Syria Willing to Transfer Disputed Shaba Farms to UN Custody

Spanish FM outlines Syrian position in letter to UN; Israel opposes transfer before Syria-Lebanon border is marked.

Syria is willing to transfer the Shaba Farms to the custody of the United Nations as part of an effort to resolve the sovereignty dispute over the area, which is currently under Israel's control.

The new Syrian position was outlined in a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon by Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos, who visited Damascus last month.

Israeli political sources said Tuesday that Syria's offer is meant to put pressure on Jerusalem, which opposes any withdrawal from Shaba at this stage.

Moratinos sent the letter to the UN secretary general two weeks ago, after discussing the matter with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.

In it, Moratinos, who was the European Union's special envoy to the Middle East before becoming Spain's foreign minister, wrote that Syria is willing to transfer the area to UN custody even before the international border between it and Lebanon has been fully demarcated. The UN has been engaged in marking the border for the past year.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said last year that he would also like to see Shaba transferred to UN custody.

The Shaba Farms, situated in the foothills of Har Dov at the point where the borders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria converge, used to be part of the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon. The border, which followed a 1923 agreement between Britain and France, was never precisely demarcated.

In May 2000, following Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon, the UN ruled that Shaba was part of the Golan Heights, and was therefore Syrian rather than Lebanese. It also said that Shaba's future should be determined in negotiations between Israel and Syria.

However, Lebanon claimed that Shaba was within its sovereign territory, and this provided Hezbollah with a pretext for continuing its military operations against Israel, in order to liberate the "occupied territory."

Following last year's Second Lebanon War, the UN began marking the international border between Syria and Lebanon, mainly in order to resolve the dispute over which country actually owns Shaba. Israel's position has been that there should be no discussion of Shaba's future until the UN makes a final decision on precisely where this border lies.

"There is no change in Israel's stance on the matter," a source in the Prime Minister's Bureau told Haaretz on Tuesday. "First, the demarcation of the border must be completed."

Senior Foreign Ministry officials told a Moratinos aide who visited Israel last week that there should be no discussions on Shaba "at our expense." They also warned that an Israel Defense Forces withdrawal from the area at this time would undermine Israel's interests and constitute a "prize" for Syria's ally, Hezbollah.

Israeli sources expressed dissatisfaction Tuesday at the fact that Spain did not officially inform Israel about the Moratinos letter to Ban Ki-moon. Israeli diplomats learned of its content by chance during talks at the UN.

The letter may contribute to the growing tension between Israel and Spain, initially sparked by a meeting Moratinos held with Hezbollah's deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem. Following that meeting, a Moratinos visit to Israel that had been scheduled for earlier this month was postponed until October.

UN mapping expert Miklos Pinter, who has been busy delineating the border area near Shaba, visited Israel two weeks ago to meet his Israeli counterparts. Next month, the UN is expected to publish a new report on the situation between Israel and Lebanon, and Pinter's findings may be included in the document.

Israeli officials are concerned that this report could spark renewed discussion of which country has sovereignty over Shaba Farms.