While Lebanon’s campaign for the return of the Shebaa Farms has became well known over the past nine years, it is not the only outstanding territorial dispute between Lebanon and Israel. A more arcane – and generally misunderstood – Lebanese grievance with Israel is the fate of the Seven Villages, originally populated by Shiites who found themselves under the French Mandate for Greater Lebanon in 1920 before they were transferred to Palestine in 1924.
Hizbullah occasionally raises the demand for the Seven Villages as part of its ongoing psychological warfare against Israel, hinting that winning back the Shebaa Farms alone is insufficient reason for the party to disarm. In fact, Hizbullah long ago dropped conditioning the retention of its military wing on the return of Israeli-occupied Lebanese territory.
Today, Hizbullah claims its resistance is a vital component of Lebanese national defense against future Israeli aggression. As Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary general, said as long ago as the year 2000, before Israel had withdrawn from Lebanon, “so long as our neighbor is an entity that has committed aggression, is aggressive by nature and could attack our country at any moment, we should adhere to our resistance, if only to defend our country.”
The Seven Villages dispute arose because of an overlap in the early 1920s between the initial administrative line separating the French Mandate of Lebanon and the British Mandate of Palestine and the time it took to ratify the international boundary between the two countries.
At the end of World War I, the British and French established military-run Occupied Enemy Territorial Administrations (OETA) covering Syria and Palestine. The line separating the northern French OETA and the southern British OETA ran eastward from Ras Naqoura more or less horizontally terminating just north of the now dried-up Lake Huleh in Upper Galilee. In December 1920, the British and French signed an agreement that defined the borders of the Middle East territories under their supervision, including that of Lebanon and Palestine.
The Lebanon-Palestine border was demarcated between March and July 1921, and the final documents – a sketch map of the boundary line and a detailed written description – were submitted to the British and French governments in February 1922. The following month the French Mandatory authorities in Beirut authorized elections for a Representative Council, the forerunner of the Lebanese Parliament. A census – of highly questionable accuracy – was conducted covering the area of the French administered OETA, which included the Upper Galilee and its villages and farms and its Jewish-populated areas such as Metulla. Those covered by the census were given Lebanese identity cards entitling them to vote in the April 1922 elections.
Although Britain and France were awarded their respective Mandates at the San Remo peace conference in 1920, the League of Nations only formally approved the Mandates in February 1923. That step allowed Britain and France finally to ratify the Lebanon-Palestine border, which replaced the OETA line.
The final act came in April 1924 when around 24 villages and farms that had found themselves north of the OETA line (thus under French administration) but south of the new border were formally transferred to the jurisdiction of British Mandate Palestine. Of these, 12 were populated by Sunnis, two were Maronite, one was Greek Catholic, two were Jewish, six were Shiite and one was divided between Shiites and Greek Catholics. The six Shiite villages were Terbikha, Saliha, Malkiyah, Nabi Yusha, Kades and Hunin. The mixed Shiite-Greek Catholic village was Ibl Qamh. Collectively, these villages today form what is known as the Seven Villages. During the 1948 Arab-Israel war, most of the residents of the Seven Villages met the same fate as other Palestinians and were driven from their homes to become refugees in Lebanon. They were granted Lebanese citizenship in 1994.
Lebanon’s argument for the return of the Seven Villages is premised on the fact that the residents were Lebanese citizens before they were transferred to Palestine and became Palestinian citizens. But citizenship does not denote sovereignty, otherwise the Shebaa Farms dispute would have been resolved in 2000. Lebanon was unable to persuade the United Nations of the validity of its claim over the Shebaa Farms because it could not satisfactorily prove sovereignty over the area, despite the fact that the former residents possessed Lebanese citizenship and property deeds registered in Lebanon.
The OETA line was a purely administrative boundary, not a legal and internationally-recognized border, much as the UN-delineated Blue Line today is not a border but a temporary military line drawn up in 2000 to confirm that Israel had pulled out of Lebanon in conformity with UN resolutions.
The case for the Seven Villages is further undermined by past precedent. Previous Lebanese governments have recognized the legitimacy of the southern border with Israel on many occasions, including in 1949, when it formed the basis of the Armistice Demarcation Line, and in 1978 when UN Resolution 425 called on Israel to withdraw from all Lebanese territory “within [Lebanon’s] internationally recognized boundaries.”
There is nothing to prevent Lebanon and Israel mutually agreeing to amend the border in the future if they so wish. But demanding an amendment that would place the Seven Villages inside Lebanon would also allow Israel to press for its own alterations to a border with which it has never been satisfied.
Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter that publishes views on Middle Eastern and Islamic issues.