Last month’s deadly border clash between Lebanese and Israeli troops raises a question about the curious manner in which the Blue Line — the term given to the United Nations boundary that follows the original 1923 border between Lebanon and Palestine — was delineated a decade ago.
Other than the original 1923 border agreement, subsequently reconfirmed as the 1949 Armistice Line, the main source of data to define the line was the last border survey carried out by the Israel-Lebanon Mixed Armistice Commission (ILMAC) in 1949-1950. The appendices contained a list of coordinates, sketches and large-scale maps, which were used by the UN to help mark out the boundary after the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000. The process hit controversy when the UN agreed to a series of compromises that deviated the Blue Line away from the path of the original border to satisfy Israeli security interests.
One objection concerned a curious anomaly beside the kibbutz of Misgav Am. Long ago Israelis had pushed the border fence some 500 meters into Lebanon beside Misgav Am, and over the years the settlement had expanded onto Lebanese soil. When it came time to delineate the Blue Line, the ILMAC map coordinates of the border provided by Lebanon cut through Misgav Am, leaving part of the kibbutz inside Lebanon. But ILMAC’s written description of the boundary recorded that it should run “to the west” of Misgav Am. In 1950, the written description may well have corresponded to the coordinates. But in 2000, the border identified by the ILMAC report had inched deeper into Lebanon, matching the creeping westward expansion of the kibbutz. The UN opted for the written description over the coordinates (thus sparing the evacuation of a few houses in Misgav Am) even though it clearly deviated the Blue Line away from the international boundary.
Another disputed area was a four-kilometer stretch of the border southeast of Metullah to the Hasbani River. The UN placed the Blue Line 100 meters north of the 1923 border. They appeared to have misread the 1923 boundary agreement, a point the cartographic team leader acknowledged to me in an interview in July 2000. The result, however, was that Israel was not required to pull back another 100 meters along this stretch of the frontier, allowing it to keep intact a military outpost and spare Israeli farmers from losing some apple trees.
More significantly, minor deviations spared the Israelis from having to pull back their forward outposts on the mountain peaks of the Shebaa Farms. If the Blue Line had followed the Lebanon-Syria border in this area, it would have shaved off the northern edges of three Israeli outposts, requiring the Israelis to dismantle the positions. Instead, the Blue Line loops around each IDF compound by a few dozen meters. The most bizarre deviation is at Addaisseh, the scene of the August 3 border clash. Here, the line runs for a few hundred meters just north of the main border road inside Lebanon, along which runs the fence. In other words, when Lebanese motorists drive between the villages of Addaisseh and Kfar Kila, for a part of their journey they are actually driving on the Israeli side of the Blue Line. The UN had blindly followed the ILMAC coordinates at this spot even though it was contrary to the description of the 1923 boundary, which states that the border runs on the southern side of the road. It seems, however, to have been a genuine mistake. One cartographer who worked on the Blue Line delineation blamed the anomaly on the short amount of time available to draw up the line, the inability to survey the ground (it was still under Israeli occupation at the time) and the relatively small (1:50,000) scale of the Blue Line base map.
As for the Addaisseh incident, the initial question in the wake of the deadly firefight which left two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and an Israeli officer dead was on which side of the Blue Line lay the tree that the Israeli soldiers wanted to prune. The UN confirmed that the tree was on the Israeli side. But what no one has mentioned publicly, either through ignorance or discretion, is that even the Lebanese soldiers shooting at the Israelis were on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the delineation process 10 years earlier.
NICHOLAS BLANFORD is the Beirut-based
correspondent for The Christian Science
Monitor and The Times of London