>The Shebaa Farms Under International Law


Gabriel Sawma Esq.


Following World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the territories of Lebanon and Syria, which were considered one single political unit prior to the War, were mandated by the League of Nations to France. The principle underlying the Mandate was expressed in Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations.

The Mandate proceeded until November 26, 1941, when General Georges Catroux, de Gaule’s choice for governing the mandated territory, proclaimed in the name of his government and its ally the termination of the mandate and the establishment of “sovereignty and independence” of Lebanon and Syria. Lebanon became a constitutional republic in 1943.

The internationally recognized borders between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria are governed by the 1949 Armistice Agreements. Those agreements ended the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and established the armistice lines between Israel and the West Bank, also known as the Green Line, until the 1967 Six-Day War between the Arab States of Jordan, Egypt and Syria on one side and Israel on the other side.

The Armistice Agreement between Israel and Lebanon was signed on March 23, 1949. It points the following

• The Armistice Line (“The Blue Line”) was drawn along the international border.
• The international border between Lebanon and Israel are considered to be a de jure international border (i.e. by law).
• Israel withdrew its forces from 13 villages in Lebanese territory, which were occupied during the war.

With the exception of the Lebanon-Israel Armistice Agreement, the other agreements were clear (at Arab insistence) that they were not creating a permanent or du jure borders.

The Israeli-Syrian Invasion of Lebanon

On March 15, 1978, Israel launched a major military incursion into South Lebanon, called the Litani River Operation, and struck at PLO bases and staging areas south of the Litani River, up to 10 kilometers deep inside the country. The operation prompted a formal statement of “United States Concern with the Territorial Integrity of Lebanon,” calling for Israeli withdrawal and discussing a United Nations role in Lebanon. On March 19, 1978, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 425 calling for Israeli withdrawal and establishing an international peace-keeping force for South Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), to enable establishing of a buffer zone in southern Lebanon free of PLO bases.

By June, 1978, Prime Minister Begin, under intense American pressure, withdrew Israeli forces, which were replaced by UNIFIL. The withdrawal of Israeli troops without having removed the PLO from its bases in southern Lebanon became a major embarrassment to the Begin government. The cross-border cycle of attack and retaliation continued, and the PLO expanded its bases, forces, and armaments in Lebanon. Finally, Israel responded with its 1982 invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon. The UNIFIL force is still deployed in 2006.

UNIFIL was unable to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the region. Cross-border conflict between Israel and various forces in southern Lebanon continued to intensify. Civilians on both sides, and UNIFIL peacekeepers, were killed as the fighting continued to escalate, and Palestinians were shelling the northern Israel. In June 3, 1982, the Defense Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the invasion of Lebanon with a massive force in an operation called Peace for the Galilee. Israeli forces drove all the way to Beirut. The PLO’s leadership was forced to move to Tunis. This military operation, although planned for limited duration, became bogged down and continued far longer than expected. The army lost 650 soldiers. For three years the Israel Defense Force (IDF) remained deep in Lebanon, until it withdrew, in 1985, to the international border. Some territory in south Lebanon was retained as a security zone. The area was monitored jointly by Israeli Army (IDF) and its Southern Lebanese Army (SLA) ally.

The Lebanese Civil War, which started in April, 1975, provided the pretext for Syrian Military intervention in Lebanon. Alleging the fear of a Christian-Muslim partition of the country and/or a PLO takeover, Hafez Assad of Syria sent, on June 1, 1976, 12,000 regular Syrian troops to Lebanon. By September of that year the number reached approximately 25,000 men. The Syrian force was operating under what came to be known as the Arab Deterrent Force authorized by the Riyadh Summit held in October 1976. Syrian troops acted to disarm some Lebanese militias at the same time that the national army of Lebanon disintegrated. By 1977, the number of Syrian troops exceeded 30,000, with over 200 tanks. On October 13, 1990, Syrian forces captured the presidential palace at Ba’abda, southeast of Beirut, and defeated the Lebanese Army units, which were under the command of General Michel Aoun, who declared ‘a war of liberation” against Syria. Syrian military occupation of Lebanon incorporated the entire country with the exception of southern Lebanon, which was under the control of the Israeli Army and the Southern Lebanese Army.

