After a push from US Secretary of State Pompeo and President Trump’s endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Golan, Lebanon finally seems ready to settle its southern border. The main obstacle among Lebanon’s leaders until now has been the speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri, who has wanted to settle the land and maritime borders simultaneously.
However, in a recent meeting with Major General Stefano del Col, commander of UNIFIL, Berri said “his country was prepared [to] establish a maritime border and special economic zone with Israel as long as it involved the same mechanism used in adopting the so-called Blue Line demarcation under the auspices of the UN,” according to an article in Ynetnews. The thorny issue for Lebanon is control of Shebaa Farms and other parcels in the area, which the country says are part of Lebanon although their status is the subject of conflicting claims.
The dispute is over the so-called Blue Line, drawn between Lebanon and Israel in June 2000 following the withdrawal of Israel’s military from the south of Lebanon. Despite the controversy, UNIFIL has included the area in its scope of operations since its inception.
UNIFIL would like nothing better than to have the border settled formally, although Lebanon and Israel have no formal diplomatic relations. Its hosting of tri-part meetings with military officials from Lebanon and Israel has been very effective in averting “unforeseen consequences” along the border. In fact, a senior Hezbollah official commented that it “is fully committed to working to liberate the Shebaa Farms, Kfar Shuba hills and the village of Ghajar and put them under Lebanese sovereignty.”
What may be motivating Berri is unclear but what is clear is that if Lebanon’s sovereignty over offshore gas and oil reserves is established, South Lebanon in particular would benefit from investments ranging from exploration and production to distribution logistics, bringing badly needed jobs to the area. Later this year, drilling is scheduled to begin, and Lebanon is getting ready to open additional blocks to bidding, both of which would benefit from greater security and stability in the area.
Ynetnews quoted Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese general and head of the Middle East Studies Center in Beirut, who told The Media Line that Lebanon had always sought to define its borders with Israel through UN mediation. “It’s not a new position or out of the ordinary,” he said. Having the UN mechanism as the facilitator is a natural extension of UNIFIL’s role.
To date, Israel and Lebanon have reached agreement on almost all of the issues on settling the land border, with Lebanon ceded some high areas to Israel for security purposes and being compensated with tracts of land that protect Lebanese villages. When it comes to the oil and gas potential, both countries have a stake in facilitating a solution sooner rather than later.
Recent expulsions of Syrian refugees from unlicensed camps on public land abutting public water sources is just another sad saga in building a case for repatriation sooner rather than later. According to the Al Jazeera story, Sami Alawieh, director of the Litani River Authority (LRA), said the agency sent in bulldozers to demolish the camp in southern Tyre because refugees there were polluting the already heavily contaminated river. "If the refugees erect tents on our agricultural land and their waste seeps into the ground and the river, then, of course, we need to move them," Alawieh said.
At least 180 refugees were evicted in February from an informal settlement in the nearby town of Zahrani in a similar fashion, with the LRA claiming the refugees' tents were on the site of an irrigation project. The LRA has carried out five such operations this year, evicting at least 1,500 Syrians from makeshift camps around Litani. The agency accused refugees of throwing waste into the river or in agricultural lands, blocking irrigation canals.
These evictions are being debated in public with those opposed to the continued presence of the refugees citing this as necessary to protect Lebanon’s environment. On the other hand, others accuse LRA and others of discrimination against the Syrians, creating a hostile environment to encourage them to return to Syria even if conditions are not settled for their security and safety.
HE Raya al Hassan, first female minister of the interior in Lebanon, was recently interviewed by Al Arabia about security issues in Lebanon and the region. Among other topics, she spoke about the important role that the US was playing in Lebanon. “The Americans are one of the most important supporters, especially in the field of training and arming of the internal and general security forces. There are also other donors such as the British and the EU and the French and we are lucky that there is serious work by donors to support the official security forces in Lebanon.”
Regarding the status of the Syrian refugees, she pointed out that she was the deputy head of the Future Movement and “Our position as the Future Movement, I represent a political party as well, is that we want the Syrians to go back home as soon as possible, as long as their return is safe and fast. We do not want to force any Syrian to return without guaranteeing his or her safety.”
She stressed the need to create a new culture within the security services that moves from being perceived as oppressors to protectors. “Absolutely, I mean a cultural change in the gendarmerie, which is how to preserve security within the approach of human rights. The citizens have rights and we must treat them with respect, and tell them that we are protecting you, and we do not want to oppress you. We are working to help you, we want to improve traffic. There are several things that we’re trying to apply through practices that several projects are adopting, in public security or internal security forces, which mostly deals with citizens.”
So what do the Lebanese do while the government debates? Beirut has set a new Guinness World Record for the number of national flags raised in a city for 24 hours. The Beirut Alive Association raised a total of 26,852 Lebanese flags, breaking New York’s Waterloo record of 25,599 flags. This bit of information comes from a Gulf News post, which noted that “The event was organized under the patronage of Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, represented by MP Rola Tabsh, at the Nejmeh Square in downtown Beirut…” MP Tabsh pointedly said, “Today they were capable of raising thousands of Lebanese flags to enter the Guinness book. This is a national initiative which reflects Beirut’s role and which implicates no flag other than the Lebanese will be raised in Beirut.”