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Last Updated: Friday, 25 August 2006, 06:56 GMT 07:56 UK
Israeli views on Shebaa Farms harden
By Raffi Berg
BBC News, Golan Heights

On the craggy hilltops of Mount Hermon, high up on the Golan Heights, Israeli soldiers keep watch, eyeing the Lebanese border.

The peaks, with their commanding views, are dotted with electronic masts, scanning the skies and land. Out of sight, to the east, lies Syria, while to the west is Shebaa Farms.

Stop sign on the road to Shebaa Farms
The Shebaa Farms area is currently a restricted military zone

About 14km (9 miles) long and 2.5km wide, this cluster of 14 abandoned farms has been a flashpoint for violence since Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000.

The United Nations designated the area a part of Syria, currently occupied by Israel.

But Hezbollah says it is Lebanese territory that Israel continues to occupy. Hezbollah has repeatedly targeted Israeli troops patrolling the area.

It also made Israel's abandonment of the farms a condition for the release of two Israeli soldiers, whose capture in July this year triggered a month-long conflict with the Jewish state.

"The whole issue of the Shebaa Farms was a pretext to continue fighting Israel after it departed in 2000," said Gary C Gambill, editor of Mideast Monitor.

"The words 'Shebaa Farms' simply didn't enter the Lebanese political vernacular until a few months before the Israelis withdrew. That's when these claims about the farms started to be revived."

The contested status of the farms stems from their recent history.

SHEBAA FARMS
Map
Controlled by Israel since 1967
Belong to Syria, says the UN
Claimed by Lebanon, with Syria's support
The border between Lebanon and Syria was poorly drawn by ill-equipped French cartographers in 1923, placing Shebaa village on the Lebanese side, but their farms in Syria to the east.

Until 1967, the farms were under Syrian control, but the farmers had Lebanese citizenship.

The area was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 along with the rest of the Golan Heights, a move not recognised by the international community.

The last farmer left in 1989 and the farms have been desolate ever since.

The Lebanese government says the farms are part of its territory, a claim backed by Damascus, but not the UN.

"Even if Israel wants to give the farms to Lebanon, according to maps which the UN has, this area belongs to Syria, which is why Israel did not withdraw from there in May 2000," said Dr Mordechai Kadar, of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

"This is the legal status of this area, it belongs to Syria, and Israel hopes that just like the Golan, it will be in the negotiations between Israel and Syria. Lebanon has nothing to say about it."

Strategic value

The area is currently a restricted military zone and the road which leads to the farms - from the peak of Mount Hermon to the Sion Valley below - is closed.

Menachem Baruch
Baruch: 'Nobody paid attention to Shebaa Farms before 2000'
At a checkpoint, Israeli soldiers stop the few vehicles which intermittently approach, waving on those heading for the divided village of Ghajar and ordering others to turn back.

Around here the land is uncultivated, but just yards away the fields are lush with vegetation and exotic flowers grow wildly.

There is an abundance of water in the area, from the melting snows of Mount Hermon to the tributaries which flow into Israel from Lebanon, accounting in part for the farms' importance.

"What is unique in this specific area is that the Shebaa Farms has a strategic viewpoint over the water sources of the Jordan River in Israel, like the Wazzani and the Banias," said Dr Asher Kaufman, a professor of history at the Hebrew University.

"Some say if Hezbollah gets this place and deploys its soldiers there, it will also have an important overview of [the Israeli town of] Kiryat Shmona and the northern Galilee.

"But I think now the Shebaa Farms are a symbol more than anything else - this is the most important issue for Israel. If Israel gives this up now, it would be looked at as a defeat."

Crossfire

Some three kilometres away, at the Mount Hermon ski resort, there is little activity and, save for the occasional military truck passing through, the area is quiet.

Over the past six years, the centre has been caught up in the fighting over Shebaa Farms, on the adjacent hills of Mount Dov.

Abu Saleh Atef
Atef: Shebaa Farms do not belong to Israel

Hezbollah militants have fired towards military bases on the surrounding hilltops, but hit the resort instead.

"Katyushas have landed in the parking lot and the ski school," said 49-year-old Menachem Baruch, the resort's general manager.

Although now is low season, during the winter as many as 10,000 tourists visit the centre every day.

"When there's tension, the military will ask us to close some ski slopes, and it's not nice to operate a tourist attraction under such conditions," said Mr Baruch.

"Nobody paid attention to Shebaa Farms before 2000, it wasn't even a story. If Israel gives up Shebaa Farms through peace talks, no problem, but it should not give up anything through fighting - that will just be seen as a sign of weakness by the other side."

Nearby, in the Druze village of Majdal Shams, Syrian-born Abu Saleh Ataf unloads crates of drink outside his supermarket.

The 50-year-old father of eight, whose village was captured as part of the heights, said Israel would have to give up Shebaa Farms if it wanted peace.

"I don't know who they belong to, Syria or Lebanon, but they don't belong to Israel," said Mr Ataf. "It's Arab land and it must be given back, through peace or through war."




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