UN condemns Israel's latest border violation with Lebanon

By Robert Fisk, writing from the Wazzani river valley, southern Lebanon

Independent, 2 February 2001

With the naked eye, you can see the yellow bulldozer and the long trail of
dust as it pushes the foundations for a new frontier fence north into
Lebanon. The Indian UN soldiers watch it through fieldglasses. "How can we
tell how far it will go?" Major Chhahal asks. "They've been doing this
work for three days, right on the edge of Gaghar."

It all looks innocent. But it is not. Just days before the elections that
may turn Ariel Sharon into a prime minister, the Israeli army is building
a new border fence on Lebanese territory and in clear violation of UN
Security Council Resolution 425.

The UN has condemned the "violation of the Blue Line," the UN's own south
Lebanon frontier beyond which the Israelis agreed not to go. The Hizbollah
guerrillas who hounded the Israeli army out of Lebanon less than a year
ago, and who have their men watching scarcely half a mile away, are well
aware of what is happening in Gaghar  and of the excuse it gives them to
strike once more at Israeli troops.

Like all Lebanese dramas, this one has a beautiful complexity all its
own. For when the Israelis retreated last May, the UN drew its blue line
through the middle of the Arab village of Gaghar. Two-thirds of the
village is on Lebanese territory, the lower third is in occupied
Syria; the town's few hundred inhabitants are Syrian Alawites  the same
sect as Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad  who cling to their Syrian
citizenship but hold Israeli identity papers. And since the Israelis could
not build their frontier fence through the middle of the town  and since
the residents refused to accept a frontier gate on the Israeli-occupied
Syrian side  it looks as though the Israelis are willing to violate the
UN's demarcation to mark a border at least 150 feet inside Lebanese
territory.

Because they cannot run barbed wire through the village, the Israelis call
Gaghar a "soft underbelly" on the Lebanese border, through which
guerrillas could infiltrate into Lebanon. Already, Israel has violated the
blue line by sending ambush patrols into the northern, Lebanese end of
Gaghar at night.

But that is hardly the fault of the people of Gaghar. They did not ask
Israel to occupy their village when it captured the Golan Heights from
Syria in 1967 and then annexed the land against international law. The
Israelis' security problem, they say, is of Israel's own making. If Israel
left Syrian territory, it would not have to worry about this stretch of
frontier between Syria and Lebanon.

The UN, many of whose soldiers are positioned only metres from Israeli
bunkers, are well aware that they will be caught in a firefight if the
Hizbollah decide to use this violation as a justification for
attack; which is why Major General Seth Kofi Obeg, the UN's commander,
went to complain to General Gaby Ashkenazi, the head of Israel's Northern
Command, on Sunday. Not to worry, General Ashkenazi said, it is not an
annexation of Lebanese territory. It is the people of Gaghar who are
building the new fence, he went on, not the Israeli army.

This does not fool the UN. Indeed, there is as much chance that Israel
would allow Syrians under occupation to decide the route of the border
fence as there is that General Ashkenazi keeps a crocodile in his
bathroom.

So, earlier this week, Major- General Obeg's adviser, Timur Goksel, took a
helicopter along the blue line to look for himself. Flying over the gorge
of the Wazzani river, he hovered over the construction. "They are putting
in concrete foundations to 50 metres [inside Lebanon] in what looks like
preparation to extend the line northward," he said. "The Israelis are
creating another point of friction along the border."

Gaghar lies perilously close to Chebaa farms, Lebanese territory that was
policed by Syria after 1947 and then captured and, in effect, annexed by
Israel in 1967, with Golan. Already, three Israeli soldiers have been
captured by Hizbollah on the farmlands and there have been two
infiltration attempts in the past two months.

How far will the new fence stretch into Lebanon? In all, it might take in
several square miles; big enough to cause a major crisis in southern
Lebanon. Meanwhile, beyond the soft waters of the Wazzani, over the long
grass and buried minefields north of the village, the bulldozers roar
on. In three days, the UN says, it will have a better idea of where the
fence is going. Until then, Major Chhahal and his men go on watching. So
do the Hizbollah."