from the United States because this is my homeland - and now I'm here to protect it, because the Jews don't have anywhere else to go."

Shebaa Farms

Hezbollah's Shiite Muslim fighters have vowed to drive Israel off their land. The UN says Israel has withdrawn from all of Lebanon. But Hezbollah, backed by Syria on this issue, is determined to recapture a tiny area still occupied by Israel, known as the Shebaa Farms.

I think there is the potential for war between the Israelis and the Arabs over the issue of Shebaa

Arab affairs analyst Ghassan al-Khatib

Analysts say Syria is keen to keep up the pressure on Israel to encourage it to return the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

Hezbollah abducted three Israeli soldiers from the area last October, and the guerrillas continue to harass the Israeli army.

Israel has responded twice now, by attacking Syrian bases in Lebanon. Israel's Brigadier-General Shuki Scharor says Hezbollah is playing a dangerous game.

"The fact that Hezbollah sits here, looking for reasons and pretexts to fight in order to survive - otherwise he will not survive - may be the lighter that lights the fire of the whole northern part of the Middle East," he said.

Conflict zone

It is hard to believe that the rolling, picturesque, wooded hills along this border could be the flashpoint for the next regional, Middle East war.

Hezbollah guerrilla fighters
Hezbollah efforts to capture the Shebaa farms are backed by Syria
To one side is Lebanon, to another Israel, and Syria is just over the horizon. All three countries are involved in a hostile dispute over a tiny patch of land just over the hill. It has already cost lives, and it could drag Israel and Syria into a disastrous war.

Arab affairs analyst Ghassan al-Khatib believes that Syrian pride has been stung because it did not respond to Israel's raids on its bases in Lebanon.

"This is embarrassing the Syrian regime a lot, so they have to do something - whether it is encouraging Hezbollah or preparing themselves for a kind of confrontation," he said.

"The continuing Israeli attacks with no Syrian response are extremely embarrassing for the Syrian people, especially when the Palestinians are fighting back against Israeli aggression."

Increased tension

Up on the border, Israel is consolidating its defences. Military engineers have built a new, hidden access road up to their lookout posts, making it harder for Hezbollah to ambush the patrols.

But Captain Mitch Pilcer of the Israeli Army says Hezbollah is still a constant threat.

"It's especially difficult in a military sense nowadays," he said. "Instead of holding onto a security zone inside Lebanon, since we pulled back a year ago, we are standing with our backs to these villages along the international border. In other words, we have no second line."

Of course, Israel's discomfort pleases most Arabs. Ghassan al-Khatib believes it suits the Arab world to keep the pressure on Israel, reminding it of the need to withdraw from all captured Arab land.

"I think there is the potential for war between the Israelis and the Arabs over the issue of Shebaa. As long as there is any Arab land occupied by Israel there will always be a possibility of war," he said.

"The potential is higher now because of the tension that has resulted from the Intifada and the Israeli-Palestinian confrontations."

On the Lebanese border, the Israeli patrols go on. And Hezbollah keeps watching, and waiting, for a chance to strike. How big a blow it delivers could determine if this frontier will set off the next major Middle East conflict.

By the BBC's Fank Gardiner
"Hizbollah fighters are a constant thorn in the side of the Israeli army"
See also:

23 Jul 01 | Middle East
UN opens Lebanon video probe
09 Jul 01 | Middle East
Israel demands UN's Hezbollah tape
06 Jul 01 | Middle East
Envoys discuss Lebanon tension
24 May 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Lebanon one year on
10 Oct 00 | Middle East
Kidnapped Israelis 'alive and well'
16 Apr 01 | Middle East
Syria: The power in Lebanon
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