The road over the ridge of Mount Dov, one of the most scenic routes you can drive in Israel, is closed now to all but military vehicles and the inhabitants of the little Alawite village of Ghajar on the border. Most of the heavy fighting during the last two weeks has been on other parts of the border, but no one is forgetting that this is one of the areas most coveted by Hizbullah.
Officially, Mount Dov is the organization's raison d'etre, its justification for remaining an armed force. Hizbullah and the Lebanese government both insist that the area they call the Shaba Farms is Lebanese territory and demand that Israel relinquish control of the area.
Israel's response is that the according to all available maps, Mount Dov has historically been part of Syria, and therefore it can only be dealt with in negotiations between Israel and Syria on the future of the Golan Heights.
The origins of this dispute are found in the secret agreements between Britain and France at the end of WWI. The division of Ottoman territory under the Sykes-Picot agreement put Mount Dov on the Syrian side. Despite that fact, the farmers there remained under Lebanese control and according to one of their descendents, a London-based journalist who was in Jerusalem this week, they never saw themselves as Syrians.
After Israel captured Mount Hermon in 1967, Mount Dov was cut off from Syria, becoming no-man's land. The PLO stepped into the vacuum and the area became part of the so-called Fatahland, a wild area from which the Palestinians launched terror attacks on the north of Israel. After a series of operations before and after the Yom Kippur War, the IDF finally took control of the area in the Litani Operation of 1978.
Over the last few months, Syria has indicated that it is willing to cede the area to Lebanon, but Israel remains adamant that until the UN says otherwise, the future of Mount Dov can only be decided in direct negotiations with Syria.
When Israel withdrew from the south Lebanon security zone in 2000, it spent millions to rebuild IDF positions, sometimes shifting them by less than a meter just to make sure that it fully complied with the Lebanese border as mapped out by the UN.
The UN didn't include Mount Dov in Lebanon and the organization affirmed in 2000 that Israel had completely withdrawn from the country. Now, many international interlocutors believe that relinquishing Mount Dov to Lebanese control should be part of an agreement to resolve the current conflict.
The ridge, which at some points reaches 1,900 meters above sea level, has significant strategic value. It is the only spot in Israeli territory from where the army can observe the goings-on in Lebanon's Bekaa, where Hizbullah, the Syrian army and assorted other terror organizations conduct much of their training and preparations. It covers also one of the main routes which the Syrians and Hizbullah could use to mount attacks on Israel.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Effie Eitam of the National Union, who was the commander of the northern border in the early Nineties, says that if Israel leaves Mount Dov now, "what was once Fatahland will become Hizbullahland. Only after the Lebanese army takes charge of the area and proves itself trustworthy can we even begin talking about leaving Mount Dov."
According to Eitam, "Mount Dov is the most important asset for the security of the entire area of Kiryat Shmona and the surrounding kibbutzim. It controls central Lebanon and the Sion River through which incursions into Israel can be conducted."
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ya'acov Amidror, former head of Military Intelligence's research department, says that the true importance of Mount Dov is not military. "The state of Israel can live without Mount Dov," he says, "nothing drastic will happen if we are not there. Of course it gives us significant tactical advantages but the argument shouldn't at all be about its strategic importance. "If we give away Mount Dov, it will be a clear indication to the whole world and especially to radical Islam headed by Hassan Nasrallah that they can continue getting prizes in return for their terror."
Amidror is adamant that Israel must continue to insist that the Mount Dov issue concern only Israel and Syria. "On no account can we allow the Lebanese and Hizbullah to gain anything from this attack, definitely not more territory," he says.
The problem is that this is exactly what the mediators are saying, that if Israel cedes Mount Dov as part of a wider agreement including Hizbullah's disarmament, it would allow the Lebanese side to save face and to feel that it too has gained something.