On May 23, 2000, the Israeli military carried out a unilateral withdrawal from the south and the Bekaa Valley, ending 22 years of occupation causing the collapse of the 6,000 SLA members. With the withdrawal of Israeli forces, many Lebanese began calling for a review of the continued Syrian presence in their country.

On June 16, 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted the report of the Secretary General verifying Israel’s compliance with UNSCR 425 and the withdrawal of Israeli troops to their side of the demarcated Lebanese-Israeli line of separation (The “Blue Line”) mapped out by UN cartographers. In August, 2000, with the permission of Syria, the Lebanese Government ordered the deployment of 500 police and 500 soldiers to areas of south Lebanon evacuated by the Israelis. This force was not allowed to disarm Hizbullah guerrillas or to take up positions along the blue lines. Hizbullah maintained observation posts and conducted patrols along the Blue Line.

In the summer of 2004, Syria pressured the country’s cabinet into endorsing a constitutional change designed to let President Emile Lahoud extend his expiring six-year term for three more years. Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had for years been a fierce foe of Mr. Lahoud and had strongly opposed amending the Constitution. But suddenly he changed his mind after a night meeting with the Syrian chief of military intelligence.

On September 2, 2004, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1559, coauthored by France and the United States. The Resolution “calls upon all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon” and “for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.” Syria made few moves to comply with the Resolution until the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, on February 14, 2005. International pressure and mass demonstrations that were labeled ‘the Cedar Revolution’ prompted President Bashar Assad of Syria to announce on March 5, 2005, his plan to “bring his forces home.” On April 26, 2005, after 29 years of occupation of Lebanon, the last Syrian troops left the country

The Shebaa Farms Issue

Shortly after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, dispatched his special Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, and a team of experts to meet with Israeli and Lebanese officials and verify that both sides were in agreement on the conditions required by Resolution 425. The UN team reported that the Lebanese Government “informed the United Nations of its new position regarding the definition of its territory.” The claim included that Israeli forces seized a piece of Lebanese territory during the Six-Day War, called Shebaa Farms, located on the western slopes of Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, and has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War with Syria, Egypt, and Jordan.

The Farms are presumed to be owned by the residents of the nearby Lebanese town of Shebaa. Before the Six-Day War, most Shebaa landowners and farmers lived in a Lebanese village of Shebaa. The Shebaa farms, a separate piece of territory, about 14 kilometers (8.7 mi) in length, and averages 2.5 kilometers (1.6 mi) in width, lie inside Syria. The farmers used to cross the land from Shebaa city in Lebanon to the Shebaa Farms in Syria. Its fertile, well-watered farmland formerly produced barley, fruits, and vegetable for 14 farms, but now desolate.

After Syria lost the land in 1967, the Lebanese farmers of the city of Shebaa were no longer able to commute and to farm the land at Shebaa Farms. Israel maintains that the Shebaa Farms was officially part of Syria when Israel occupied the region. Syria and Lebanon claim that the territory is in fact part of Lebanon, since Lebanon did not play a role in the Six-Day War, they claim, Israel must evacuate the territory in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions.

It is worth to mention here, that the 1949 Armistice Demarcation Treaty between Lebanon and Israel followed the pattern of demarcation that was instituted by Great Britain and France in 1923. Nevertheless, there was no official border between the two countries. “On maps, the French clearly marked Shebaa Farms as Syrian territory, while marking the village of Shebaa, whose residents owned the farms, as the territory of Lebanon.” In other words, the town of Shebaa is considered to be a Lebanese territory, while the Shebaa Farms is Syrian land.

