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Lebanon-Israel border village fears being split in two

Wide view, village of Ghajar
Over the years, the village overspilled its original boundaries

By Aaron Schachter
Ghajar, Israel-Lebanon border

If the village of Ghajar were in any other place, it would be a tourist haven.

It sits at the end of a long, single-lane road at the northernmost edge of the Golan Heights.

The largest mountain in the area, which Israelis call Mount Hermon and Syrians refer to as Jebel Sheikh, looms a few miles away; the rolling hills of south Lebanon are just to the north and the Sea of Galilee shimmers in the distance to the south.

Israeli checkpoint, Ghajar
The village is now an Israeli closed military zone

But this is no ordinary town. Its beauty is surpassed by its strategic importance.

Ghajar is at the centre of a row involving Israel, Lebanon, Syria and the United Nations.

And its 2,000 or so residents are afraid that the conflict will soon result in a fence slicing their community in two.

Israeli citizens

Village spokesman Najib al-Khatib stands at the end of the street that divides the village between north and south, which he believes could soon become a physical barrier between two nations still technically at war - Israel and Lebanon.

"The public facilities are all in the southern part of the village - the school, the mosque, the cemetery, and the clinic. If the UN separates the village, how will the kids get to school every day? How will mothers go to the clinic?" he asks.

Lebanon/Israel map

Ghajar was considered part of Syria until after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel occupied the village and the Golan Heights.

Israel annexed the Golan in 1981, and residents of Ghajar became Israeli citizens.

But over the years, the village overflowed its original boundaries, spilling northwards.

This was not a problem between 1978 and 2000, when southern Lebanon was under Israeli occupation.

But when Israel withdrew in 2000, UN cartographers determined that the northern part of the village was in Lebanon.

Status quo

The UN resisted Israeli pressure to build a fence through the village at that point.

It's not dialogue for the sake of dialogue... but it's an extremely difficult and intricate problem
Yigal Palmor, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman

Israel agreed to maintain the status quo, and generally kept its troops to the southern part.

But fighters from the Islamist movement Hezbollah then began to enter the northern side and Israel turned the whole area into a closed military zone, accessible only to Ghajar residents.

In 2005, Hezbollah tried unsuccessfully to capture Israeli troops from the southern part, and a year later, seized two Israeli soldiers elsewhere on the border.

During the war that ensued in the summer of 2006, Israel retook the Lebanese section of the village.

Afterwards, it built a security fence around the northern edge of Ghajar, but also, in the ceasefire agreement, said it would withdraw all its troops to its own side.

And Israel and the UN are now negotiating this withdrawal.

'Caving in'

Ayub Kara is Israel's Deputy Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee. His ministry oversees the Golan Heights.

He believes Israel is caving in to US pressure in considering the withdrawal.

Ghajar child on bike
Many Ghajar residents consider themselves Syrian

Mr Kara says handing over the northern part of the village would be "stupid", because Israel would have to rely on the UN to police the area and keep out Hezbollah militants.

He chuckles when asked whether the UN is up to the job.

Israel hasn't been shy about expressing its distrust of UN troops in south Lebanon. It claims the UN soldiers, tasked with monitoring the ceasefire, have allowed Hezbollah to re-arm.

Israel's foreign ministry says it has recently completed three rounds of negotiations with the UN, and is expecting talks to continue.

But a senior government official said "negotiations have only revealed the depths of the problem so far".

"It's not dialogue for the sake of dialogue. We want to reach a mutually agreed solution," said foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, "but it's an extremely difficult and intricate problem."

The deal under discussion is said to propose that troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) secure the northern part of the village, with assistance from the Lebanese army. UN officials say no fence would divide the village.

But this has done little to reassure Mr Khatib: "No-one is asking us what we want and no-one is telling us anything," he says.

Woman baking bread, Ghajar
Some residents say they are tired of visits by politicians and journalists

In public, many villagers say they do not mind who ends up controlling the area, as long as their community is not divided.

But in private, most say they want to stay under Israeli control for now.

For some, this is because they hope Israel will eventually hand the Golan back to Syria.

But not for all. A young man who owns a falafel stall a few miles from the village said that like many of its residents, he considered himself Syrian, but he would rather stay in Israel.

"I've only heard stories about Syria, but I know the economy here is much better than in Syria," he says.

And it's not just Israel that is worried about Hezbollah.

Suspicious

The falafel seller hints, without saying explicitly, that he is worried about how Hezbollah, a Shia Muslim and staunchly anti-Israel movement, might treat them - Israeli citizens from the minority Allawite sect - if Lebanon were to take over even part of the village.

Hezbollah, too, is suspicious. The border between Ghajar and Lebanon has become a haven for smugglers and, Hezbollah fears, a crossing spot for Israeli spies.

As I walk through the village, I meet a woman baking wide, flat bread in a gas-fired oven.

She says she's tired of the incessant visits by reporters and politicians.

"Before 1967 no-one paid any attention to Ghajar," she said, "They didn't care. Now everyone is interested in our destiny."



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