On Lebanese Border, A Lasting Flash Point
Israel, Hezbollah Still Contest Shebaa Area
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 30, 2001; Page A13

KFAR SHOUBA, Lebanon -- The last active front in Israel's conflict with surrounding Arab countries is little more than a goat pasture, lying on the other side of a fence in the gentle hills around this southern Lebanese village.

The 100-square-mile patch of land known as Shebaa Farms has no oil deposits or other resources, and no more than a handful of people live there. Among its best uses over the decades, people here say, has been bird hunting.

But that has not kept Israel from building a series of strategic hilltop observation posts in the area, erecting a border fence or keeping it under military occupation for the past 34 years. Nor has it kept the Lebanese Hezbollah, or Party of God, militia from staging a number of attacks, including the abduction last fall of three Israeli soldiers.

The conflict is the remaining flash point in an area that until May was the site of almost daily shelling between the Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli forces who occupied all of southern Lebanon to protect Israel's northern frontier. Hoping to stop its steady stream of casualties, Israel pulled its troops out last spring, and its locally allied militia collapsed.

Since then, however, Hezbollah has argued that because Israel still controls the Shebaa Farms, it is still occupying Lebanese soil and is therefore subject to attack. Israel contends that the land is actually Syrian -- part of the Golan Heights it captured in 1967 -- and has threatened to hold the Lebanese and possibly even the Syrian governments responsible for any further fighting.

Although the risks of a broadened conflict thus seem high in comparison to the property involved, Lebanese officials say that when it comes to the politics of land in the Middle East, no one can afford to appear weak. They have given Hezbollah a free hand in planning and conducting operations against the Shebaa Farms enclave.

"They don't tell us and we don't know," Lebanese Defense Minister Khalil Hrawi said of Hezbollah's efforts to "liberate" Shebaa Farms from Israel. "The resistance can take action that a government can't. Our government does not want to look like it is doing something not accepted by law . . . From a point northward, we make the rules, and from a certain point on in the south, there is no presence of the armed forces, and the Hezbollah coordinates their actions with themselves."

Lebanon's decision not to deploy its army in the southern border region -- skirting accountability or involvement in any violations of the Israeli border -- has been criticized by Israel, the United States and the United Nations. The decision ignores the security of Lebanese citizens in the south, they have contended, and risks a renewal of the violence that led Israel to invade the country in 1978 and 1982.

Until May, Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria but thought to be increasingly self-directed, had a wide berth for its operations. It inflicted casualties throughout the Israeli-occupied zone with roadside bombs, mortar attacks and occasional Katyusha rockets fired across the border into villages in northern Israel. But since the Israeli withdrawal, the villages of southern Lebanon have been enjoying their most quiet period since Palestinian guerrillas began using the region as a base for attacks on Israel in the 1970s, a chief cause of Israel's decision to invade.

Government services in the area are still patchy. Hezbollah has become an important service provider since links with Israel were cut. And many of the villages remain half-deserted due to decades of violence and the flight of families associated with the local militia, many of whose members either sought protection across the border in Israel or have since been arrested. Land mines are a threat, and there have been occasional flare-ups of violence between competing political or sectarian movements. But the Israeli shelling and airstrikes have largely disappeared.

Except around here. For even as Israeli soldiers were departing from the rest of southern Lebanon last spring, Hezbollah and the Lebanese government announced their claim to Shebaa Farms, a position supported by Syria.

While the issue at first seemed an example of diplomatic hair-splitting, it has since proved useful to the Arab side. For Syria, it means Hezbollah can still be used to keep the Israelis off balance; for Lebanon, it provides a way to apply pressure over other issues, like the return of Lebanese prisoners still held in Israeli jails. For Hezbollah, it is a reason to keep its militia armed and active, providing a ready new goal for a resistance movement that otherwise had nothing left to resist.

After a lull, Hezbollah fighters sneaked into the area last fall and planted roadside bombs, including one that killed an Israeli soldier in late November. In one daring operation, the group used an intense mortar barrage of Israeli positions as cover to abduct three Israeli soldiers. A fourth Israeli, a reserve colonel who Hezbollah contends is an undercover agent, was kidnapped during a trip to Lebanon -- the purpose of which remains unexplained.

With Hezbollah holding the four Israelis as a bargaining chip, Israel so far has not made good on its threats to hold the Lebanese and even the Syrian governments responsible. Despite the prospect of Israel bombing Lebanese power plants, as it has done in the past, or ordering airstrikes against Lebanese or Syrian forces, diplomats in Beirut say a kind of unspoken agreement seems to have developed: As long as civilians are not hurt, and as long as Hezbollah's operations are focused on the disputed Shebaa Farms, then reprisals will be focused on suspected guerrilla positions.

That could still put nearby Lebanese villages like this one in harm's way. Earlier this month, after a mortar was fired from Lebanon against one of the Israeli positions that peer down from the surrounding hills, Israel responded with dozens of tank and mortar rounds of their own. It did so again Friday.

Goats were the only casualty, but the incident was a reminder of the volatility that still exists in this one corner of the Lebanese frontier.

"The people here have gotten used to shelling and bullets," said Haykal Abdullah, a retired army officer who lives in this village of terraced farms, which overlooks Israel proper as well as the disputed Shebaa area. "The people here don't care as long as there is a party like Hezbollah that is fighting for liberation."