During the 1950s and early 60s A joint Lebanese Syrian commission was formed to determine the border between the two nations. In 1964 the commission determined that the Farms belong officially to Lebanon. However, maps printed after 1964 did not incorporate the determination of the commission, the maps printer after that period rather shows that the Shebaa Farms are still Syrian territory. And in 1960, Syrian authority ordered the inhabitants of the Shebaa Farms to replace their Lebanese identification cards with Syrian ones.

The Lebanese government showed little interest in the views of the inhabitants. While the commission was conduction its work to determine the border identity, the Syrian Government maintained control over the Farms. In 1955, the Syrian military built an outpost on one of the farms, and military bases in the area.

Those military posts in and around the Farms confirmed the identity of the Shebaa Farms as Syrians. During the Israeli invasion of Syria in 1967, the territory was captured by the Israeli forces and remained occupied until this time. No Lebanese or Syrian newspapers or any other discussion about the identity of the Shabaa Farms as being Lebanese territory, nor was there any hint in the UN Security Council at the time by the Lebanese representative to this effect. At no time, prior to the Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, did the Lebanese Government claim the Shebaa Farms to be Lebanese.

In 1974, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established at Camp Faouar in Syria. Its mandate includes: (1) to supervise the cease-fire between Israel and Syria; (2) to supervise the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces; and (3) to supervise the Areas of Separation and Limitation, as provided in the Agreement of Disengagement between Israel and Syrian forces of May 31, 1974. The UNDOF maintained the border with the Shebaa Farms as part of Syria.

In March 19, 1978, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 426 establishing the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) headquartered in Naqura, Southern Lebanon to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli forces from South Lebanon. The Lebanese Government made no attempt to claim the Shebaa Farms.

On May 4, 2000, three weeks after the withdrawal of the Israeli troops from Lebanon in compliance with Security Council Resolution 425 and 426, 1978, the Lebanese Government officially filed a grievance with Israel to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He called the Lebanese move a “new position”. Lebanese officials claim, without giving an explanation, that in 1951, Syria had given the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon. They claim also that there is no record to such a transfer at the United Nations. In fact one senior Lebanese official stated that the Syrian transfer of Shebaa Farms to Lebanon occurred in the form of “oral agreement” between the two countries and “nothing was documented.” In May 29, 2000, the Lebanese Newspaper, ‘The Daily Star’ described the land deed of one resident of the Shebaa Farms as “handwritten and signed on a yellow piece of paper in pencil and ink.” Furthermore, the Lebanese government presented the a forged land deed to the UN representatives date back to the 1940’s, years before the alleged transfer took place, an indication of inconsistency on the part of the Lebanese Government.

There are documents from the 1920s and 1930s that indicate some local inhabitant in the region who considered themselves to be part of Lebanon. Some have even paid taxes to the Lebanese government. But the demarcations from that period under the French mandate show that the Shebaa Farms lie within the borders of Syria. Detailed maps produced by the French in 1933, and again in 1945 point out to the same conclusion. U.S and French archives leave no doubt that the Shebaa Farms belong to Syria.

All maps belonging to the period before 1967 save one, an apparent forgery, show the land as being on the Shebaa Farms on the Syrian side of the border. In fact, on February 13, 2006, a Lebanese newspaper Beirut Times article quotes a Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt, member of the Lebanese Parliament displayed and map and revealed that it was a “fake map,” with the boundary shifted. In an interview, the Druze leader said the following: “The question of the Shebaa Farms was invented by Syria and Iran using Hizbullah as a pretense to have an armed presence in Lebanon. This must end.”

Lebanese army map published in 1961 and 1966 indicate the Shebaa Farms area, including Zebdine, Fashkoul, Mougr Shebaa, and Ramta as being part of the Syrian territory and lie inside the border of Syria. Every single Syrian map and every single Lebanese Ministry of Tourism map show the Lebanese border runs west of the Shebaa Farms. These maps make it clear that the Shebaa Farms are in fact a Syrian land.

