The key to ShebaaBy Cilina Nasser in Shebaa, southern LebanonMonday 25 April 2005, 7:42 Makka Time, 4:42 GMT The Shebaa Farms provide Israel with vital water supplies
A portion of the older generation in Lebanon who grew up in the Shebaa Farms insists it is Lebanese land, and has the documents to prove it.
Abu Asaad al-Saadi, 75, struggles to open a firmly-tied sack. Successful, he removes a box from it and begins taking out a stack of old and brittle yellowed papers.
"Be careful," snaps his wife Umm Asaad as he unfolds a stained paper torn at the edges and weakened at the folds.
"These are the title deeds of my farm, Bait al-Baraq," al-Saadi says proudly, referring to one of the 14 disputed Shebaa Farms still occupied by Israel.
"The golden farms, they should be called," al-Saadi insists.
"Wheat, lentils, chickpeas, apples, cherries, olive, pears, grapes ... we used to grow everything. The land there was so fertile it could feed my entire family throughout the year."
"But since Israel occupied it and forced us to flee, we lost everything," Umm Asaad adds.
She complains how her children left for Kuwait and Canada to earn a living because they could not farm their land any more.
The al-Saadi farm remains firmly in Israeli hands, as do 13 other farms which were excluded from the Israeli withdrawal of southern Lebanon in May 2000.
Lebanon and Syria say the farms are Lebanese and, therefore, demand Israeli occupation forces to leave the area. The Lebanese resistance movement Hizb Allah says it will continue its armed struggle against Israel until the Shebaa Farms are liberated.
The United Nations argues that
the farms belong to Syria
Nevertheless, Israel and the United Nations say the area belongs to Syria and believe its fate is linked to the Syrian Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967.
Like al-Saadi, most property owners in the farms come from the village of Shebaa, their namesake, which is not occupied by Israel.
An older generation of Lebanese in Shebaa still keeps its title deeds, bills of sale and other relevant legal documents registered in official government departments.
The documents - seen by Aljazeera.net - date as far back as the 1930s and extend to the 1960s. One such document is a bill of sale in the Barakhta Farm that dates back to 1947 and is registered in the real estate authority in the Lebanese southern city of Sidon.
Another document from Syrian custom duties, dated 1951, gives permission to "Yusuf Musa Hamad, from the Lebanese Fashkul Farm," to herd his sheep in a nearby Syrian pasture.
Fashkul and Barakhta are among the Shebaa Farms.
There are other kinds of documents, such as approval by the Shebaa municipality to build shelters for sheep on the farms.
"This land is Lebanese since my father's and grandfather's time," al-Saadi says as he sits with his back to a window that allows full view of the Israeli radar post on Mount Hermon.
Shebaa, the village, lies on the western slopes of Mount Hermon and about 1400m above sea level. In the old days, the freezing weather compelled people to spend only the summer seasons in the village while settling in the farms, which are to the south of Shebaa and at altitudes ranging from 400m to 2000m.
Israel built roads through the
farms to improve access
Ali Husain Dahir, 75, a Shebaa mukhtar (elected certified notary), explains how Israel occupied the farms gradually after 1967, starting from the lower altitudes that are closer to Israel because Palestinian fidayin (fighters) carried out attacks against them from there.
"There were no roads for vehicles there and we used to ride donkeys. But Israelis built the roads to hunt Palestinians holed up in the mountains and to control the area," said Dahir.
Dahir was appointed in 1953 along with another elderly mukhtar, Asaad Khalil Farhat, to collect taxes from farm owners for the Shebaa municipality.
"We used to take a fee of 10 Lebanese piasters for each tank of milk sold, and other fees on each sale of cows, sheep and goats," he recalls.
He also accompanied officials from the Lebanese agriculture ministry to the farms to mete out penalties from those chopping trees for firewood.
However, the rocky mountainous route that led to the village of Shebaa placed it far from Lebanon's central authority. And therefore, Syria - in agreement with Lebanon - set up the Temporary Zibdeen Police Station in the mid-fifties that bore the name of one of the farms and was comprised of three Syrian policemen.
The main task of the police station was to prevent smuggling of goods along the border between Lebanon and Syria, according to the owners of the farms.
The farmers admired the former
Egyptian leader Abd al-Nassir
But Syrian control on the Shebaa Farms increased in 1958 during the pan-Arab revolt against Lebanon's Maronite President Camille Chamoun shortly after Syria had entered its union with Egypt.
Residents in Shebaa sympathised with the pan-Arab movement, especially since they were Sunni Muslims and admired then Egyptian president Jamal Abd al-Nasir.
However, local property owners continued to identify themselves as Lebanese and to process their documents in Lebanese official departments.
Issam Khalifah, a leading professor of modern history at the Lebanese University, argues the farms are Lebanese and that they were incorporated into Lebanon in 1923 when Great Britain and France ratified the international boundary between Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.
In his book, Lebanon: The Water and The Borders, Khalifah provides documents dating back to 1949, 1953 and 1954, indicating the jurisdiction of the Lebanese
Marjayun and Hasbaya qazas over the Shebaa Farms.
Water, water, everywhere
But Judith Palmer Harik, a Beirut-based professor of political science and author of Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism, says the abundance of water in the Shebaa Farms may well be another reason why Israel still occupies the area.
"The Shebaa Farms constitute a major reservoir for the water of Mount Hermon," says Harik.
"Whether it is Syrian or Lebanese, I don't think that Israel will give it up easily," she says.
Nasir Nasr Allah, the retired director-general of the Litani River Authority, agrees, saying that the gradual melting of snow during the warm seasons further enriches groundwater and increases the number of springs and watercourses at lower elevations, such as in the Shebaa Farms.
Mount Hermon also serves as an important source of water for such rivers as the Hasbani, Sraid and the Wazzani springs, which are located near the southern parts of the Shebaa Farms inside Lebanon and constitute tributaries for the River Jordan in Israel.
"The amount of groundwater which moves across the border to Israel from the Lebanese side in an average year is 200 million cubic metres, most of which comes from the Hermon sector, including the Shebaa Farms," says Hussain Rammal, the head of a technical department at the Litani River Authority.
According to historian JC Hurewitz, Mount Hermon's abundance of water was first brought to light in 1919 in a memorandum submitted by the Zionist delegation to the Paris Peace Conference.
"The Hermon not only needs reforestation but also other works before it can again adequately serve as the water reservoir of the country [future Israel]. It must therefore be wholly under the control of those who will most willingly, as well as most adequately, restore it to its maximum utility."
But Hizb Allah is not ready to allow Israel control of the area.
"The resistance is committed to liberate any territory that the Lebanese state identifies as Lebanese," Muhammad Afif, director of Hizb Allah's media relations, says.
Hizb Allah has refused so far to bow to international pressure to give up its arms, saying it wants to liberate the Shebaa Farms from Israeli occupation.
"The water factor motivates us more to liberate the Shebaa Farms."
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