Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 August 2006
Issue No. 809
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The importance of place

If Hizbullah's 12 July capture of Israeli soldiers took place on the Lebanese side of the Blue Line, as some say, everything changes, writes Serene Assir

Click to view caption
Retired Lt Gen Amin Hteit, who supervised the demarcation of the Blue Line and Israel's 2000 withdrawal, points to the location in Lebanese territory where he believes Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers on 12 July; French troops arrive in the Lebanese port of Naqura to join the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on the border with Israel; Lebanese troops are welcomed by civilians

"In Lebanon," said one Beirut taxi driver with a self-proclaimed penchant for 1970s gangster films, "there's no such thing as the truth. And anyone who tells you anything different is most likely lying, or dead."

There are scores of unanswered questions in modern Lebanese history. A lot have to do with death and assassination. So far, only situational evidence has been offered to support speculation against various states and individual conspirators as to who killed President Bashir Gemayel, Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri and former Lebanese Forces militia commander Elie Hobeika. Another famous one is: Where did Iranian Imam Musa Al-Sadr, founder of the Lebanese Movement of the Deprived, really end up? Each event, and its surrounding mystery, has gone on to form an integral part of Lebanese politics and history.

Now there is a new mystery, but it involves neither car bombs nor the untimely death of a head of state. But when it comes to the question as to where Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers on the morning of 12 July, the taxi driver's statement seems to hold true with extraordinary power.

Early reports in the global media indicated that the capture operation took place on territory that is technically Lebanese. But within hours the standard story as circulated both by Lebanese and international media became that Hizbullah fighters had in fact crossed into Israeli territory, over the Blue Line. Much speculation followed to ascertain how Hizbullah militants got into Israel given that none of the barbed wire fencing set up across the Blue Line was cut. Talk of underground tunnels arose. Though Hizbullah is reported to have a complex network of tunnels inside Lebanon and into Syria, whether or not they have any leading into Israel is anybody's guess.

Though not a permanent border, the Blue Line is generally accepted (as expressed in the United Nations) as the de facto border between Lebanon and Israel. With the media accepting that Hizbullah fighters were on the Israeli side of that line, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US President George W Bush were able to convince many that Israel's bombing of Lebanon, however brutal during its 34-day rampage of its northern neighbour, was technically, according to international law, a legitimate act of self- defence. For Olmert and Bush, all violations by Israel of international humanitarian law were belittled because Hizbullah violated an international border first.

Indeed on the inviolability of territorial sovereignty, international law makes no exemptions whether or not an attacking party is a state or a non-state party. Because of this, Olmert was confident in saying that the capture operation was considered an attack by the Lebanese state, which in theory has control over everything that takes place within its territorial jurisdiction. "The fact that Hizbullah also participates in government renders it even more difficult to describe as a non-state party," said Georges Assaf, a prominent Lebanese lawyer who is currently working in collaboration with other legal experts on compiling charges relating to numerous Israeli military breaches of international humanitarian law in Lebanon.

There are those, however, who tell a different story. Retired Lt Gen Amin Hteit now spends much of his time teaching civil and corporate law at the Lebanese University in Beirut while also researching Middle East strategic affairs. Vitally, he owns the only original map in Lebanon of the Blue Line, because he, along with the UN Special Envoy Terje Roed- Larsen, was instrumental in drawing it up in 2000 following the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon.

According to Hteit, there is a road that runs along, and occasionally zigzags across, the Blue Line. Originally built during its period of occupation, Israel (and Israel only) continued to use the road even after it withdrew. The road, in effect, became for Israel a de facto Blue Line. Israel's continued use of this road, even when it crossed into Lebanon -- and thus was in violation of the agreement governing the Blue Line -- has been central to the obfuscation surrounding the question of where the two Israeli soldiers were really captured, Hteit said.

"The capture operation actually took place in the Alm Al-Shaab area of South Lebanon, by Ayta Al-Shaab," Hteit told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Here it is, on the map, the precise point where there continued to be an Israeli army post until just over a month ago," Hteit said, pointing to the location on the Lebanese side of the Blue Line.

As for the possibility of verifying Hteit's judgement, the location and its surroundings has been bombed into oblivion. "Almost immediately after the capture, and early on in the ensuing onslaught, [Israel] destroyed not only the army post but also the entire stretch of the road as it crossed into Lebanese territory," Hteit added. "In this way, Israel immediately and purposely eliminated the possibility of any real investigation."

Asked whether anyone could have witnessed the events as described, Hteit responded: "There's no one there but Hizbullah fighters." Long-serving former UNIFIL official Timur Goksel confirmed Hteit's statement, saying that, "The area is dead. No one goes there. It is virtually impossible to find anyone who could have seen anything."

Goksel, however, does not believe that the operation could have taken place inside Lebanese territory, or even that there could have been an army post on the Lebanese side of the Blue Line all these years, regardless of the fact that Israel had built the road mentioned by Hteit. "The highly sophisticated security fence that lies in most cases on the Blue Line was built by Israel for Israel's security first and foremost," Goksel told the Weekly. "For their own safety, the Israelis would not have jumped their own fence."

Goksel went on to describe events as he understood them to have happened: "Hizbullah have very sophisticated ways of getting over or indeed under fences. What I heard was that Hizbullah lured two Israeli army Humvees towards the fence by simply letting off the alarm, which goes off if you simply touch the fence. Hizbullah's fighters then waited, and ambushed the Israeli soldiers when they arrived. They then captured two and drove back in to Lebanon, killing or wounding the rest," he said.

Even if Israel's fence does not follow the exact route of the Blue Line, Goksel added, the Israelis know to stay behind it, even when the land on the other side may be technically theirs as the Blue Line governs it.

There are areas, however, where the fence eats into Lebanon, past the Blue Line, Hteit says. Israel "got rid of what remained of the barbed wire fence following the capture of the two Israeli soldiers," he said, again blasting away the possibility of verifying where the fence actually lay -- whether on the Lebanese or Israeli side of the Blue Line. But Hteit says that, having seen footage of the area on Arab television, he recognises the area where the capture took place as being Lebanese, confirmed by the presence of a road. So certain is he, Hteit is willing to testify on the location in court.

Looking back at the April 1996 agreement between Lebanon and Israel, drawn up following Operation Grapes of Wrath, it appears ever more crucial that the truth of where the Hizbullah operation took place be revealed; and more so now that legal experts in Lebanon and abroad are working on Israel's well-documented breaches of international humanitarian law. The agreement prohibits attacks on civilians by either side, but stipulates the right to self-defence in the event of breaches of territory or attack. Depending on who breached the Blue Line, the legality of self-defence rests with the aggressed.

It may appear bizarre -- so late in the day and with a UN ceasefire now well in place following a 34-day war that completely destroyed large areas of South Lebanon and south Beirut -- to ponder an issue as murky and apparently minor as this. But Hteit's statements challenge not only the generalised assumption that Hizbullah struck out first. They also provide circumstantial evidence backing claims that Israel's mass aggression on Lebanon was in the pipeline before 12 July. As Hteit says, "It would appear strange to believe both the well-proven fact that Israel pre-planned its war on Lebanon and the story that Hizbullah struck first. The two threads simply do not match."

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