Mideast's Lesson in Cartography ; Yesterday, Lebanon Accused Israel of Infringing Its Borders as Mapmakers Continued to Demarcate Lines

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A small team of United Nations peacekeepers and Lebanese Army officers puffs toward a sweltering summit along Lebanon's frontier with Israel and Syria.

Instead of toting weapons and flak jackets - the standard here during more than two decades of Israeli occupation - these soldiers are carrying maps, compasses, laptop computers, and hand-held satellite positioning units.

Though UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week declared that Israel has completely pulled out of Lebanon - a view supported by the Security Council - Lebanese complaints of a string of continuing Israeli violations complicated the UN chief's Mideast trip this week.

For Mr. Annan it was a hard lesson in the power of cartography, in a region where every line drawn in the sand carries the freight of centuries of history and conflict. To be sure, borderlines anywhere in the world can be, and often are, flashpoints.

And in the Mideast, where the political dialogue is often suffused with strategic opacity, the precision of any exact demarcation is anathema.

Still, as the Arab-Israeli conflict matures toward a possible resolution of half a century of conflict, the maps of would-be peacemakers across the region are taking on significance like never before.

"Borders are important, because every inch is the difference between occupied or liberated land," says Brig. Gen. Amin Hoteit of the Lebanese Army, as he squints through binoculars at the northern Israel landscape. "There is an important human freedom at stake, when this land has cost so much in blood," General Hoteit says.

In the end, Mr. Annan's visit this week helped defuse a crisis: Israel promised it would resolve what one Western official called "hanky-panky" on the border, referring to encroachments by Israel.

Violations may appear small to outsiders - they include an Israeli Army tent pitched just inside Lebanese territory, a truck that has been moved back and forth across the line, and a couple of lookout posts 50 to 100 yards on the wrong side of the line. But the Lebanese are taking assiduous care in dealing with them.

"Establishing borders in the Middle East means bringing peace to these countries," says Vladamir Bessarabov, a Russian cartographer with UN. "Until very recently, Israel did not have any borders here, and this part of the Lebanon-Syria border was never fully defined."

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978, and then established a nine-mile deep occupation zone in southern Lebanon in a bid to stop cross- border attacks. In recent years, increasing casualties led Israeli public opinion to favor a pullout, which Prime Minister Ehud Barak carried out abruptly on May 24 as Israel's allied Lebanese militia crumbled.

There are no shortage of lines that crisscross the Middle East, like a tangled web that for decades has supported self-serving definitions of unpalatable realities. There are "green lines," armistice, cease-fire, and "operational" lines, and borders that date to the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Many lines have been fluid, changing in 1948, 1967, 1973, 1978, 1979, 1982 and during the 1990s as the Jewish state conquered, lost, or returned Arab territory for peace. From Libya to Iran, numerous political "red lines" exist.

And now another line has been created by the UN to verify the Israeli withdrawal here, though it doesn't exactly match the 1923 border that Israel, Lebanon, and the UN all recognize will be the basis for the final boundary.

UN officials say they are not in the business of demarcating any final border. That is the responsibility of the parties to come with an accord, and survey teams will do it. But helping both the Lebanese and Israelis resolve military issues now is their mandate. …