Posted by Joshua on Saturday, May 8th, 2010
Will It Be the Solution? A Brief Introduction to the Shebaa Farms Problem
by Matthieu Cimino for Syria Comment
During his March 27 speach this spring, President Bashar al-Assad was asked why Syria did not clear up ambiguities about Lebanon’s ownership of the Shebaa farms’ region by providing an official Syrian map of the region, that Israel claims belongs to Syria and that Syria and Lebanon both claim belongs to Lebanon. Syria’s President responded:
It’s simply because you can’t give a document that you don’t have. There are some measures that should be adopted to obtain such a document. I mean legal and judicial measures that specify the ownership of properties, which country was given these properties before and after Independence, Lebanon or Syria? When these measures are finalized, we start demarcating the border. But giving this document for political reasons doesn’t seem to be rational.
His announcement emphasizes the complexity of the Shebaa Farms question. Located atop a hill, the Shebaa Farms (or hamlets) are important to both water resources and politics in the region. On May 21st, 2000, after Israel withdrew from Lebanon, ending its occupation that lasted over 20 years, Hezbollah and Syria claimed that the Jewish State still occupied a piece of land northeast of Mt. Hermon in the Golan Heights. That territory, which few had heard about previously, is made up of 14 farms. It is located at the three corners where Lebanon, Syria and Israel share a border.
The problem lies in a geographical error. During the French mandate (1920 – 1946), the Lebanese, French, and Syrian authorities did not pay attention to the frontier between Lebanon and Syria. The former was still considering Lebanon as one of its provinces and seemed not to be interested in drawing the border between the two countries.
Despite the Shebaa area being small in size (approx. 16 sq.m), the problem is difficult. The village of Shebaa is located in Lebanon, northeast of “Djebel ech-Cheikh” (Mount Hermon) while its farms are located south of the mountian. From the Mandate in 1920 to the Six-Day War of 1967, the farms were considered Syrian territories de jure, i.e. on the maps. During that period – and before – the Lebanese farmers used to cross the mountain area to reach their fields, which were cultivated with apple orchards.
Thus, Lebanon and Syria were artificially separated in the Shebaa region by the Wadi el-‘Assal, a stream. The Lebanese farmers considered that the river to be the border between the two countries.
French authorities did not take into account the Lebanese farmers who crossed the borders to their who had to reach their farms.
The Shebaa Farms case was at first nothing but a cadastral issue and border dispute. As a French diplomat noted in 1935, “this issue is linked to the delimitation of the border between Lebanon and Syria. All legal disputes will be resolved when we will be able to determine if a particular farm is located in Syria or in Lebanon. Everything else is irrelevant”.
In 1950, after the 1948 War, Syria installed an advanced military observation post and carried out topographical surveys in the farms. Thus, from 1920 to 1967, the Shebaa Farms were deemed to be Syrian land on military maps despite the fact that almost all the cultivator of the region were Lebanese and few Syrians lived there. In 1967, Israel invaded the Golan Heights and took the Shebaa Farms. The Israelis expelled the Lebanese farmers that were living there.
It seems that Israel did not realize it had invaded a de facto Lebanese territory.
In 1978, the Israeli Defense Forces transformed the farms into a buffer zone and adorned them with Hebrew road signs. Israel distributed national ID’s that were refused by the majority of the farmers. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 after 18 years of occupation, the Shebaa Farms became central to Hezbollah’s continuing justification for war against Israel. In 2006, during the “33-days War”, the Shebaa Farms issue took central stage.
For Hezbollah, it is absolutely essential to have a justification to maintain its arms which are a guarantee to its survival. In his March, 27th speech, Bashar al-Assad maintained ambiguity about the Shebaa Farms. For Syria, the Shebaa Farms are Lebanese but the Syrians refuse to provide official documents proving it. In fact, Syria alleges that it possesses documents showing that the farms are Lebanese territory but that those documents still have to be clarified with precise topographical and cadastral studies. Unfortunately, neither Lebanon nor Syria have access to the area.
The Syrian position is clear: Israel must withdraw from all occupied territories, especially the Golan Heights, which includes the Shebaa Farms area. Then Syria and Lebanon will be able to resolve their border issues. However, if Syria and Lebanon have not demarcated their borders since 1920, it is doubtful they will do so in 2010.
In this article, I argue that the Shebaa Farms present an opportunity for normalization between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. In 2010, a comprehensive and ecological solution can be found to what has become the flash point between Hezbollah, Syria, and Israel – one that may again lead to war.
Matthieu Cimino, PhD Candidate – SciencesPo. Paris