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Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 13:37 GMT 14:37 UK
In focus: Shebaa farms

A group of farms close to the poorly-defined border of Lebanon and Syria has emerged as a potential new flashpoint for conflict between Israel and Lebanese Muslim guerrillas.

The Syrian-backed guerrilla group, Hezbollah, says Israel must withdraw from the area of the Shebaa farms - which it says lies on Lebanese territory - or face continued attacks.

Israel says most of the area lies on the Syrian side of the Lebanon/Syria border and that it will only withdraw from the part marked as Lebanese territory on United Nations maps.

The Israeli Defence Ministry said: "The army intends to withdraw from one or two more small posts."

No boundary

The 14 farms are named after the village of Shebaa, on the western slopes of Mount Hermon.

They are located to the south of the village, at altitudes ranging from 400 to 2,000 metres (1,300 and 6,500 feet).

border scene
An Israeli citizen taunted at the Lebanese border
Timur Goksel, a spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), told the BBC that the area amounted to little more than 10 square kilometres.

He said no-one disputed that the village of Shebaa itself was in Lebanon, but most of the farms fell into an undefined area that may be either in Lebanon or Syria.

The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote in a report to the Security Council this week that the border was vague.

"There seems to be no official record of an international boundary agreement between Lebanon and Syria that could easily establish the line for purposes of confirming the withdrawal," he said.

Mr Annan proposed that all sides should adopt the line drawn after the 1974 Yom Kippur war, pending a permanent delineation of the border.

This line forms the limit of the area currently monitored by the UNIFIL forces.

Border talks

Mr Goksel said the border issue was one that UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen would discuss during his visit to the region, but he added that the UN was not a "boundary marking authority".

Hezbollah supporters
Hezbollah supporters drag an Israeli army uniform
Syria agrees with Lebanon that the Shebaa farms area is part of Lebanon.

However, Israel points out that it seized the territory from Syria, during the 1967 Middle East War.

Mr Goksel said: "The UN is saying that on all maps the UN has been able to find, the farms are seen on the Syrian side."

Israeli forces dynamited and withdrew from a military post known as Astra, close to the Shebaa farms, on Wednesday.

Pressure on Syria

According to some reports, Israel moved Ethiopian Jews, known as Falashas, to the Shebaa farms in the 1980s.

The area includes a ski station and a military observation post.

Despite Israel's withdrawal of troops from Lebanon, Syria still has 35,000 soldiers in the country, mostly near Beirut, in the north, and in the eastern Bekaa Valley.

Analysts say that peace between Hezbollah and Israel would not be in Syria's interests, because it would increase pressure on Damascus to withdraw its forces and slacken its control over Lebanon.

According to Israel Radio the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, said the withdrawal from part of the Shebaa farms area was designed "to remove from Syrian President Hafez al-Assad any excuse to encourage Hezbollah terrorism from Lebanon against Israel."

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See also:

25 May 00 | Middle East
Race to fill Lebanon vacuum
23 May 00 | Middle East
Hezbollah chief warns Israel
24 May 00 | Middle East
Bitter retreat for the SLA
24 May 00 | Media reports
Mideast press crows over Israel 'defeat'
24 May 00 | Middle East
UN assesses Lebanon role
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