BEIRUT: A recent report in Israel’s Maariv daily has reopened a debate on the path of the United Nations-delineated Blue Line used to measure Israel’s troop withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000.
Maariv reported that the residents of Misgav Am, a kibbutz facing the Lebanese village of Addaysseh, were “astonished” to learn from the Israeli government that part of their settlement lies on Lebanese territory. The Israeli Interior Ministry, in response to a petition by Misgav Am to build new homes on land designated for agriculture, said that a precondition would require the kibbutz to pull back to the international border before the request would even be considered.
The “astonishing” element of the story is the Israeli government recommending Misgav Am yield its sliver of Lebanese soil. Certainly, the residents of Misgav Am had no reason to be astonished that they are occupying Lebanese territory, because they mounted a vociferous lobbying campaign in early 2000 to ensure that the mooted Blue Line, which is supposed to correspond to the international border, did not slice off part of the kibbutz.
The anomaly arose from the decision by the Israeli army in 1980 to push the border fence deeper into Lebanon in a few select locations to capture the high ground. The de facto military border – later dubbed by the Israelis as the Purple Line – was protected by a belt of minefields and barbed wire, effectively allowing Israel to annex 1,060 hectares of Lebanese territory from Alma Shaab in the west, through Aita al-Shaab, Rmeish, Maiss al-Jabal, Addaysseh, Sarda, Ghajar and the Shebaa Farms in the east.
The Lebanese government protested, and the U.N. acknowledged Beirut’s complaints, but the Israelis refused to leave.
One of those annexed pockets lay on the western edge of Misgav Am. With the border fence pushed deeper into Lebanon, the residents began expanding their kibbutz westward. During the years of occupation, it was not an issue. But in early 2000 as preparations for an Israeli troop withdrawal began, the anomaly in Misgav Am came to attention.
The lobbying by the Israelis paid off and the U.N. finessed the problem by choosing to follow a written description of the border in a 1951 U.N. report which indicated that the frontier runs “to the west of the road surrounding Misgav Am.” In 1951, that description tallied with the path of the international border, but by 2000 the frontier identified by the U.N. report had moved deeper into Lebanon matching the creeping westward expansion of Misgav Am.
Despite the Israeli Interior Ministry recommending that Misgav Am pull back from Lebanese territory, nothing is likely to change on the ground. The Israeli military has a position on the hilltop fitted with an array of reconnaissance and surveillance equipment and would resist any attempt to dismantle it.
U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon officials couldn’t immediately confirm if Israel has raised the Misgav Am kibbutz dispute with the peacekeeping force. Spokesman Andrea Tenenti said UNIFIL can work on mediating disputes between Israel and Lebanon, particularly in areas where there is a joint concern.
“UNIFIL’s mission is to act as mediators, so you need both parties in agreement,” he said. “We will discuss points that the Israelis and Lebanese have reservations on.”
Still, the Misgav Am anomaly is only one of several along the Blue Line.
The U.N., against strenuous Israeli objections, ran the Blue Line through Ghajar, leaving the top two thirds of the Syrian-populated village inside Lebanon and the remainder in Israeli-occupied Syria. In exchange for Ghajar, the U.N. gave the Israelis the benefit of the doubt over the Misgav Am anomaly and two other locations along the border, at Rmeish and a four kilometer stretch between Metulla and the Hasbani river where Lebanon lost territory. The latter anomaly was particularly egregious as a careful reading of the French and English versions of the original 1920 boundary description clearly placed the border 100 meters south of where the Blue Line presently lies. By placing the Blue Line 100 meters further north, Israel was spared having to dismantle one army post and lose some apple orchards.
The U.N. also allowed the Israeli army to keep three of its outposts in the Shebaa Farms intact. The most common delineation of the border in the Shebaa Farms follows the Mount Hermon watershed running from mountain top to mountain top. If the Blue Line had exactly followed the watershed, it would have sliced off the front of Israel’s Jabal Summaqa, Roweisat al-Alam and “Radar” outposts between Kfar Shuba and Shebaa. Instead, the Blue Line curves around each one by a few dozen meters.
In one bizarre instance, the border road between Addaysseh and Kfar Kila actually runs for a few hundred meters on the Israeli side of the Blue Line. The U.N. initially failed to notice the error because of the small scale of the official map used to mark the Blue Line and the inability of cartographers to access the area as it was still under occupation before May 2000. Once the anomaly was discovered, all parties decided to quietly forget about it.
Such details may seem like arcane cartographic quibbles, but they have helped foster a climate of distrust, resentment and in at least once instance a misunderstanding that came close to triggering a conflict.
In August 2010, Israeli troops attempted to prune a tree that was interfering with sensors on the border fence near Addaysseh. The tree was on the northern side of the Israeli security fence but on the southern side of the Blue Line.
Lebanese troops observing the pruning operation were under the impression that the Israelis had transgressed the Blue Line and fired warning shots in the air. A firefight erupted and by the time UNIFIL brokered a cease-fire, an Israeli lieutenant colonel, two Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist were dead.
The U.N. confirmed that the tree was on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, but Lebanon said it had “reservations” over that stretch of the line. What no one mentioned publicly at the time, either through ignorance or discretion, was that even the Lebanese soldiers standing on the road who were engaged in the shootout with the Israeli soldiers were on the Israeli side of the Blue Line thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the delineation process 10 years earlier.