During the French Mandate,
Shaba [Shebaa] was Lebanese


Akiva Eldar




Tuesday, 25 June 2002

   The dispute over the Shaba Farms, the narrow 14 kilometer-long, and 2 kilometer-wide strip near Mount Dov is a microcosm of the Israeli-Arab dispute. That's what sent Dr. Asher Kaufman from the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University all the way to the archives and Cartographic Institute in Paris, where he found documents that buttress Lebanon's claims to the land. 

"Many Israelis view this conflict as yet another indication that the Arab world has no intention to reconcile with Israel's existence in the region," writes Kaufman in an article about his research, meant for publication in a journal on the Middle East. "The Israel Defense Forces have left the last grain of Lebanese land, it is believed, and yet Syria and its proxy, Hezbollah, found a pretext to continue the armed struggle against Israel. The zero-sum game rhetoric of Hezbollah combined with its fundamentalist Islamic ideology only strengthens this belief among Israelis." 

"From the Arab side," says Kaufman, "it is seen as yet further proof of Israel's expansionist nature. The Lebanese, who for decades suffered from Israeli occupation, find it difficult to believe in Israel's good intentions. Many truly believe that Israel still occupies this area in order to exploit the region's abundant water resources - some also claim that since the 1980s Israel settled Ethiopian Jews on the farms. It is an ungrounded imaginary accusation but it fits well within the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, since, according to the Arab stand, one of Israel's major vices is settlement of new immigrants. Lebanese also claim that 80 percent of the Golan Heights wine production comes from the farms. Indeed, wine production is a successful business in the Golan Heights, but not even a single vineyard exists in the area of the farms. Facts, so it would seem, are intertwined with fiction and fantasy, making it difficult to analyze the situation per se. The Shaba Farms even contain a religious aspect that well complements the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the center of the region lies a site where, according to both Islam and Judaism, the Covenant of the Pieces between Abraham and God occurred." 

Although Kaufman agrees with the security establishment, which is convinced that if Israel quits Shaba, the Syrians and Hezbollah will find another excuse to perpetuate the conflict, he rejects the official Israeli version, which says that Shaba is not part of Lebanon. That version, which says Shaba never belonged to Syria, has won the support of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Annan based his position on existing maps, but noted that the UN commission that marked the border did not find any official border markings in the area. This allows Israel to continue claming the land is part of its territorial dispute with Syria. But maps and documents Kaufman found in Paris pulls the rug out from under the Israeli distinction of the farm area. Some of that evidence is published here for the first time. 

The right bank of Nahal Si'on 

All the documents found by Kaufman from the period of the French Mandate over Syria and Lebanon, and which was supposed to mark the border between Lebanon and Syria, back up the Lebanese argument about the border, which they say goes through what they refer to as Wadi al-'Assal, and Israel refers to as Nahal Si'on. That line clearly leaves Shaba Farms about a kilometer or two inside Lebanon. 

One of the documents deals with a dispute over water from the area. French arbitrators and the various parties to the dispute wrote an agreement for cooperation over use of the water. That agreement placed arbitrators in the area, and they referred to Wadi al-'Assal as the border between Syria and Lebanon. 

A second document: In November 1937 the administrative councillor of south Lebanon, Pierre Bart, "wrote an illuminating report as to the situation in the area of the Shaba Farms. He noted a discrepancy between the boundary as determined by the 1:200,000 Ottoman map and the reality in the region. He had to collect unofficial information, he wrote, from various sources concerning the border due to the absence of a regular border demarcation and official documents. 

Bart's conclusion, says Kaufman, "was twofold: the village of Nkheileh [Now known as Hirbat Nahila, north of Tel Dan - A.E.] not only belongs to Lebanese nationals - but actually pays all its land taxes to the treasurer in Marjayoun." In addition, on the right bank of Wadi al-'Assal (Nahal Si'on) there are three or four sheep pens, which, Bart said, belong to the residents of the Lebanese village of Shaba. Each winter they send their flocks to that area. 

According to Bart, as quoted by Kaufman, "the forests that cover the right bank of Wadi al-'Assal are also an integral part of the village of Shaba and belong to the territory of the Lebanese state. If the inhabitants of Shaba want to cut down trees in this forest, they must receive permission from the Lebanese government and pay the Lebanese authorities the relevant taxes." Bart added to his report a schematic plan indicating the official border as outlined in the Ottoman map and the de facto border as existed in reality. 

Two years later, Kaufman reports, the head of the Services Speciaux in Quneitra, a man referred to only as Bernoville, wrote a report about an incident in the area and reached similar conclusions. "Bernoville explained that an anomaly had existed in the region since 1920 concerning the Syrian-Lebanese border. The boundaries, as marked on the 1:200,000 map of the Bureau topographique de l'armee, do not correspond with the borders in effect. Bernoville explained that Nkheileh not only belongs to residents of Hasbaya but also that its inhabitants pay taxes to the Lebanese government and in fact the village is like a "Lebanese enclave within Syrian territory." Similarly, the sheep pens which belong to the residents of Shaba on the right bank of Wadi al-'Assal are also considered to be part of Lebanon by the residents of the area. To clarify this point, he attached a map, and warned that the anomaly between the official border and the de facto border might cause difficulties should tension arise between the two countries. Little did he know, adds Kaufman in his article. 

Maps from 1942 and 1945 clearly show that since 1939, the year Bernoville wrote his report, and until the departure of the last French soldier from Syrian territory in 1946, nothing was done about the sovereignty question in the Shaba area nor about formally designated border marking. Kaufman notes that Lebanon related to the area as its own, as did the residents of the area, as shown in tax reports and French reports. The anomaly continued through Lebanon's independence, and remains in effect to this day. 

Israeli defense establishment officials involved in the matter said this week that there are many indications Syria treated the area as its own over the years. They note there was a Syrian census in 1960 that included the residents of the strip. Kaufman says that during the 1950s, Syria indeed took over the area. And, he adds, Beirut never showed any particular interest in the dispute regarding its southern periphery - unless Israel showed interest. 



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