By Hamza Tekin
SHEBAA, Lebanon (AA) - The Lebanese people on Wednesday marked the passage of 16 years since the Israel army withdrew from Southern Lebanon -- after facing stiff resistance from Hezbollah -- following 18 years of occupation and conflict.
But for the people of Southern Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms region, which until this day remains partially occupied by the Israeli military, "Liberation Day" -- commemorated each year on May 25 -- is bittersweet.
Located on the border between Lebanon and the Syrian Golan Heights, the Shebaa Farms region is roughly 11 kilometers (7 miles) long and 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) wide.
Despite Lebanon’s repeated assertions that the Shebaa Farms sit on sovereign Lebanese land, the United Nations has consistently failed to press Israel to withdraw from the territory.
The "Blue Line" -- drawn by the UN following the 2000 Israeli withdrawal to separate Lebanon and the Jewish state -- put most of the territory of Shebaa Farms within the latter’s borders.
Residents of the town of Shebaa, which lies on the Lebanese side of the Blue Line, still dream of returning to their ancestral farmsteads, which lie in the part of the region still occupied by Israel.
While they, too, celebrate Israel’s withdrawal from most of Southern Lebanon 16 years ago, they criticize the Arab world’s seeming indifference to Israel’s continued occupation of their land.
"The oppressor took our land and the Arabs do nothing," Khalil Mohamed al-Saadi, 85, said, sitting outside his home in the town of Shebaa.
"Now the Arabs don’t even ask about Shebaa Farms or its people," he told Anadolu Agency bitterly.
- ‘Rightful owners’
Al-Saadi recalled the suffering of the Lebanese people in general, and those of Sheba Farms in particular, during Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000.
"We lived a very hard life under occupation; we had to get special permits [from the occupation authorities] just to enter or leave our land," he said. "I’ll never forget the suffering and humiliation."
"They were bitter days but -- thank God -- Israel eventually withdrew from most of the south," he added. "But our ordeal still hasn’t ended as our farms are still held by the occupier."
"Many people of the area have died without getting their land back," he went on. "Now I’m an old man, and the farmland has yet to be liberated."
"No one seems to care about this issue; no one is concerned with our suffering," he complained. "If our sons hadn’t found work abroad, we would have died of starvation."
Salim Ali Ghadir, a 45-year-old retired Lebanese army officer and Shebaa resident, stressed the commitment of local residents to one day returning to their homes and farms.
"We are the rightful owners of this land. We have the right to defend it from the Israeli enemy," he said. "We would rather die than abandon it."
Ghadir, too, who was briefly arrested by the Israeli army in 1985, bitterly recalled the 18-year occupation of Southern Lebanon.
"We couldn’t enter our towns and villages without being subject to humiliations and suffering, until the day of liberation in 2000 when our situation improved," he said.
"But," he added, "we still await the full liberation of our land."
On Wednesday, he went on to assert, "the Lebanese people with pride and dignity will remember the day when the Israeli enemy withdrew from most of the south".
"Liberating one’s land from occupation is the epitome of dignity," the retired army officer added. "It means everything to us."
Ghadir went on, however, to complain that the Lebanon-held parts of the region had become marginalized by the current government in Beirut, especially in terms of public services.
"Unfortunately, after the defeat of our enemy, our town suffered -- and has continued to suffer -- from marginalization by the Lebanese state," he said.
He urged the government to help provide the area with basic infrastructure, "like the construction of schools, universities, hospitals and factories".
"Because if things go on as they are now," he warned, "the people of Shebaa will continue to emigrate -- both abroad and to elsewhere in Lebanon -- which will eventually empty the town of its young people."
Ali Abo Rezig contributed to this report