A Practical Line: The Line of Withdrawal from Lebanon and Its Potential Applicability to the Golan Heights

By Hof, Frederic C. | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

A Practical Line: The Line of Withdrawal from Lebanon and Its Potential Applicability to the Golan Heights


Hof, Frederic C., The Middle East Journal


This article examines how the United Nations created a "line of withdrawal" to confirm the departure of Israeli forces from Lebanon. The process by which this line -known popularly as the "Blue Line" - came into being was controversial, probably inconsistent with (if not in violation of) the Israeli-Lebanese General Armistice Agreement. Yet the end result may have been the best obtainable given the unhelpful attitudes of Israel, Lebanon and Syria. For all of its apparent shortcomings, the process of drawing the line was pragmatic and flexible. It left Lebanon and Israel with an opportunity to pacify their long-troubled frontier and eventually demarcate their border jointly, either in the context of a peace treaty or a revived armistice. Perhaps a similar approach, taking into account fundamentally different circumstances, can be employed to facilitate the creation of an Israeli-Syrian boundary.

Between 1920 and 1924 Great Britain and France implemented a single boundary separating the British Palestine Mandate from French-mandated Syria and Greater Lebanon. This "1923 international boundary" ran from Ra's An Naqurah (Ra's al-Naqura) on the Mediterranean coast to the Yarmouk River village of Al-Hamma. In 1949 it was replaced by two distinct Armistice Demarcation Lines (ADLs): one between Lebanon and Israel, replicating the expired mandate boundary between Lebanon and Palestine; and the other between Israel and Syria, deviating significantly from the 1923 line as a result of fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

The Arab-Israeli War in June 1967 all but obliterated the United Nations-supervised armistice regime which had created these ADLs. The Syria-Israel ADL in the Jordan Valley wound up well to the rear of Israeli forces occupying the Golan Heights. As for the line between Israel and Lebanon, Beirut's prudent refusal to fight in the June 1967 War was only a prelude to over three decades of violence which came to a halt, at least temporarily, on 24 May 2000, when Israel announced that its military units had returned home. This article will examine key aspects of the process by which the UN confirmed the Israeli withdrawal, and speculate about the potential for a UN role in defining and marking a boundary between Israel and Syria.

LEBANON-ISRAEL: BOUNDARY OR ARMISTICE LINE?

As we shall see, in theory the 1923 international boundary and the 1949 ADL were identical. Yet all of the parties involved in this process, for reasons of their own, found it convenient to use 1923 as the central reference point. For Israel, the fact that the ADL was marked in 1950 under UN supervision threatened, in 2000, to partition at least one strategic kibbutz. For Lebanon, any reference to the 1949 armistice implied frontier security responsibilities which it wished to evade in deference to Syrian interests. For the UN, establishing a line for the purpose of confirming Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon was the vital precondition to fulfill its peacekeeping responsibilities in southern Lebanon. If the parties wished to pretend that the armistice was a dead letter, the UN was ready to skip over 1949 and go all the way back to 1923.

Until the advent of Israel in 1948 and the outbreak of fighting between the Jewish State and its neighbors, the Palestine-Lebanon portion of the international boundary ratified by Great Britain and France in 1923 was undisputed and generally peaceful. Lebanon's role in the first Arab-Israeli war was very circumscribed, but in October 1948 eighteen Lebanese villages were overrun by Israeli forces. In March 1949 a General Armistice Agreement restored this territory to Lebanon in full.1

The signing of an armistice meant that a state of war still existed; that Lebanon was not prepared to break ranks with the Arab League by recognizing Israel. Still, neither party asserted territorial demands beyond Lebanon's insistence that the occupied villages be returned.2 They readily agreed that their ADL - the line over which military and civilian personnel were forbidden to cross - "shall follow the international boundary between the Lebanon and Palestine. …

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