As Israeli pilots were climbing into their jets to bomb Lebanon last Thursday night, Miklos Pinter, the chief cartographer at the United Nations, was studying a set of old Ottoman empire maps in Beirut.
The Israelis were preparing to launch their American Hellfire missiles at two large Lebanese electricity stations but Mr Pinter - with more serious matters in mind - was studying the exact location of 18 farms on a hillside in southern Lebanon on a map drawn up in 1923, when the British and French were dividing the spoils of the First World War.
Were the 18 farms - close to a mountain village called Shebaa - actually inside the new state of Lebanon, created by the one-armed French general Henri Gouraud, or part of the British mandate of Palestine? Or were they, as the Israelis are likely to claim, part of Syria - a part of Syria which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and which it subsequently annexed?
By midday on Friday, Lebanon's electricity stations were in ruins and the pilots had already returned to base, but the Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, was now discussing those same largely disused 18 farms with the UN's special envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen.
Could those farms be more important than the havoc wreaked on Lebanon last week, not to mention the Katyushas fired into Israel by the Hizbollah - killing one Israeli soldier - and the Israeli shellfire into Lebanon (the reason for the Katyushas) that killed two women? When Mr Roed-Larsen addressed the press on Friday night, the answer seemed to be clear: the villages and the line of the 1923 border appeared to carry far more weight in international affairs than Israel's latest adventure in Lebanon.
For Shebaa, perched on the side of Mount Hermon and patrolled by Indian soldiers of the UN's peacekeeping army in southern Lebanon, lies inside Israel's occupation zone in southern Lebanon. And the UN is desperately trying to find a way to prevent a full-scale war exploding in Lebanon when Israel begins its major withdrawal from the south before 7 July. The Israelis - and their pliant American allies - want the Lebanese to disarm the Hizbollah guerrillas who are attacking Israel's occupation troops and guarantee security on Israel's northern border after the retreat.
Lebanon would like to see the back of all foreign armies: Israel's soldiers in the south and Syria's 21,000 troops in Beirut, the west and north of the country. But Syria also wants the Israelis to withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights, upon which Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, is now planning further Jewish settlements. If the Israelis leave southern Lebanon, the Syrians can no longer use the Hizbollah to bleed Israel; and thus Syria loses its final military pressure on Israel.
So the Lebanese are adopting the same methods of negotiation that the Israelis used against Yasser Arafat and the PLO after the Oslo agreement. Just when the Palestinians thought their statehood and their capital in Jerusalem were assured, the Israelis would produce pages of detailed geographical proposals and alterations and security demands which virtually destroyed the peace agreement. Now that the Israelis claim they want to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 425 and leave southern Lebanon, the Lebanese are using Israel's methods of bargaining.
Resolution 425, the Lebanese point out, calls for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon. But the resolution was passed in 1978 and the Israelis are leaving 22 years late. The Israelis have conditions: they want their proxy and hated collaborationist militiamen - the "South Lebanon Army" - to be protected in Lebanon after their retreat. They want border security guarantees. They want the Lebanese Hizbollah resistance disarmed. The Lebanese refuse. The resolution calls for an unconditional withdrawal, they say.
Then come the farms. Lebanese still live in four of them - under Israeli occupation - and the rest are derelict; but they were in Lebanese territory until 1967, when the Israeli army, storming on to the Syrian Golan Heights, occupied the strip of Lebanese land beside Shebaa. As far as Israel was concerned, they were Syrian, not Lebanese. But now that Israel wants to withdraw from Lebanon, the government in Beirut expects this withdrawal to include the 18 farms.
Into this cartographical nightmare, the Israelis decided to drive their own demands. One of the most senior generals in the Israeli army's northern command saw fit to announce that along with an Israeli withdrawal, there may have to be some "alterations" to the international frontier between Israel and Lebanon. It was another of Israel's now familiar warnings of what would happen if an Arab nation, in this case Lebanon, dared to defy it.
And the Lebanese hit back with precision. Yes, said the Beirut government, they would like a border alteration - they would like the return of seven Lebanese villages that were ceded to the British mandate of Palestine in the 1920s. A few elderly inhabitants of these villages still exist. They began life as citizens of the Ottoman empire, became Lebanese in 1920, Palestinian within a decade, and then dispossessed after the first Arab-Israeli war.
Israeli troops massacred dozens of men from one village in 1948, but the place names are known to most Lebanese today. The problem for the Israelis is that all seven are now inhabited by Jewish Israelis - and the largest of them is the settlement which was bombarded by the Hizbollah's Katyusha rockets last week.
Poor Mr Pinter. His maps look not unlike the frontiers that the British had to draw up between India and Pakistan in 1948 - only this time the UN has not six months but scarcely six weeks to define the borders. The UN's 5,000 peacekeeping troops will have to be reinforced and move down to the international border if a bloodbath is to be prevented when Israel withdraws.
Mr Roed-Larsen would like UN troops in position before Israel retreats, and human rights protection for ex-SLA men.
After much prevarication, the Lebanese agreed to the UN troops, on condition that they moved in only after the last Israelis had left Lebanon and that the SLA be disbanded in advance. And there was one more condition: the Israelis had to withdraw all the way back to the frontier defined by Beirut. Including the 18 farms.
Mr Roed-Larsen was reduced to talking threat and optimism. Perhaps the whole UN force would be withdrawn if there was no agreement. But, he announced, "the future looks far brighter today than it has in many years". Who was he trying to fool, the Lebanese asked? The Israelis are not giving up Golan, so they are going to have to fight their way out of Lebanon. And that means a war that will make last week's destruction a mere skirmish. Unless Mr Pinter can decide the future of those farms.Reuse content