UN Chief: Debate on Shaba Farms Ownership Is Premature

Haaretz report said UN stated that Shaba Farms is Lebanese territory and should be under UNIFIL control.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said Wednesday that the discussion of ownership of the disputed Shaba Farms area on the Lebanese border is premature.

The UN chief spoke in London, following a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in response to a Haaretz report earlier Wednesday saying the UN had asked Israel to hand the land over to UN peacekeepers in Lebanon.

UN officials later denied the report, saying "the UN has not asked the government of Israel to hand over the Shaba Farms to the UN."

"The UN's cartographer continues his work and will be visiting the area shortly. The secretary-general remains engaged on the issue," a UN official said.

Ban later told journalists in London "I have submitted my report on this issue. My senior cartographer has made good progress but this report is not mentioning anything about ownership or sovereignty yet."

Jerusalem also denied the report.

According to the Haaretz report, printed on Wednesday, the United Nations transmitted messages to Israel in recent weeks that the organization's mapping experts have determined that the Shaba Farms on Mount Dov, now controlled by Israel, is Lebanese territory.

The report said that the UN, which has communicated to Israel that the disposition of the Shaba Farms should be dealt with as soon as possible, has proposed to senior government officials that Israel withdraw from the area and that it be considered international territory to be controlled by UNIFIL.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert oppose the idea, Haaretz said. The size of, and sovereignty over, the Shaba Farms has been a matter of controversy due to the way the border between Syria and Lebanon was marked during the French Mandate between the two world wars.

When the UN marked the border between Israel and Lebanon after Israel's withdrawal in May 2000, the Shaba Farms were said to be part of Syrian territory, and that Israel therefore did not need to withdraw from it in the absence of an agreement with the Syrians.

Lebanon did not accept the line of demarcation, and has since claimed that the Shaba Farms are in its territory. Hezbollah took advantage of the controversy to justify attacks on Israeli forces in the area.

Government officials in Jerusalem said the UN cartographer handling the matter in recent months has determined that the area is indeed Lebanese, said the report.

Haaretz also wrote that the officials added that Syria and Lebanon also agree that the area is Lebanese. Therefore, the UN has said there is no reason for Israel not to relinquish control over the area.

Government officials are treating the matter with kid gloves out of concern that a public statement by the UN could lead to renewed conflict in the North.

Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon apparently transmitted the UN's conclusions in the meeting between himself and Olmert in New York last month, part of which was private. Another message is said to have come through the UN's special coordinator for the Middle East, Michael Williams, in a meeting with Livni a few weeks ago.

France and the United States are also ratcheting up their pressure on Israel, in the belief that a withdrawal from the Shaba Farms will strengthen the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will be coming to the region next week, pressed Olmert during the Second Lebanon War to withdraw from Shaba to bolster Siniora. Olmert refused, saying the move would be viewed by Hezbollah as a victory.

Israel and the UN discussed Shaba ahead of the release two weeks ago of the periodic report on the implementation of Resolution 1701. The UN wanted to include a clause stating that Shaba was Lebanese and urging a solution. This would have been a departure from 1701, which states that the fate of the farms is to be resolved in the determination of the border between Lebanon and Syria.

On Livni's instructions, senior Foreign Ministry officials pressured UN officials to remove the clause.