The UN Secretary General issued the following report, disputing the claims of Lebanon on the Shebaa Farms, he states the following:

‘On 15 May 2000, the United Nations received a map, dated 1966 from the Government of Lebanon which reflected the Government’s position that these farmlands were located in Lebanon. However, the United Nations is in possession of 10 other maps issued after 1966 by various Lebanese Government institutions, including the Ministry of Defense and the army, all of which place the farmlands inside the Syrian Arab Republic. The United Nations has also examined six maps issued by the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, including three maps since 1966, which place the farmlands inside the Syrian Arab Republic…’

Nancy Solderberg, a high-ranking official with the U.S. delegation to the UN, made a similar observation. She said: “When it was clear the Israelis were going to withdraw fully from Lebanon, Syrian and Lebanese officials fabricated the fiction that this small, sparsely populated area was part of Lebanon. They even produced a crudely fabricated map to back up the dubious claim. I and United Nations officials went into the map room in the United Nations and looked at all the maps of the region in the files for decades. All showed the Shebaa Farms clearly in Syria.

Hizbullah’s claim over Shebaa Farms

In June 18, 2000, the UN Security Council issued a statement confirming the identification of Israeli withdrawal, and noting that both sides would respect the Blue Line as identified. Moreover, the Security Council took note, “with serious concern,” of reports of violations by Hizbullah that had occurred since June 16, 2000, and called upon the parties to respect the line drawn by the United Nations.

On October 7 of that year, Hizbullah launched a daring attack into the Shebaa Farms and abducted three Israeli soldiers. In February 16, 2001, another attack was conducted by Hizbullah, it killed an Israeli soldier. In the meantime, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Hariri was reassuring the world that there will be no more outbreaks of violence in south Lebanon. In an interview, he was quoted as saying: “We have a clear agreement with our Syrian brothers in this matter…There will be no provocations on our part.”

Hizbullah, founded in 1982 with the mission of expelling Israel from all Lebanese occupied land. The organization presents itself as being a charitable organization. It holds several seats in the Lebanese parliament, and two cabinet seats in the current Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Seniora. Hizbullah is mainly funded by Iran and operates under the auspices of Syria.

The Lebanese Government allows Hizbullah’s militia to act despite Security Council Resolutions which call for all militias in Lebanon to be disbanded. In fact the Lebanese Government maintains that Hizbullah is a “national resistance group” and doe not fall under the requests of the Security Council.

Although Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon in compliance with Security Council Resolution 1559, it still maintains control over Hizbullah. Syria uses the organization to force its will on Lebanon and to keep the Israeli forces engaged until such time comes when Israel ends its occupation of the Syrian territory

Hizbullah’s critics charge it with simply using the issue to justify its existence as an armed force and to continue serving as an outpost of Iran’s Islamic revolution. But would-be peacemakers say that if Israel relinquishes the area, Hizbullah will have no excuse to continue its armed role and could better be pressured to transform itself into a normal political party. This suggestion has been made by the Lebanese Prime Minster Fouad Seniora. In an interview with Aljazeera.net, the Prime Minister of Lebanon said his government “cannot force Hizbullah to disarm as long as Israel continues to occupy the Shebaa Farms.”

For Israel, the Shebaa Farms have little strategic importance and has always been subject to return to Syria in a peace negotiations. Israel might probably accept a pullback from the Farms if Syria formally ceded the area to Lebanon.

So far Syria has been supporting, verbally, Lebanon’s claim to the area, but it has shunned any official redefinition of its borders because it still regards the territory of Lebanon, Jordan and Israel to be part of the Greater Syria that existed before World War One.

