Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2008, pages 42-44

Special Report

Letter From Shebaa

By Habib Battah

  • Though few Lebanese have ever visited or seen it, the largely isolated village of Shebaa (picture below) has become a defining issue in Lebanese politics (Photos H. Battah).

IN BETWEEN the rugged mountains at the southeastern tip of Lebanon, our tour bus winds down a quiet road under the watchful eye of an Israeli observation post. Perched high in the hills above us, the commanding position is marked by a towering antenna surrounded by a multi-story perimeter fence. It is the first human settlement we have seen for miles and the first sign that we are nearing Shebaa, one of the most contentious and volatile border regions in the Middle East.

As the only vehicle on the road, our visit was probably met with much curiosity from the Israeli officers manning the hilltop, which overlooks the junction point between Syria, Israel and Lebanon; three neighbors at war for decades. The Israelis, who clearly dominate the landscape, may have shifted from curiosity to suspicion when our driver suddenly stopped in the middle of the road to give everyone on board a better view. Digital cameras became ubiquitous as passengers crowded around the front of the cabin (in typical Lebanese fashion) to get a good shot. One man even began to screw on a telephoto lens. “Do you want to get us killed?” a woman seated across the aisle shouted at him in Arabic.

Our trip had been arranged by a Lebanese hiking group known as Vamos Todos (VT), which prides itself on remote adventures for local nature-lovers. “We promised to take you all over Lebanon, didn’t we,” a cheerful VT e-mail sent out a week earlier had read. “Well now is the time to visit Shebaa...yes, you read it correctly. It really is Shebaa!”

Nestled in the heart of shrub-covered no-man’s-land, Shebaa and its surrounding hills occupy a strange place in the minds of many Lebanese. Although Israel seized the territory during the 1967 war, few had ever heard of the place until less than a decade ago. Now, with Lebanon’s new president warning he may use “force” to regain occupied land, the Shebaa area is taking center stage as the last militarily active front in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Many an international leader has tried to intervene. During their visits to Lebanon in recent months, both French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have proposed defusing the issue. But the villagers of Shebaa seem to have a different view. While speaking to some during our tour this past summer, I found that the call-to-arms rhetoric was as alien to them as it was for many Lebanese who have little clear conception of where Shebaa is located, let alone what it looks like.

I was first struck by the isolation. We had driven for about half an hour along a barren mountain range before spotting the Israeli observation post, passing nothing but the odd shepherd after departing from a cluster of villages in the southern Bekaa Valley. Before setting out, we were reminded one last time of the authority of the Lebanese state when two soldiers standing under a ramshackle tin roof waived us through their checkpoint. One wore plastic flip flops and track shorts while holding a kettle of coffee.

I remembered these two troops later that morning when I stared up at the glistening sophistication of the Israeli antenna tower. As our tour bus plugged on beneath it, my thoughts and the desolate rocky expanse were suddenly interrupted by a huddle of concrete low rises sprouting out of a small green valley on our right. Finally, fabled Shebaa appeared before us—but as we closed in, this village of resistance pride refused to be demystified.

Lebanese border towns with Israel typically are highly charged areas, draped in posters of men who died fighting Israel’s 22-year occupation of the area and with flags of Hezbollah, the political and paramilitary Shi’i force that hails them as martyrs. But there was no such fanfare in Shebaa and no one spoke of Hezbollah—ironic in that it was that party, more than anyone else, which put this village on the map. By contrast, the only posters on display in Shebaa’s town square were those of pro-Western politicians such as Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri. Considering Shebaa’s perceived history as a resistance battleground, it seemed odd.

The village, and more importantly its farmsteads, have become a defining issue for Hezbollah following Israel’s abrupt withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. While most of the country was celebrating, the Party of God vowed to keep up the fight for a sliver of agricultural land adjacent to Shebaa, known as the Shebaa Farms, which remained under Israeli control. Yet many in Lebanon found the persistence perplexing. Hezbollah already had claimed a massive victory over the Israelis. Why did they now need to perpetuate the decades-old conflict when a cease-fire seemed so close at hand?

