The United Nations cartographer Miklos Pinter is in Israel this week to move ahead on the specifics of marking the controversial boundaries of the Shaba Farms on the slopes of Mount Hermon, government sources in Jerusalem said.
Pinter said a few weeks ago that based on maps and other documents he had received from the Lebanese government, the area of the farms was between 20 to 40 square kilometers.
Pinter, who had been the U.N.'s chief cartographer, headed the team that marked the "blue line," the Israel-Lebanon boundary following Israel's withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in May 2000. He had since retired, but was called back into service to help solve the dispute over Shaba.
Lebanon claims that the farms are its territory, while Israel says they are part of Syrian territory conquered in 1967 along with the Golan Heights, and should be dealt with as part of negotiations with the Syrians, a position the U.N. supported in 2000.
However Lebanon never gave up its claim, and during last year's war, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora proposed that Israel "deposit" the disputed territory with the U.N. until Syria and Lebanon mark the border between them and decide the matter. The U.N. agreed to mark the area as an interim step until diplomatic progress is made. The U.N.'s action on the matter is seen as a counterweight to moving ahead on Israel's demand to monitor weapons smuggling from Syria to Hezbollah.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is said to have been considering a withdrawal from the Shaba Farms before the Second Lebanon War, although he did not move ahead on it. During the war, Olmert rejected a U.S. demand to transfer the territory to the U.N., arguing that the step would be a prize to the terror and aggression of the Hezbollah.
Olmert reportedly told foreign officials a few months ago that Israel would agree to solve the problem as part of an overall agreement on the Golan Heights. He is even said to have promised a "festive ceremony" transfering the area, if the U.N. determined that the land belonged to Lebanon. Other Israeli officials are said to have responded with a "yes, but..." to the proposal that Israel withdraw from the Shaba Farms.
But according to officials who have dealt with the matter, Israel has good reason not to withdraw from Sahba. First of all, it would be seen as an acknowledgment of failure in the war and an achievement for Hezbollah. Second, the area's location on the slopes of Mount Hermon is of military-strategic importance. Third, the events of Genesis 15:9-17, the "covenant between the pieces" between God and Abraham, is said to have been made at an ancient site in the area of the Shaba Farms; it has become a destination of Hasidic pilgrimage during the week that Torah portion is read, and the Orthodox parties are sure to reject the withdrawal. Fourth, the area is covered by the Golan Law, which requires a majority of 61 lawmakers before it can be transfered to foreign hands.
For these reasons, Israel may not agree in the near future to serous discussion of a pullout from the Shaba Farms, and the matter will remain a point of contention on the Israel-Lebanese border.
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