Shaba Farms: Israeli flashpoint, Lebanese Achilles' heel
By Daniel Sobelman (Haaretz) 21/2/2001
"The most recent action at the Shaba Farms sounds the alarm bells," a Lebanese publicist proclaimed in the daily Al-Mustaqbal on Monday. He was referring to the Hezbollah attack last Friday, in which an Israeli soldier was killed.

The writer, Bishara Sharbel, is not the first in Lebanon to warn of the potential consequences of Hezbollah's continued operations against Israel. These concerns have heightened following Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon's election as prime minister, and many in Lebanon believe a unity government would actually increase the chances of a harsh Israeli retaliation.

"The success of the action was indeed heartening, but it raises a question that demands discussion," the article continued. Hezbollah, said Sharbel, does not have the "unequivocal mandate" for such actions that it had before Israel withdrew from South Lebanon last May.

Now, when it seems military action to "liberate" the Shaba Farms might come at the expense of Lebanon's economic rehabilitation, the Lebanese people must be allowed to decide whether they want this trade-off, he concluded.

The Al-Mustaqbal article was particularly significant, because the newspaper is owned by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and is known to largely reflect his views.

Since taking office last November, Hariri has toured several world capitals in an effort to recruit foreign investment for Lebanon. As part of this effort, he has repeatedly tried to reassure potential investors that Lebanon will not be dragged into the current violence in the Middle East. In Paris last Thursday, he pledged that Lebanon would not initiate "provocations," adding: "We have a clear agreement with our Syrian brothers on this issue."

Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, rejects the charge that his organization's attacks on Israel are delaying the country's economic development and the receipt of foreign aid. In a speech on Sunday, Nasrallah said the United States is demanding not only that these attacks stop, but also that Lebanon sever its ties with Syria, disarm Hezbollah and turn the Lebanese army into Israel's "border guards."

On Monday, Hariri's office published an official response. It opened with warm praise for Hezbollah, saying the organization deserves full credit for Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. However, it continued, Lebanon's government, "which represents the will of the people, as expressed in last year's general elections," must be the only body acting "to restore sovereignty over all our national lands, including what remains under Israel occupation at Shaba Farms." The statement rejected the accusation that Lebanon would bow to Israel's dictates.

After this statement's release, Hariri set up a meeting with Mohammed Ra'ad, the head of Hezbollah's parliamentary faction; and Hassan Khalil, Nasrallah's political advisor, at which the three reportedly discussed the meaning of the word "provocations." Hariri's associates said afterward that both Lebanon and Syria have agreed that the situation demands "wisdom," since "no one is against the liberation of Shaba Farms."

After the meeting, Hariri told the media he was retracting his statement. But the message has nevertheless been received in Lebanon, and others are also taking up the cry. Only last week, the leading Lebanese paper, A-Nahar, demanded the government deploy the army in South Lebanon, "since we have already got back our lands."

For the time being, however, the consensus in Israel is that this argument will not prevent the next Hezbollah attack.