Lebanese herders, Israeli military row over cows grazing near border

·2 min read

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Israeli military said on Tuesday cows which crossed from Lebanon would be returned, after cattle herders from a Lebanese border village accused Israeli soldiers of taking the animals which have grazed freely near the disputed frontier for decades.

Lebanon and Israel are in a formal state of war and have long contested their land and maritime borders.

The herders from the village of Wazzani say Israeli patrols crossed into a grey zone on Sunday between a fence that separates the countries and the 'Blue Line' that constitutes the United Nations-designated frontier, taking seven cows.

"For 20 years and more these cows are there, from the time of our grandparents, and this is the first time that someone has taken them," said villager Kamal al-Ahmad, who said he lost three cows.

The Israeli military spokesman's office said the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) had not taken the cows. It said a few cows had crossed the fence and the Blue Line from Lebanese territory during "IDF activity", after which the gate was locked.

"The cows, which are still in Israeli territory, will be returned in accordance with the relevant authorities," it said in a statement.

A cow is worth around $2,000 and the loss of an animal is significant for farmers living through Lebanon's financial crisis. "God help these people, this is their livelihood," said Ahmad al-Mohammed, head of the Wazzani municipality.

The area near a river where the Wazzani cows graze is only around 200 metres from Israel.

The two countries have been locked in a dispute over a border wall Israel started building in 2018 and over an area of sea on the edge of three Lebanese offshore energy blocks.

"We are aware of the alleged incident and we are in touch with both parties in relation to this issue," the U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said.

A U.N. peacekeeping force monitors the boundary since Israel's military withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, ending a 22-year occupation.

In Mais al-Jabal, another border village, teenager Hussein Chartouni complained last month that one of his chickens had wandered behind the border barbed wire and was snatched and never returned.

"I want my chicken," he told Reuters on Monday, using a phrase that has become a hashtag on Twitter.

(Reporting by Karamallah Daher; additional reporting by Ayat Basma in Beirut and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing By Maha El Dahan, Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Janet Lawrence)