The Dispute under International Law

The International Court of Justice is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. Its prime function is to arbitrate international disputes. The court’s decisions are binding, and its broad jurisdiction encompasses cases which the parties refer to it and all matters specially provided for in the Charter of the United Nations or in treaties and conventions in force. The court may be asked to give advisory opinions at the request of the General Assembly or the Security Council or at the request of other organs and specialized agencies authorized by the General Assembly.

Paragraph 1 of Article 36 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) states the following:

“The jurisdiction of the Court comprises all cases which the parties refer to it and all matters specially provided for in the Charter of the United Nations or in treaties and conventions in force.”

In Paragraph 2 of Article 36 of the Statute, the states may at any time “declare that they recognize as compulsory ipso facto and without special agreement, in relation to any other state accepting the same obligation, the jurisdiction of the Court in all disputes concerning…(b): any question of international law…”

Chapter IV, Article 65 states that “the Court may give an advisory opinion on legal question at the request of whatever body may be authorized by or in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations to make such a request.”

Accordingly, the Lebanese government may request an “advisory opinion” from the ICJ to resolve the dispute over its territorial claims over the Shebaa Farms. Syria could be called on by the ICJ to submit an affidavit supporting Lebanon’s claim to the Shebaa Farms. The United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council may submit a request to the ICJ for an “advisory opinion”. None of that has happened yet.

Since its inception, the ICJ has ruled on many cases regarding the territorial claims. The following is an example:

• In the Case Concerning Sovereignty over Certain Frontier Land (Belgium v. Netherlands), the court traced developments that had begun before the 1839 separation on the Netherlands from Belgium, and in its judgment, on June 20, 1959, it indicated that sovereignty over the disputed plots belonged to Belgium.

• On July 8, 1991, Qatar filed in the Registry of the Court an Application instituting proceedings against Bahrain in respect of certain disputes between the two States relating to “sovereignty over the Hawar Islands, sovereign rights over the shoals of Dibal and Qit’at Jaradah, and the delimitation of the maritime areas of the two States. Bahrain contested the basis of jurisdiction invoked by Qatar. Finally the Court issued its ruling on March 16, 2001.

• On December 1, 1978, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tunisia notified the Court of a Special Agreement in the Arabic language signed at Tunis on 10 June 1977 between the Republic of Tunisia and the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. The government of Tunisia requested the Court to render its judgment on the principles and rules of international law which may be applied for the delimitation of the area of continental shelf appertaining to the Republic of Tunisia and the area of the continental shelf appertaining to the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

• On November 26, 1957, the ICJ issued its ruling on the case concerning right of passage over Indian Territory between Portugal and India. The Portuguese Government requested the Court to recognize and declare that Portugal was the holder or beneficiary of a right of passage between its territory of Damao and its enclaves of Dadra and Nagar-Aveli and between each of the latter and that this right comprises the faculty of transit for persons and goods, including armed forces, without restrictions or difficulties and in the manner and to the extent required by the effective exercise of Portuguese sovereignty in the said territories, that India has prevented and continues to prevent the exercise of the right in question, thus committing an offense to the detriment of Portuguese Sovereignty over the enclaves and violating its international obligations and to adjudge that India should put an immediate end to this situation by allowing Portugal to exercise the right of passage thus claimed. The application expressly referred to Article 36, Paragraph 2, of the Statute and to the Declarations by which Portugal and India have accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court.

• In its advisory opinion on the question put by the Security Council of the United Nations, “What are the legal consequences for States of the continued presence of South Africa in Namibia notwithstanding Security Council Resolution 276 (1970)?” On June 21, 1971, the ICJ issued its advisory opinion by stating that “the continued presence of South Africa in Namibia being illegal, South Africa is under obligation to withdraw its administration from Namibia immediately and thus put an end to its occupation of the Territory.”

