Conflict widens with reprisal bombardment of southern Lebanon

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the heaviest bombardment of southern Lebanon since withdrawing from the country in May, the Israeli army fired at least 100 shells around the village of Kfar Shouba yesterday after a roadside bomb attack on Israeli troops near the border, which killed one Israeli soldier and wounded two others. The bomb, set by Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas, exploded beside Israeli soldiers as they patrolled the stony mountainside around the Shebaa farms in the foothills of the Golan Heights.

In the heaviest bombardment of southern Lebanon since withdrawing from the country in May, the Israeli army fired at least 100 shells around the village of Kfar Shouba yesterday after a roadside bomb attack on Israeli troops near the border, which killed one Israeli soldier and wounded two others. The bomb, set by Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas, exploded beside Israeli soldiers as they patrolled the stony mountainside around the Shebaa farms in the foothills of the Golan Heights.

The Hizbollah clearly intended its operation to support the latest Palestinian intifada. It said its guerrillas were "Al Aqsa fighters", referring to the Jerusalem mosque, but the area of the attack, known to the Israelis as Har Dov, was not chosen by chance. The Shebaa farms lie on Lebanese territory taken over by Syria in the late 1940s and subsequently captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. When Israel retreated from its last occupation zone in Lebanon six months ago, the UN secretary general Kofi Annan - in a statement that is now widely seen as a political error - declared that the farms district lay on the Israeli side of the UN "blue line" dividing Israel from Lebanon.

Since then, the Hizbollah has regarded Shebaa farms - to the south-east of the village of Shebaa that still lies securely inside Lebanon - as a war zone, and captured three Israeli soldiers there on 7 October. Israel's reprisal bombardment yesterday slightly wounded a Syrian construction worker but caused little other damage.

The Lebanese, however, are well aware that a new conflict could open up in the south of the country to which the Lebanese government - under Syria's unquestioned influence - has refused to send substantial military forces.

The Israelis yesterday warned - as they have at least 40 times over the past four years - that if their northern border does not remain peaceful, "nor will southern Lebanon". The 17 or so farms at Shebaa are still owned by Lebanese who hold their land deeds and who - in some cases - were allowed to continue cultivating olives on their land until last May's Israeli withdrawal. Although part of Lebanese sovereign territory, the farms were in effect confiscated by Syria before the creation of Israel in 1948 when the Lebanese President, Beshara Khoury, unwisely ignored a demand from Damascus to prevent Syrian Jews being smuggled through the mountain pass on the way to mandate Palestine.

When the Israelis seized Golan in 1967, the Shebaa farms included a makeshift Syrian police station - which, for the Israelis, proved the land belonged to Syria. It was henceforth illegally annexed by Israel.

Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah chairman, stated on Saturday that the Shebaa farms could be recovered only by fighting. Mr Annan claimed the territory lay outside the "blue line" and that its ownership should be decided in subsequent talks between Syria and Lebanon. But Syria said the farms did belong to Lebanon, and thus opened a breach in the border withdrawal agreement that would allow further conflict along the frontier. That battle has now begun.

Comments