I was tending the goats with my brother, sister and cousin,” says Mohammed Abedelaal, the son of a southern Lebanese farmer. “They crossed first, but it exploded when I did. I stepped on a cluster bomb. I lost this leg. And this leg was…”
Mohammed and thousands like him are victims of the tension between Lebanon and Israel that has often made the border area a battleground of invasion, occupation and territorial disputes.
When Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon in May 2000, the United Nations created the “Blue Line”, or “Line of Withdrawal”, to establish that Israel had withdrawn fully from Lebanese territory. As with many artificial borders between countries, the Line not only cuts through some Lebanese villages, it also created areas that have become hotly disputed between the two countries.
One such area is the Shebaa Farms, a slice of land at the eastern end of the Blue Line near the Golan Heights, themselves occupied by Israel since 1967. Lebanon lays claim to the Shebaa Farms, but the UN ruled that they belong to Syria, and Israel says it will only withdraw from the area through future negotiation with Syria.
The Shebaa Farms story goes back to the 1967 war when Israel invaded the West Bank, Sinai and the Golan Heights, including the Farms. A decade later, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1978 and again in 1982 to combat Palestinian presence there.
When the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) left Beirut for Tunisia after the 1982 invasion, Israel retreated – but remained in the south through its proxy, the South Lebanon Army.
Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 did not include pulling out of the Shebaa Farms, to the anger of Lebanese MP Qassim Hashim who accuses Israel of frequent violations of the Blue Line.
“The Israeli enemy flagrantly breached the gate of Abbasiyeh in the occupied area,” says Hashim. “They advanced and erected barbed wire in this area … Since 2000, this enemy has always been trying to create a new reality,” he said.
“Their aim is to occupy more land. One way or another. We decided, with the people of Abbasiyeh, El Wazzani and the Arkoub villages with our strong will, and by our hands, to remove this fence ourselves since the United Nations didn’t respond to our demands.”
The Shebaa Farms are one of the disputed areas along the Blue Line, claimed by both Israel and Lebanon. [Reuters/Alistair Lyon]
The Abbasiyeh Gate protest led to a tense stand-off involving the Lebanese military, UNIFIL peacekeepers and Israeli soldiers behind the fence. Eventually, all sides backed off.
The Blue Line is patrolled by UNIFIL – a so-called ‘interim’ peace-keeping force that has been there since 1978 – but this has not stopped what Hashim alleges is Israeli encroachment onto Lebanese land, like the re-occupation of the northern half of the village of Ghajar, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
In 2006, a full-scale war broke out between Israel and the Lebanese armed group, Hezbollah. Around 1,200 Lebanese were killed, mainly civilians, as were some 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers. The 33-day war ended inconclusively but left a lasting legacy. Towns and villages were devastated, local infrastructure damaged and communities, families and relationships badly fractured.
As part of the reconstruction effort, some Lebanese expats and local residents began a concerted effort to build sizable properties, as a way of imposing their presence on the border area.
“Those without weapons saw reconstruction as a form of resistance,” explains Mohammed Alsayed, owner of a house near the border with Israel. “The reconstruction started after the July  war. After the destruction, you’d think people would build small houses with just a room, kitchen and a bathroom.”
Instead, they’ve built ostentatious homes; and with the help of investors, economic development has begun along the Blue Line.
“Tourism in a place of danger means defiance and resistance,” according to Zahra Abdallah, owner of El Wazzani Tourist Village, a project designed to promote the area as well as create jobs.
“At the same time, it means love for life and freedom. It means peaceful resistance. We wanted to fulfil the dream of our family…We want to use the last grain of sand in our land. This is our right,” says Abdallah.
This regional border tension shows no sign of abating; in fact, in December 2017, it increased when Israel announced it planned to build a wall along the whole of the Blue Line.
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