The UN should never have gotten into the business of demarcating borders.
The first time was after Iraq had confirmed its surrender by accepting UN Security Council Resolution 687, following its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and its expulsion by the U.S.-led Desert Storm coalition in April 1991.Â Under the terms of that resolution, the UN demarcated the Iraq-Kuwait border, possibly laying the groundwork for a future conflict.
The second time the UN got into this boundary demarcation business was after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 — but at the time the UNSG very pointedly stated that the Organization was “not engaged in a border demarcation exercise”.
The UN said they were just trying to determine the line behind which Israel must withdraw On 16 June 2000.
UNSG Kofi Annan reported to the Security Council that he was “in a position to confirm that Israeli forces have withdrawn from Lebanon in compliance with resolution 425 (1978)”.
To do this, of course, Kofi Annan had to know more or less what the frontier was, between Lebanon and Israel.
And there, he ran into difficulty.
To overcome the problem, the SG proposed that the line separating the UNIFIL (UN Peacekeeping force in Lebanon) area of operations from that of the UN Disengagement Observer force (UNDOF) operating in the Golan Heights “be adopted for the purpose of confirming Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon”.
After an exercise involving cartographers, engineers, and painting stones and other markers with “UN blue” paint, this withdrawal line is now known as the “blue line”.
A little patch of territory along the Syrian-Lebanese borders, known as the Shebaa Farms, had meanwhile become a big problem.
The United Nations determined that the Shebaa Farms region was territory that belonged to Syria, and put it within UNDOF’s Golan Heights zone.
The United Nations did so despite the claims by both Lebanon and Syria — although to varying degrees, it has to be admitted –that this bit of territory is in fact Lebanese.
The UN’s high-handed actions, based on a certain amount of exasperation with Syria, had something to do with the conflict that broke out last summer between Hizbullah and Israel, and the Israeli attack on Lebanon in July and August.
There was more than a little diplomatic sniggering, both in 2000, and again this past summer, that Syria was just slyly throwing a wrench into the works in order to advance its own interests, and using Lebanon in the process — and that Lebanon was not strong enough to stand up for itself.
But, in a revised balance-of-power calculation, there is some indication that the UN might now be preparing to consider some diplomatic adjustment. But Kofi Annan is being very cautious — and it now appears that this might not happen on his watch, before his term of office comes to an end at midnight on 31 December.
Kofi Annan explained in 2000 that no international boundary agreement has been concluded between Lebanon and Syria, and that his decision was based on a post-World War I deal between colonial powers Britain and France, that adjusted the border between the mandates they operated in the Middle East. (In this deal, Britain gave a small piece of its Palestine Mandate to France’s Syrian Mandate, in exchange for France’s acquiescence in Britain’s “administrative” separation of Transjordan from Palestine.)
Kofi Annan noted that the 1923 British-French deal was reaffirmed in the Israeli-Lebanese General Armistice Agreement signed on 23 March 1949, which was designed to settle the fighting that broke out upon Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine and Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948.
In the June 1967 war, however, Israeli Forces overran the Syrian Golan Heights, and then, in a fit of pique in 1980, Israel announced it had annexed the Golan Heights — but the UN has declared this annexation, which would mean the illegitimate acquisition of territory by force, null and void.
So, the particular issue here is that if Shebaa farms were Lebanese, Israel would have had to withdraw, and the UN would have to confirm Israel’s withdrawal.
If it is Syrian, well, then Israel can just stay put in the Shebaa farms until there is some movement in the non-existent Israel-Syrian peace process.
For Israel, the Shebaa farms (which Israelis call the Mount Dov region, named after an IDF officer killed while Israel was constructing roads to what it called a permanent post there), on the slopes of Mount Hermon, is strategically important for Israel’s security because it dominates the water sources for the Jordan River (including the Hasbani River).
PLO forces operated against Israel from this region, until their expulsion from southern Lebanon in Israel’s 1982 invasion. More recently, Hizbollah has claimed that their resistance activities in southern Lebanon were legitimized by the continued Israeli occupation of this bit of Lebanese territory.
The cease-fire that was brokered in August to end Israel’s attack upon Lebanon, agreed in UN Security Council resolution, refers to a Lebanese Government “seven-point plan” on the Shebaa Farms, in which the Lebanese Government proposed putting the Shebaa farms area under UN jurisdiction.
Resolution 1701 asked the UNSG to develop proposals for demarcation of the boundary in areas that are disputed or uncertain, including the Shebaa farms. The SG’s proposals, which were to have been delivered within 30 days of the 14 August cease-fire, were delivered in a “status report” to the UN Security Council on Friday 1 December.
Reuters’ Senior UN Correspondent Evelyn Leopold reports that Annan told the Security Council that “he had sent a senior cartographer to review the material on the Shebaa Farms area, a strip of land occupied by Israel which Lebanon claims as its own but the United Nations says is part of Syria. He said he took ‘careful note’ but gave no recommendations on Lebanon’s proposal to put the Shebaa Farms under UN jurisdiction until a permanent border was delineated.”
Leopold also reports that “The secretary-general said that he continued to receive reports of illegal arms smuggling across the Lebanese-Syrian border but has been unable to verify them.Â Still, his envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, said earlier this month he had evidence of the smuggling but was unable to reveal his sources.”
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, however, reported last week in an article authored by Ze’ev Schiff that Israel was the source of intelligence information that UNIFIL acted on: “UNIFIL intelligence has led to the discovery of a number of Katyusha and ammunition dumps in south Lebanon, and their subsequent destruction… Israel is said to have been the source of the intelligence regarding the munitions dumps. The units involved in the searches are Belgian, Spanish and French.”
(Schiff added that “Despite this success, thousands of Katyusha rockets are still being hidden, especially in the larger villages in the Tyre region.” And he wrote that “Senior Israel Air Force officers met recently with the heads of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on the issue, and it was decided to establish an Israel-UNIFIL coordinating body.”)