In a recent conversation with a Hezbollah fighter, up popped the subject of the Shebaa Farms, that sparsely populated mountainside tucked into Lebanon’s southeast corner.
The fighter hinted that attacks against the Israeli troops manning a handful of outposts on the lofty peaks of the Farms could soon resume after a hiatus of more than four years. “We just have to deal with the internal front first,” he said, referring to the looming crisis over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the expected, possibly imminent, indictments against members of Hezbollah.
There was a time when the Shebaa Farms was viewed as a possible catalyst for a regional war between Hezbollah, Israel and Syria. Ironic, really, given that before Israel withdrew its forces from South Lebanon in May 2000, few Lebanese even knew where the Shebaa Farms lay.
The area was occupied in 1967 when Israel took the adjacent Golan Heights during the Six Day war. While Israeli forces pushed eastward deeper into Syrian territory, their land grab in the northern Golan was checked by the border with Lebanon. However, they discovered that there was some ambiguity over exactly where Syria ended and Lebanon began, thanks to the laxity with which the French mandatory authorities had delineated the joint border half a century earlier.
The Shebaa Farms consisted of some 14 farmsteads populated mainly by Lebanese residents of the eponymous village and its neighbor, Kfar Shuba. During the mild summer months, the villagers farmed the flatter reaches of the valley’s upper slopes. During the cold winter months, most of the farmsteads were abandoned as their occupants descended to warmer climes in the valleys below. The Israelis initially took over the farms on the lower slopes, but within five years had seized the rest of the mountainside to dislodge Palestinian guerrillas who had set up small bases there.
The Shebaa Farms generally remained forgotten except in the memories of a handful of aging farmers yearning for their upland pastures. But in spring 2000 as Israel prepared to end a 22-year occupation of Lebanon, Israel’s determination to keep control of the area provided a loophole for Hezbollah to justify retaining its weapons.
The Shebaa Farms campaign was launched 10 years ago last month, on October 7, 2000, when Hezbollah abducted three Israeli soldiers in a well-planned operation. Not a shot had been fired in anger since the Israeli troop withdrawal five months earlier. And for one Lebanese friend who had lived in the border district all his life, the resumption of hostilities could not have come soon enough.
“Habibi Nick, I am so happy, so happy,” he said, grabbing my shoulder, as explosions from Israeli shelling echoed across the hillside near Kfar Shuba. “For 30 years I have been listening to the sounds of war… the silence in the south over the past five months since the Israelis left has been driving me crazy!”
The kidnapping heralded a sporadic campaign of roadside bomb ambushes, anti-tank missiles attacks and mortar and rocket bombardments over the following six years. The attacks lacked the rigorous intensity of the final stages of Hezbollah’s resistance campaign in South Lebanon, when as many as 300 operations a month were recorded. But Hezbollah always acknowledged that the Shebaa Farms attacks were ‘reminder operations’, intended as an annoyance rather than a concerted effort to oust the Israelis through force of arms.
The Farms soon became an almost-legitimate theater of combat where Hezbollah and the Israeli army could vent steam without risking a broader escalation, such as the one that occurred when Hezbollah strayed from the Farms to kidnap two soldiers near Aitta Shaab in July 2006.
The 2006 war changed the reality in South Lebanon and for the past four years Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms have enjoyed a quiet existence. Despite Hezbollah’s preoccupation with domestic political events since the end of the war, the fighters in the south remain completely focused on the confrontation with Israel and on preparations for the next war.
Whether Hezbollah does resume attacks in the Shebaa Farms remains to be seen. But if they do, it should bring a smile of relief to my war-happy friend in South Lebanon.
NICHOLAS BLANDFORD is the Beirut-based
correspondent for The Christian Science
Monitor and The Times of London