En Route to Damascus

Major General (reserve) Amos Gilad, who headed the research division of Military Intelligence in the 1990's, earned a reputation for being a serial doomsdayer. Yasser Arafat was planning to destroy the State of Israel and Saddam Hussein was on the verge of sending a nuclear weapon in our direction. His opinion of withdrawing unilaterally from Lebanon, without involving the Syrians, was not very favorable either. But in view of the current situation in the north, his predictions were apparently not pessimistic enough.

At a cabinet session on November 29, 1998, after Hezbollah attacked an Israel Defense Forces and Southern Lebanese Army outpost in South Lebanon, Gilad presented the following assessment of the situation: Even if Israel withdraws unilaterally from Lebanon, Syria will continue to run Hezbollah as a means of getting the Golan Heights back. He warned that any attempt to disassociate the problem of South Lebanon from the peace process with Syria would return the IDF to Lebanon.

Apparently, assuming the job of the defense minister's diplomatic-security coordinator has not changed the veteran intelligence officer's assessment of the situation. According to sources in the defense establishment, Gilad has succeeded in convincing the minister, Amir Peretz, and those around him that the key to the crisis in Lebanon lies in a peace agreement with Syria. Major General (reserve) Uri Saguy, who was chief of Military Intelligence and head of the negotiating team with Syria, relates that his public appeal (Haaretz, July 18) to open a channel of communication with Syria fell on open ears among his former colleagues in the IDF top brass. They told him that there are those in the General Staff who agree with his every word.

According to Haaretz's archives, during a cabinet debate held in late 1998, Gilad was not alone. Among those who supported his views were then defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, then chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, then Shin Bet security service head Ami Ayalon, and Meir Dagan, then the prime minister's adviser on terror. Then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel should remain in south Lebanon until the Lebanese army deployed there. Who supported the idea of unilateral withdrawal? The then foreign minister, Ariel Sharon. He maintained that after the IDF left Lebanon, Damascus would no longer have any interest in hitting Israeli targets. "Israel is interested in peace talks with Syria," he said, "but we cannot tie the talks with Syria to what is happening in Lebanon."

In retrospect, we can see here the first signs that Sharon's unilateral philosophy regarding the occupation of territory also applied to withdrawals from that same territory. The war on terror and in Iraq turned American President George W. Bush into Sharon's partner in adding Syrian President Bashar Assad to the list of non-partners.

When Ehud Olmert became prime minister, his advisors briefed him, explaining that Syria was out of bounds. Israel does not want a war with Damascus. And the United States is not interested in hearing about peace with it.

In recent days, Washington has started to send hints about a new American assessment of relations with Syria. James Baker - who, as secretary of state in the Bush Senior administration, invited Assad Senior to the Madrid Conference - expressed his willingness to go to Damascus as an envoy of Bush Junior. Even Edward P. Djerejian, who is director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and has maintained ties with the Syrian government since he served as American ambassador to Damascus, packed his suitcases.

The U.S. State Department and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem have been informed that if the United States continues to delay, planes carrying European foreign ministers will be waiting in line for permission to land in Damascus airport. And if that were not enough, the French, who have not forgiven the Syrians for murdering their friend Rafik Hariri, are threatening that in the absence of American activity on the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah track, the French will offer Iran asylum from the axis of evil.

Damascus is obviously interested in seeing this lethal game bog down. That would enable it to raise the price of a rescue. An editorial in the Syrian government daily Al-Ba'th declared this week that anyone who thinks that an international force on Lebanese soil is the solution is wrong. "These forces ... would be occupation forces, like the forces that have occupied Iraq and other places in the world," it said. The next sentence mentions the Golan Heights: "Whoever puts his trust in the [idea that] destruction, murder, and even occupation can impose solutions that violate sovereignty and national honor - he is wrong" (translation by MEMRI).

Shaba is not alone

Meir Ben-Dov does not really care if the Shaba Farms are handed over to Syria or Lebanon. The Jerusalem archaeologist, a grandson of the founders of Metula, expects that after Israel reaches a territorial arrangement with its neighbors, Lebanon will return the land owned by the farmers of Metula, thereby rectifying an injustice done to them by the British and French.

In a book that is soon to be published, Ben-Dov presents documents that prove that Metula was founded in 1896 on land in the Ayoun Valley that Baron Rothschild bought from Effendi Notzri of Sidon. The land was divided up and sold to the settlers of Metula, and it is owned by them to this day.

In 1923, a joint committee of British and French army officers drew the border between the British Mandate in Palestine and the French Mandate in Syria-Lebanon. The mukhtars of all the surrounding villages were invited to the committee's meeting. The minutes expressly note that the mukhtar of Metula, Meir Lishanski, who was visiting Tiberias that day, was absent from the meeting. The border was drawn such that the lands of the Ayoun Valley and its environs, an area of 4,000 dunams (four square kilometers), were included in the Syrian-Lebanese mandate. When the mukhtar of Metula learned this, he appealed to the committee, and after a brief study of the facts, the committee realized that an injustice had indeed been done to the Jewish farmers. It therefore decided that the land would remain in Jewish hands, and the farmers would be given laissez-passer documents so that they could continue to farm their land.

In World War II, the British built an airfield on part of Metula's land in the Ayoun Valley. They promised to compensate the farmers of Metula for their loss of income, and added that when the war was over, the airfield would be dismantled and the land returned to its owners. But it never happened. After Lebanon won its independence in 1945, the land remained in the hands of the Metula farmers, and they worked them under the same conditions, paying taxes to the British Mandatory government.

In 1951, after the oil pipeline from Saudi Arabia to Sidon was laid by American oil companies, the government of Israel, at the request of the American authorities, ordered the farmers to stop traveling to their land. The government of Lebanon appointed an official whose job it was to lease the lands in the Ayoun Valley to Lebanese farmers. In order to prevent any claims of possession, the rights were transferred to others every three years. In return for their land, the farmers of Metula received 1,675 dunams in the Hula Valley. Ben-Dov and the other heirs have been negotiating with the Israel Lands Administration ever since over the compensation they should receive for the missing 2,250 dunams.

Ben-Dov also has other memories of the north that relate to a border dispute that could arise in the wake of a diplomatic settlement in the region. In his childhood in Metula, Lebanese farmers from the village of Ghajar used to come every week to Metula to sell the fish they caught in the Hatzbani River (then called the Wazani). But during the early days of the Yom Kippur War, when he was fighting on the Syrian front, a group of Ghajar residents suddenly appeared at the Tank Junction carrying a white flag. "They said that they were Syrians and asked why we weren't occupying them."

A master's thesis written by Yigal Kipnis, who lives in the Golan Heights, offers a solution to the riddle. In the French Mandate's population report for 1945, Ghajar does not appear as a Syrian village. The same is true on official French maps and Lebanese maps, as well as Israeli maps from before 1967. The entire village is located inside Lebanese territory. But in the Syrian census carried out in 1960, it appears among the towns of Quneitra County. Geographer Zvi Ilan maintains that the border had been changed following an official agreement between the governments of Lebanon and Syria a short time earlier, against the background of the military confrontation between Syria and Israel.