Israel, for its part, has refused to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms based on the claim that it belonged to Syria. The Israelis thus link the Farms to the adjacent Golan Heights, a much larger Syrian territory which it also captured in 1967. The United Nations agreed with Israel, verifying its pullout from Lebanon as “complete” in 2000 and marking a “blue line” border between the two states. This divided the village of Shebaa, which would remain on the Lebanese side, from its farms, which were seen as part of the Israeli-occupied Golan. Both Beirut and Damascus protested this decision, but could not produce enough evidence to dispute it legally by proving that the farms were indeed Lebanese.

A major problem is that the border between Lebanon and Syria has been vague since it was created by French colonial officials, and little has been done by either country since to clarify that. Moreover, although several maps put the farms in Syria, the Shebaa farmers consider themselves Lebanese. They possess Lebanese citizenship and paid taxes to Lebanon well before the 1967 takeover.

Syrian officials, on the other hand, while publicly stating support for Lebanon’s claim to the farms, have refused to make an official declaration, saying this would require an act of border delineation, which “cannot happen” while Israel controls the territory. Syria’s detractors were not convinced, however, alleging that the previously unheard-of farms were merely being used as a pretext to keep Hezbollah heavily armed and in a position to manipulate Lebanese politics—a position it maintains today.

The residents of Shebaa, we hoped, would provide the real story. After all, it was supposedly their farmlands that were at the heart of the dispute.

Our first stop was the mayor’s office. His staff had set out trays with heaps of plump cherries fresh from the harvest to welcome us. Our group of about two dozen hikers crowded into his conference room and listened intently as he casually recounted Shebaa’s geographic traits, such as topography and rainfall. He then assured us with little emotion that the farmlands on the Israeli side of the observation post did indeed belong to Lebanon and that Shebaa farmers had produced nearly century-old land deeds and tax documentation to prove it. (The claim has been bolstered by Hebrew University researcher Asher Kaufman, who has uncovered Mandate-era records in Paris indicating Lebanese possession of the farms since at least the 1920s. But Kaufman has also argued that the Syrians attempted to assert military control of the Shebaa area in the 1950s.)

Looking back over the last 40 years, the mayor lamented the untold millions of dollars in taxable agricultural revenue that Shebaa’s municipality had lost since Israel seized its farmsteads and subsequently expelled village farmers. Tourism revenues would also have to be factored in, he added, since the Israelis had built a ski resort atop Shebaa’s occupied snowcapped hills. Pictures of the slopes and chair lifts, presumably taken off the Internet, were displayed as part of a Shebaa village calendar that hung on the mayor’s conference room wall.

Contrary to most Western press reports, which indicate the area of the farms to be 10 square miles at most, the mayor said local estimates ranged from 19 to 75 square miles. His guess, he told us, was somewhere in the middle, at about 40 square miles. It was a moderate, almost nonchalant approach—one which seemed to characterize our talks with Shebaa villagers throughout the day.

After our meeting, we hiked down a lush valley to a favorite local picnic spot near a creek where families had gathered to enjoy a Sunday lunch. Arabic pop music blared from a makeshift restaurant where we were to eat. With such a festive atmosphere, it was hard to imagine that the Israeli border was only a few hundred yards away.

“We don’t have any problems here,” a man told me while enjoying a waterpipe and a shot glass of Arak, Lebanon’s renowned alcoholic drink. “Everything is just fine,” his table mate added. When I asked how close the border was, he grinned, as if amused by my question, and pointed in the direction of Israel. “It’s right over this hill,” he said.

But what about the war, the occupation, the resistance, I asked. They shrugged and shook their heads. “There’s none of that here....Why don’t you join us for a drink?”

I was confused. The villagers of Shebaa, I assumed, would be more passionate than anyone about Israel returning the occupied territory, their territory. But even though the villagers of Shebaa possessed deeds to much of the Shebaa Farms, Hezbollah, the Lebanese state, even the international community seemed to be far more passionate about them.

