OUTSIDE CHEBAA FARMS—At first glance, the area known as Chebaa Farms doesn't look like the kind of place that would be a key issue in a Lebanese-Israeli peace process. The landscape is covered in gray sand and dust-tinted scrub brush. Its strategic value is debatable. It's not even clear to which country the area really belongs.
But for the past six years, since Israeli forces ended their 18-year occupation of Lebanon, Chebaa Farms has been a focal point of much of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. Before the current fighting began July 12, 15 Israeli soldiers had died in clashes since 2000 with Hezbollah. Seven of those deaths happened at Chebaa Farms.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has demanded that Israel withdraw from Chebaa Farms. Lebanese officials in Beirut say they're certain that the fate of Chebaa Farms will be on any negotiating agenda—and that U.S. officials finally have agreed to talk about the matter.
"I think there is now a realization that without a resolution to the Chebaa Farms problem, there will be no consensual resolution of this war," said Mohamed Shatah, a senior adviser to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
How Chebaa Farms, which the Israelis call Mount Dov, became so important in the ongoing battle between Israel and Hezbollah serves as a window into the byzantine complexities of Middle East politics and rivalries.
A relatively tiny piece of mountainous turf estimated to cover from four to 10 square miles, Chebaa Farms is now a closed military zone occupied by the Israelis. Outsiders are unwelcome and nearby residents merely grunt when asked about it. One U.S.-produced study describes it as "14 abandoned orchards, pastures and mini-farms."
"It's a totally artificial issue," explained Gerald Steinberg, director of the Program on Conflict and Diplomacy at Bar Ilan University. "It's clearly Syrian territory, but Syria doesn't really want it. Lebanon now claims it, but they clearly hadn't heard of it before 2000. Israel has it right now, but it's of no importance."
And yet it's symbolically important to everyone. One expert called it "a red herring, but an important red herring."
That importance, analysts say, grew out of the Israeli decision to leave troops on Chebaa Farms after their 2000 departure from southern Lebanon.
With Israeli troops gone from southern Lebanon, Israeli officials hoped Hezbollah no longer had an excuse to attack them as occupying forces.
The United Nations certified that Israel had left Lebanon, holding that Chebaa Farms belonged to Syria's Golan Heights, which Israel seized in 1967 during the Six Day War.
But Lebanese officials insisted that Syria had given them the land, and Syria agreed. That made Chebaa Farms the last piece of Israeli-occupied Lebanon, and Hezbollah has since attacked it more than 30 times. The most famous incident took place just months after the pullout. Three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped and killed.
In the ensuing years, hundreds of mortar rounds have fallen on the area.
"Hezbollah uses Chebaa Farms to justify everything they do," said Jonathon Rynhold, an expert on peace and security issues with Israel's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. "By claiming that they're fighting the occupiers, they can maintain the high ground to their supporters."
Nadim Shehadi, who specializes in Lebanon for the English research center Chatham House, said that the importance of Chebaa Farms may have decreased after the last three weeks of fighting, which has killed at least 450 Lebanese.
But still it must be dealt with. "Lebanon was asking for help in getting rid of Hezbollah's excuses for violence, for help building a strong argument for disarming Hezbollah," he said. "Chebaa Farms was their justification for the continued fight."
And even though Israelis say its strategic value is minimal, they resist surrendering the area for fear it will look like they're rewarding Hezbollah.
Still, Dan Schueftan, a senior fellow at the Center for National Security Studies at the University of Haifa, said he believes Israel will acquiesce if the United States insists.
"Israel is far more interested in its relationship with the United States, so if (Secretary of State Condoleezza) Rice believes that handing over Chebaa Farms will give her credence in the region, they won't stand in the way," he said.
From the Lebanese perspective, Shatah said there's no other choice. Lebanon's government has proposed that the area be turned over to the United Nations until it can be divided between Syria and Lebanon.
"We said this very frankly to all those who asked us, that there will be no peaceful end to this in which the Lebanese government and Lebanese forces are a part without the Chebaa Farms issue being resolved," Shatah said.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Shashank Bengali in Beirut contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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