Shebaa Farms – nub of conflict
Strategic analyst: If Hizbullah gains control over Shebaa Farms, it will have strategic control over Israeli cities and communities like Qiryat Shmona, Metula, She'ar Yeshouv, and Beit Hillel. Also in the range of fire will be the Israeli army's emergency storages in the area
Shebaa Farms is a small area of no more than 10 square miles on the border between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Overlooking the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, this area is located on a mountain some 5,000 feet above sea level. Since the 1967 Six Day War, Israel has been holding this relatively high area, which provides it with certain advantages from the intelligence and strategic points of view.
A recent proposal by the US suggested that Israel would withdraw from the Shebaa Farms as part of a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hizbullah. The Media Line has interviewed Israeli military experts in order to ascertain what strategic importance Shebaa Farms holds.
Shebaa was recognized by the United Nations in 1974 as part of the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights. In May 2000, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon after 18 years. Lebanon's Hizbullah claimed that the withdrawal was not completed because Shebaa was actually on Lebanese – not Syrian - territory. This claim gave Hizbullah an excuse to continue its fight against the Israeli "occupier." Interviewed by The Media Line in 2004 on the subject, Ghasan Al-Ezzi, a professor of political science at the Lebanese University in Beirut, said Lebanese citizens indeed lived and worked in the Shebaa Farms, but that did not change the fact that in the eyes of the international community the region was under Syrian sovereignty.
Israeli military experts unanimously concluded that no matter what military or strategic importance Shebaa has, its symbolic meaning is much stronger. If Hizbullah will be able to say at the end of its war with Israel that it gained control over Shebaa, the implications will be severe. It would mean that through the use of force, a terrorist organization could gain control over territory Israel holds. The ramifications in regard to the Palestinian territories can only be imagined.
When trying to assess what strategic importance Shebaa has, several aspects are taken into consideration. First is the topographical aspect, and second is the issue of who gains control over Shebaa in case of an Israeli withdrawal: an army (either Syrian or Lebanese), an international force, or Hizbullah.
When looking at the topography of the region, Shebaa Farms is located on the western slopes of Mount Hermon. Higher than the immediate areas surrounding it to the north, south and west, the area has enabled Israel so far to have good strategic control over the Beqaa Valley to its north. Intelligence surveillance equipment located in Shebaa also gives Israel good coverage over the valley below. Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom, who is today a senior researcher in the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, explains that the strategic-control element is less significant today, because of accurate long-range weapon systems that can be used as a good alternative.
"More important is the observation post – not only from the optical aspect, but also the electronic aspect. There are radars, antennas and listening devices," says Brom. There are, however, many alternative options Israel will be able to use and still get the same information it gets from Shebaa, Brom adds.
Another retired top officer who served in the region said that in all the meetings he attended, the army did not refer to the strategic importance of the outposts located in Shebaa from the observation and strategic control points of view.
"Today, the techniques at hand do not necessitate points on the ground," added the officer, who asked to remain anonymous. The officer further explained that while the strategic value of the topographic location of Shebaa could be taken lightly, it was, however, more a question of the symbolic meaning.
"If Israel withdraws it will mean a great victory for Hizbullah. It will prove that forceful measures carried out by a terrorist group can force Israel to withdraw from territories."
What if Hizbullah returns?
Under the current situation, if a ceasefire is achieved, Hizbullah will be forced to leave southern Lebanon. But the possibility that the organization will sometime in the future make its way back to the region is not improbable.
"If Hizbullah gains control over Shebaa Farms, it will have strategic control over Israeli cities and communities like Qiryat Shmona, Metula, She'ar Yeshouv, and Beit Hillel. Also in the range of fire will be the Israeli army's emergency storages in the area," says Dr. Mordechai Kedar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. If Hizbullah will then use heavy machineguns or 80mm recoilless guns, they will be able to accurately hit targets four to six miles away, adds Kedar.
However, military interviewed are less worried about this possibility. Even if Israel does not withdraw from Shebaa, Israeli communities can be targeted from the Al-Khiam Ridge or Mount Bofor only a few miles to the north, says Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Yossi Peled, who served as chief of the army's northern command.
"With the kinds of weapons which exist today, this has no significance."
Another retired senior officer, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Media Line that if Hizbullah managed to return to southern Lebanon in the future, then it would have the entire border line to use as fire-launching grounds – just as it did during the recent war. Controlling the Shebaa farms would than only be a drop in the ocean, he said.
Another question presented to interviewees was: Can the Syrian army use this area for a future attack on Israel? Their response was that because of the topographical location of Shebaa there was no military logic for a Syrian attack from that direction. They all also agreed that the balance of power between the two armies had changed dramatically, and that now Israel was even more superior to Syria.
The possibility that the Lebanese army would spread along the border, including the Shebaa Farms areas, was recently suggested by Lebanon's Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. If this possibility is accepted, than it is both worrying and comforting at the same time. On the one hand, the Lebanese army is considered one of the weakest armies in the region, and under no circumstances is it expected to launch an attack against Israel. On the other hand, its weakness might enable Hizbullah to return to south Lebanon – the ramifications of which have already been explained.
The possibility that international forces will be placed along the border is also somewhat troublesome from the Israeli point of view. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insists that the international forces must have real power, unlike the UNIFIL forces which had no influence when hostilities erupted. A strong international military force is more likely to prevent a future attempt by Hizbullah to return to the area.
Reprinted by permission of The Media Line Ltd