I put the question to the town’s local police, who had escorted us throughout the hike. Acting almost as tour guides, they showed us around the town’s old mills and picked yet more cherries for us to sample along the way. I asked them about the absence of a visible Hezbollah presence and they seemed unmoved. Hezbollah had launched several attacks on the Israelis from the Shebaa area in the early 2000s, including a high-profile kidnapping operation. But why wasn’t the Party of God being celebrated as it had been in other border villages in the south? After all, in their absence as a bulwark who would defend against the Israelis taking more territory, as Hezbollah claimed it would? Who would defend Shebaa if the village didn't support Hezbollah?

“The two of us,” one of the policemen replied, smiling broadly. “We’ll protect it.”

Laughter aside, I pressed them further on the issue and one admitted that Hezbollah was a “Shi’i resistance,” and that Shebaa was a Sunni town. This came as a surprise. Dozens of international and even Lebanese news reports had missed this critical detail. But even so, Hezbollah presents itself as the national resistance and draws at least some Sunni support. The policemen said they were not against Hezbollah, but that the movement simply did not concern or involve them. I thought back to the posters of Hariri and Siniora in the town’s square and the explanation—though based on pure sectarianism—made uncomfortable sense in the Lebanese context.

When we re-boarded our tour bus, I took one last look up at the Israeli observation post with its array of sophisticated watchtowers and antennae, and could not help but wonder if its towering proximity had also played a factor in the villagers’ responses.

Barely a couple of weeks after our trip, Shebaa was back in the headlines. In mid-July, Hezbollah declared a second major victory against Israel after negotiating the release of the last remaining Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli prisons. That the men were exchanged for the corpses of the two Israeli troops kidnapped ahead of the July 2006 war was a vindication to Hezbollah and its many supporters. They now wholeheartedly felt that the war, despite all its ruin, was justified by the recognition of Hezbollah and thus Lebanon, as a force to be reckoned with.

But the prisoner exchange would also have ramifications for the hamlet of Shebaa. The battle for prisoners and land had always figured prominently in Hezbollah’s rhetoric, forming the basis of the decade-long cross-border war of attrition it waged with Israel in the 1990s. Now that all the prisoners had been freed, one of the two fundamental cards was laid on the table, and Shebaa took center stage as Hezbollah’s major raison d’etre, at least in a military sense. It was for this reason, some speculated, that Lebanese President Michel Sleiman had made his sudden pronouncement to liberate the farms “by force” if necessary. The statement came just as the prisoner exchange negotiations were under way, only two days before the actual trade took place on the border.

In a way, Slieman was riding a wave of diplomatic fervor. A month earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Rice had made the landmark statement that “the time has come to deal with the Shebaa Farms issue.” This came as surprise to many, since the U.S. had long refrained from mentioning the territory so valued by Hezbollah. Meanwhile, French President Sarkozy floated the idea of the U.N. taking control of the Shebaa Farms from the Israelis.

Whether or not the plan was an effort to upstage Hezbollah by laying claim to its central cause, the Shebaa dispute suddenly became almost irrelevant. In a speech in early September, Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah said the fight against Israel would continue whether or not the farms were returned.

Today Western leaders are consumed with reports that Hezbollah has received surface-to-air missiles capable of destroying Israeli aircraft as they routinely violate Lebanese airspace. Hezbollah also has raised the issue of seven small villages held in northern Israel that it says belong to Lebanon. Unlike the cause of the remote villages, Hezbollah’s pledge to disrupt Israeli air violations is sure to resonate deeply with the whole of Lebanon. For years, Israeli warplanes have flown low across the entire country, unnerving residents with their routine (at times daily) thunderous sonic booms.

In August, Hezbollah made one of its boldest statement to date, saying it will “destroy Israel” if it attacks Lebanon again. Having enjoyed a summer of relative calm, however, that is one reality many Lebanese would rather not contemplate.

Habib Battah is a free-lance journalist based in Beirut and New York whose work has appeared on CNN, Al Jazeera, Variety and the BBC. He blogs at <www.beirutreport.blogspot.com> and is currently pursuing an M.A. at New York University.