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Drawing A Line In The Sand

Sweat dripping from the end of his nose as he labored under a blazing midday sun, Moshe Bar craned his neck and squinted, trying to sight a straight line along the new fence he was helping to build between Israel and Lebanon.

"Good fences, good neighbors," he shouted over the din of a portable generator, sounding more like New England poet Robert Frost than a rough-hewn Israeli building contractor.

In the Middle East, though, neighbors have never found it a simple matter to draw a dividing line between them.

Since the last Israeli troops and tanks rolled out of southern Lebanon on May 24, defining the new frontier between the two countries has become an exercise not only in geography, but geopolitics.

Using yellowed maps and satellite technology, U.N. cartographers have been redefining the colonial-era frontier that meanders from the Mediterranean coast to the foothills of the Golan Heights, slicing its way through stony hills, bisecting backyards, halving orchards, even dividing a village.

U.N. verification of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, expected within a matter of days, hinges on agreement that the Israelis have fallen back to the internationally recognized border, drawn in 1923 by Britain, which administered then-Palestine, and France, which had dominion over what are now Syria and Lebanon.

As the modern-day mapmakers have gone about their task, defining the 50-mile frontier with splashes of paint and stone markers, conflicting claims have bubbled to the surface.

Geographers say some ambiguities stem from the simple fact that human beings leave their mark on the landscape; they build roads, change the direction of watersheds, fill in riverbeds, plow away hilltops, eradicate landmarks.

"It becomes a question of translating the map of then to the reality of today, a physical reality that in some areas has changed," said Amnon Kartin, a professor of geography at Tel Aviv University.

Such questions involve mainly small parcels of land. But bigger regional disputes also have come into play.

Syria, which effectively runs Lebanon, has been a dominant force in discussions about the border. The Syrians initially demanded that the United Nations not verify Israel's withdrawal unless it ceded to Lebanon a strip of land in the foothills of the Golan Heights known as the Chebaa farms.

Israel, backed by the United Nations, says the territory is irrelevant to its border with Lebanon, because it was won from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

This week, pressed by a U.N. envoy, Syria grudgingly agreed to accept the U.N. position -- but the Damascus government made clear it would continue to seek sovereignty over Chebaa either for itself or Lebanon.

Also unresolved is the fate of the Israeli border village of Ghajar. Its 1,800 people, who are mainly Alawites, a fringe Muslim sect, were dismayed to learn that according to the 1923 border, part of thei community apparently lies in Lebanon.

"It doesn't make sense, my sister in one country and I in another," said Adel Shimali, a 41-year-old Ghajar resident, who showed the family's crumbling and creased original land deeds, dating to Ottoman times.

In recent days, tensions have also surfaced between Lebanon and the United Nations over the demarcation. Lebanon's state-run National News Agency reported a charged atmosphere in closed-door talks this week between Lebanese officials and U.N. cartographers, with the Lebanese raising accusations of pro-Israel bias on the United Nations' part.

Israel's army is still grappling with the problem of how to defend the new border. After its incursions into Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, Israel altered the border based on military considerations.

When Israeli troops occupied southern Lebanon, they could seize strategic hilltops as they pleased. With the new demarcation line, though, the army finds itself occupying low ground at some points along the border.

Heavy Israeli troop reinforcements are in place, although mainly staying out of sight to avoid inflaming tensions. At the Israeli border community of Mishgav Am, a lone 20-year-old soldier named Amir patrolled the frontier fence.

"Yes, I'm all alone, but if anything happens, my friends will be here in a minute," he said, waving his hand-held radio.

The new fence, nearly finished in some areas, still under construction in others will have an array of high-tech defenses, including motion sensors.

That's not enough to satisfy some residents, who pressed for Israel to keep a narrow buffer zone of a few hundred yards after the withdrawal rather than reverting to the international border.

"We are very, very vulnerable to infiltration attacks," said Ron Hazan, a former security chief for the northern communities' regional council.

Israeli leaders, though, said keeping even a small slice of Lebanese territory would have scuttled any chances for U.N. verification of the withdrawal.

In the days immediately following Israel's pullout, there was a free-for-all on both sides of the frontier, with people from either side, some armed, many angry, able to walk right up to the border fence.

After a few flare-ups of violence, both sides -- Israeli troops on the one side, Hezbollah guerrillas and Lebanese police on the other -- are now restricting movement along the frontier.

That may bring an end to the daily reunions of Palestinians in Israel with relatives in Lebanon. Separated by a pair of fences and a narrow strip of no man's land, relatives who have not seen one another for years toss fruit and flowers back and forth and exchange shouted greetings.

"I'm so happy," said Omar Khassem, who lives in Israel. On the other side of the fence, pressing against the barbed wire, were his uncle and aunt, who live in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Both were crying.
"I can't touch them," said Khassem, holding up his small son, Said, for his relatives to see. "But I can hold them in my heart."