• In a case between Libya and Chad, the two countries submitted to the Court a territorial dispute relating to the Aozou Strip in the Sahara. Libya’s claim as made in the case extended far to the south of that strip of land. The Court, in a judgment on February 3, 1994, found wholly in favor of Chad. After and agreement on the implementation of the judgment had been concluded between the two nations, Libyan forces, monitored by an observer force deployed by the Security Council, withdrew from the Aozou strip by May 31, 1994.

In the Middle East, as elsewhere in the world, there are territorial disputes including Sudan and Egypt on international boundary around the “Hala’ib Triangle,” a barren area of 20580 sq km. Libya claims about 19,400 sq klm in northern Niger and part of south-eastern Algeria. Kuwait ownership of Quruh and Umm al Maradim islands is disputed by Saudi Arabia. Iran occupies two islands in the Persian Gulf claimed by the United Arab Emirates: Lesser Tunb (called Tunb as Sughra in Arabic by UAE and Jazireh-ye Tonb-e Kuchek in Paersian by Iran) and Greater Tunb (called Tunb al Kubra in Arabic by UAE and Jarireh-ye Tonb-e Bozorg in Persian by Iran); it jointly administers with the UAE an island in the Persian Gulf claimed by the UAE (called Abu Mussa in Arabic by the UAE and Jazireh-ye Abu Mussa in Persian by Iran)-over which Iran has taken steps to exert unilateral control since 1992, including access restrictions and a military build-up on the island; the UAE has garnered significant diplomatic support in the region in protesting these Iranian actions.

Iran and Iraq, after their eight-year war, restored diplomatic relations in 1990 but are still to settle disputes concerning border demarcation, freedom of navigation and sovereignty over the Shatt al Arab waterway. Iraq also disputes over water development plans by Turkey for the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. And Indonesia is in dispute over two islands with Malaysia, who is in dispute with Singapore over two other islands.


For an in-depth discussion of this process, see Frederic C. Hoff, Refining Full Withdrawal: Remaking the Lebanese-Israeli Border, Middle East Insight, June 2000.
See Naomi Joy Weinberger, Syrian Intervention in Lebanon: The 1975-76 War, 1986.
See UN Security Council Report of the Secretary-General on the Implementation of Security Council Resolutions 425 (1978) and 425 (1978), Document S/2000/460, 22 May, 2000, p. 3.
See Asher Kaufman, Who Owns the Shebaa Farms? Chronicle of a Territorial Dispute, Middle East Journal, vol. 56 # 4, October 2002.
UN Security Council Resolution 350 (1974)
The Daily Star (Beirut), May 9, 2000.
The Daily Star (Beirut), May 29, 2000.
See Beyrouth 1:200,000 Sheet NI36-XII available in the U.S. Library of Congress.
World Net Daily, August 3, 2006.
See Report of the Secretary-General on the implementation of Security Council Resolutios 425 (1978) and 426 (1978).
Quoted in Nicholas Blanfon, Hizbullah Hoist by Its Own Petand, The Middle East, April 2001
BBC, What Is Hizbullah? http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4314423.htm
Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to Resolution 1559, 2004.
Aljazeera.net, July 28, 2006.
For a list of the Judgments of the International Court of Justice, visit http:www.icj-cij.org/icjwww/decisions.htm

©Copyright 2006, Gabriel Sawma. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Gabriel Sawma, a lawyer dealing with International Law, mainly the European Union Law, the Middle East Law and Islamic Shari’a law. Professor of Middle East Constitutional Law, Islamic Shari’a, Arabic and Aramaic languages. Expert witness on Islamic marriage contracts, including the mahr; expert witness on U.S.-Middle East commercial contracts. Member of the Beirut Bar Association in Lebanon; The New York State Bar Association; Associate member of the American Bar Association. Author of an upcoming book on “Islamic marriage Contracts in U.S. Courts and the Mahr.” Author of an upcoming book on conflicts in U.S. Middle East Commercial Contracts. Editor of International Law website: http://www.gabrielsawma.blogspot.com, Email: [email protected]

Tel. 609-915-2237