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Why regional conflict molders in south Lebanon

Israeli troops left south Lebanon a year ago.

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Abu Haidar gazes through the bushes at an Israeli military outpost breaking the skyline of a distant ridge. Dressed in US Army fatigues, his face smothered in green and black paint, and standing beside his Soviet-era Sagger antitank missile, Abu Haidar explains why he and his fellow Hizbullah fighters are here.

"Our land will not be liberated through negotiations, but through blood," he says, echoing the familiar strain of the Hizbullah, or Party of God, the Islamic organization supported by Syria, which long fought Israeli occupation of Lebanon's southern border.

But one year after Israeli troops withdrew from the "security zone," a narrow strip along the south Lebanon border, ending its 22-year occupation, a new conflict has erupted in a mountainous territory known as the Shebaa Farms.

Given the escalating tensions in the Mideast, the Shebaa Farms is widely viewed as a potential flashpoint that could spark a war between Israel and Syria, the dominant powerbroker in Lebanon. "It's a very dangerous situation," says Timur Goksel of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). "The Shebaa Farms is definitely a potential ignition point. Escalation is very possible."

The 15.6-square-mile area - with its mountain peaks of frost-shattered limestone and plunging, scrub-covered ravines - is the focus of international concern and repeated calls for restraint on both sides.

Hizbollah's 18-year war of attrition against Israeli troops in south Lebanon sapped public support in Israel for the "security zone."

The 14 farms of Shebaa were originally owned by Lebanese nationals, but the territory was included inside Syria when Lebanon's borders were demarcated in the 1920s.

Syria ceded the district to Lebanon in the 1950s, but the agreement was never formally ratified. The area was later occupied by Israel during the invasion of the adjacent Golan Heights in the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967.

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