SHEBAA FARMS, Lebanon: From a lofty vantage point in a rocky outcrop overlooking a swathe of the Shebaa Farms, Major Sherap Dorjee Bhutia of UNIFIL’s Indian battalion keeps a wary eye on a flock of goats approaching a small pond at Birket Naqqar far below.
The pond is bisected by the U.N.-delineated Blue Line and local shepherds know their flocks can only drink from the northern half which lies in Lebanese territory. But the dry summer months have started and, as the water evaporates, the pond shrinks, reducing the Lebanese share of the water and drawing the animals ever closer to the Blue Line.
“The Israelis complain to UNIFIL headquarters all the time that shepherds are breaching the Blue Line with their flocks here even when we can see they are not,” Bhutia said. “It’s a form of keeping up the pressure on us.”
Such is peacekeeping in the Shebaa Farms today. With not a shot having been fired across this stretch of the Blue Line since the end of the July war five years ago, UNIFIL’s chief daily problem is shepherds wandering into the Shebaa Farms and being seized by Israeli soldiers. Between October 2000 and 2006, however, regional and international diplomats fretted that Hizbullah’s periodic “reminder operations” of mortar and rocket bombardments of Israeli outposts in the Farms would trigger a war.
Bhutia, the commander of the Indian battalion’s Charlie Company, which operates in the vicinity of Shebaa village, said much effort is exerted to build bonds of trust between UNIFIL and local shepherds and to try and teach them exactly where the unmarked Blue Line lies.
“They are good people and when we see them approaching the line, we give them a call on their mobile phone and ask them to come back and they say okay. It’s not based on orders but on a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect,” he said.
Charlie Company mans three small observation posts on the Blue Line. OP Two consists of a tiny prefabricated hut on a bluff of fissured limestone more than 1,500 meters high overlooking Birket Naqqar and the upper reaches of the Shebaa Farms. From this rocky crag, the soldiers can keep an eye on the shepherds and their flocks of goats as they amble across the steep mountainside. They also have a clear view of the rear of the Israeli army’s Roueisat Alam position which overlooks Kfar Shuba. The flat-roofed concrete bunkers with their observation slits can be seen along with the red and white striped radio masts, panels of protective anti-missile mesh fencing and a Merkava tank parked on a platform beside the outpost.
In the stillness of a summer morning, it is a tranquil spot. An eagle launches itself from an outcrop of rock and rides the thermals head cocked sideways for potential prey in the bushes below. Around 20 wild boar splash and frolic in a small pool of water until a passing U.N. vehicle sends them trotting back into the dense undergrowth in alarm.
There is some Israeli activity as well. The attention of the Indian peacekeepers is focused on a squad of Israeli soldiers who set up a camouflaged observation point earlier in the morning further up the hillside. An Israeli soldier stands up and trains his binoculars on OP Two as the Indian peacekeepers stare back at him through their own sets of binoculars.
Below OP Two, a caterpillar-tracked back hoe is widening an Israeli army supply road. A military humvee bristling with antennae pulls up beside the back hoe. Two Israeli soldiers wearing floppy hats climb out with their rifles and settle down in the shade on the side of the road.
The Israelis began constructing these supply roads in early 2001 shortly after Hizbullah launched its campaign to liberate the Farms. Some of the first attacks saw anti-tank missiles fired at passing Israeli army vehicles.
The new roads were hidden from the Lebanese side of the Blue Line thus denying Hizbullah targets with their line-of-sight missiles.
But following the recent May 15 “Nakba Day” protests which drew tens of thousands of Palestinian marchers to the border at Maroun al-Ras, there has been some speculation of mounting a similar march on the Shebaa Farms.
There are four main access points into the Farms – Birket Naqqar south of Shebaa, the Hassan gate southeast of Kfar Shuba, another gate due south of Kfar Shuba and via Majidieh, the Arslan family estate at the foot of the mountainside.
If separate groups of determined marchers entered all four gateways simultaneously and followed the supply roads into the Farms, they could theoretically cut off the frontline outposts of Roueisat Alam, Jabal Summaqa and Ramta.
The Israeli troops in those three forward positions would have to choose between opening fire on the crowds to prevent them moving along the roads, sitting tight in their outposts and allowing diplomacy to resolve the situation, or abandoning the positions before the supply roads can be physically blocked by civilian marchers.
Still, judging from the reaction of Israeli troops on May 15 when 10 Palestinians were shot dead and over 100 others wounded, a march on the Shebaa Farms would likely conclude in similarly bloody fashion.
For now at any rate there appears to be little political appetite for another confrontation along the Blue Line. That leaves Bhutia and the rest of UNIFIL’s Indian battalion free to continue worrying about errant shepherds.
Israeli Army attempts to capture Shepherd
The Lebanese Army announced Friday that Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms tried to capture a Lebanese shepherd, in “a new violation” of U.N. Resolution 1701.
In a statement, the army said two 10-man Israeli patrols violated the Blue Line in Saddaneh in the Shebaa Farms at 1:30 p.m. and crossed 250 meters into Lebanon, in a bid to capture the shepherd.
The Israelis withdrew several hours later after being unable to complete their mission, following a deployment by Lebanese Army troops, the statement said.
Security sources said the shepherd, who was identified as Alaa Nabaa, informed the army of the Israeli moves and managed to flee.
A UNIFIL spokesperson said the international force is investigating the incident. “Of course we are aware of the statement by the Lebanese Army and at the moment we are working with both parties to ascertain the facts,” Andrea Tenenti said.