Akram Kanaan looked toward an Israeli military position on a snow-capped mountain that overlooks the village of Chebaa in southern Lebanon, pointing toward the scenic area captured by Israel more than five decades ago. No matter how long it takes, he says, it will eventually return to Lebanon’s sovereignty.
Like many others in this area where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet, Kanaan a member of Chebaa’s municipal council is angry about President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, seized from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981. The American president has no right to give Israel lands that belong to Syria and Lebanon, he says.
“These are Arab territories that will be liberated sooner or later the way the south was liberated,” said Mr. Kanaan standing near Chebaa’s main school as its buses left the compound at the end of a school day.
Mr. Trump’s move last month has caused concern among Lebanese officials that it would mean also recognizing the occupied Chebaa Farms and nearby Kfar Chouba hills, captured along with the Golan, as Israeli territory. Lebanese President Michel Aoun said the U.S. recognition undermines Lebanon’s claim to the territory.
The origin of the dispute over ownership of the Chebaa farms dates back to the French colonial period, when France drew maps of the area without officially demarcating the border.
Following an 18-year occupation, Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, but held on to the farms. Hezbollah claimed the withdrawal to be incomplete and demanded, along with the Lebanese government, that Israel withdraws. Israel rejected the demands, saying the land was Syrian when it was captured in 1967. Syria has held an ambiguous position and generally refuses to demarcate the border before Israel withdraws from the Golan.
The U.N., which doesn’t recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan, has said Lebanon’s claim is to be settled along with the Golan’s fate.
The territory is controversial, even among Lebanese themselves.
Although most Lebanese agree that the Chebaa Farms and Kfar Chouba hills are part of their country, anti-Syrian politicians have suggested it serves as a pretext for Hezbollah to hang on to its weapons and have called for the demarcation of the Lebanon-Syria border, a demand repeated by Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Wednesday even as he said the territory is Lebanese.
Politicians allied with the Syrian government say there is no need for such demarcation.
The area this week looked more like a tourist attraction, albeit deserted, rather than a front line, with rivers and springs flowing, birds chirping and shepherds leading their herds in the mostly green area amid clear weather.
According to Mr. Kanaan, the total size of the Lebanese area still occupied by Israel since June 1967 is about 250 square kilometers (96 square miles or about 2.5% of Lebanon’s total territories.
Mr. Kanaan says the occupied area is owned by Lebanese citizens and that many of them have documents proving their ownership registered in the Lebanese coastal city of Sidon, the provincial capital of south Lebanon.
Arab countries have unanimously rejected the U.S. recognition of Israeli control over the Golan, calling the Trump administration’s policies unfairly biased toward Israel.
On the edge of Chebaa, shepherds were seen taking their herds of sheep and goats near a fence built by Israel. About every 100 meters (109 yards white and blue barrels marked the so-called blue line, or the border that the U.N. drew after Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.
The area has been calm since August 2006 after a U.N. Security Council resolution ended a 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group.
Soldiers at Lebanese army checkpoints on roads leading to Chebaa and Kfar Chouba checked the identity cards of people visiting the area to make sure no strangers enter. White U.N. vehicles with light blue flags could be seen along the fence that marks the border.
Near al-Naqar lake, three U.N. peacekeepers stood outside their armored personnel carrier keeping an eye on any suspicious move. Next to them stood a giant poster with a picture of late Egyan President Gamal Abdul-Nasser and one of his famous quotes that reads- “What was taken by force can only be regained by force.”
Andrea Tenenti, spokesperson for the U.N. force in southern Lebanon known as UNIFIL, said the issue of Chebaa is one that is “discussed in New York at U.N. headquarters and not part of our mandate. Nevertheless, the position of member states is not necessarily the position of the United Nations,” Tenenti said when asked about Trump’s decision.
“Nothing has changed, and we are continuing with our work in the south of Lebanon, to monitor the cessation of hostilities and to work closely with the Lebanese army,” he said.
In nearby Kfar Chouba, shops were open in its main square where a group of people gathered at the main bakery, while others bought freshly picked vegetables and fruits.
“With deep regret, this guy who is called Trump who is the president of the United States of America, the most important country in the world, is acting like a thug,” said grocer Riad Khalifeh who was 23 when Israeli forces captured the hills overlooking his hometown of Kfar Chouba in 1967.
“Who gave you the right to give a land that belongs to me or to Palestine or to Syria to an enemy that is occupying it?” Khalifeh asked.