The United Nations has started work on mapping the Shaba Farms area on the northern border, using available maps and satellite photographs. The disputed territory, or parts of it, is claimed by Syria, Lebanon and Israel.
The main problem facing the experts at UN Headquarters in New York in their efforts to map the area, is that in talks on the Shaba Farms in recent years, a fundamental element has been missing: The overall territory and borders of the disputed area are unclear.
Western diplomats say the interpretations each side offers on the size of the territory and its ownership are completely different from those offered by the others.
Another issue delaying a solution to the problem of Shaba Farms stems from the disagreement between Lebanon and Syria on ownership. The Syrians refuse to define the borders in the Shaba Farms area, and claim the dispute will be resolved only when a diplomatic solution between Syria and Israel is achieved and the Golan Heights are returned to Syria.
Recently, European diplomats proposed to Israel that it transfer control over the Shaba Farms to the government of Lebanon without waiting for the completion of the UN mapping, as a gesture that would bolster the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. In the proposals, received at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, it was said that such a move would strip Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, of his main argument for retaining an armed force, and would undermine popular support to his claims that Hezbollah is resisting Israeli occupation of Lebanese soil.
The Europeans, concerned with the recent turmoil in Lebanon and the murders of anti-Syrian public figures, believe that with the right timing, such a move by Israel will serve as a great boost for the teetering Siniora government.
Political sources in Jerusalem said no discussion on the European proposal had been held to date.
The mapping of the area comes as part of the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701 of 11 August 2006, which brought about an end to the second Lebanon war through a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
In Article 10 of the resolution, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls for defining the borders in contested areas, including the Shaba Farms.
Diplomats do not consider the mapping process to be a preliminary stage leading to an Israeli withdrawal from Shaba Farms, but as an interim pinpointing of the border.
Another problem facing the mapping experts is the fact that much of the ownership evidence comprises deeds from the Ottoman era, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is causing delays in effective translation.
According to diplomats, the work of the mapping experts is not expected to be completed before Annan retires from the post of secretary-general at the end of December. Israeli sources maintain that the mapping efforts will take many months to complete.
A western diplomat stationed in Israel told Haaretz yesterday that Annan had asked Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN official assigned to implement Security Council Resolution 1559 on Lebanon, to dispatch experts to map the Shaba Farms area, but this had not happened.
The head of the Planning Directorate at the Israel Defense Forces, Major General Ido Nehushtan, was in Paris recently for talks with senior French military officials on the continued overflights of Lebanese airspace by Israel Air Force jets. The flights have caused tension with France, which deployed troops to the United Nations peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL. France claimed that the air force overflights pose a threat to its troops.
The chief of the Air Force General Staff, Major General Amir Eshel, met with senior UNIFIL officers in Israel to discuss the same issue.
Nehushtan and Eshel explained that Israel continues the overflights in order to gather essential intelligence on the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah from Iran and Syria. Israel says the arms shipments to Hezbollah are meant to replenish its arsenal of rockets.
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