GHAJAR, January 15 (JMCC) - Israel
’s plan to withdraw its troops from northern Ghajar, a village on the flashpoint border with Lebanon, may prove to be more of a headache than a political panacea.
The Israeli security cabinet on November 17 gave the Foreign Ministry 30 days to coordinate a withdrawal date with UNIFIL, the United Nations force deployed across southern Lebanon. Weeks past that deadline, negotiations continue.
“Nothing is new about the situation. Negotiations between UNIFIL and Israel are continuing. We are very near to a decision but it will take time,” says Likud Knesset
Member Yossi Peled, who has been appointed as liaison between the Israeli government and the village. “I don’t know when a withdrawal date will be announced.”
Ghajar embodies the complexity of land disputes in the Middle East. The village was originally in Syrian territory, but Israel seized it, along with the Golan Heights during the 1967 war with neighboring Arab states. The village has remained occupied by Israel since, except for a brief six-year stint when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, sending the ‘Blue Line’- the border drawn by the UN in 2000 - through the heart of the tiny village.
The 2,200 residents of Ghajar are mostly Syrian Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam. They have loudly rejected the proposal.
“We have tried to tell the UN that we have no connection with Lebanon,” says Hussain Hatib, secretary of the mayor of Ghajar. “We totally disagree with the decision of turning part of our village over to Lebanon.”
If the unilateral withdrawal goes ahead, the approximately 1,500 residents of the northern half of the village will find themselves residents of Lebanon – a country with which most have never had contact.
“I don’t know why UNIFIL decided to put us into Lebanon. The village is from Syria,” says Ramzi who works as a park ranger in Israel, sounding baffled.
Most residents feel no connection to Lebanon, and are concerned about how they may be treated in Lebanon. “[Many Lebanese] already say that maybe we are spies collaborating with Israel,” says one driver. “We will not be given citizenship in Lebanon, we will be refugees.”
Unlike many of the residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the villagers of Ghajar have adopted Israeli citizenship and are relatively well-integrated into Israeli society. Arabic remains the first language of the village, but Hebrew is spoken widely and fluently. Most of the villagers work in the surrounding nature parks or in the Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona. Those living in the north are concerned they would lose these jobs.
Residents also fear that the pullout will entail placing a rigid barrier through the center of the village, leading to the permanent separation of north from south . For many citizens this may mean never again seeing friends and family who live on the other side.
“I am in the north, my father lives in the south,” says Youssef, a father of three, as he waits at the Israeli checkpoint to enter the
“My sisters and family live in the south, but I am in the north,” says Touma. “We do not want to be separated.”
The villagers complain of a total lack of dialogue between them and those deciding their fate.
“Nobody told us about the plan. We read about the plan in the newspaper, saw it on the TV, but no government member or UN official visited us,” says Yousef.
“No one told us anything,” says Ghajar Hussain Hatib, Secretary of the Mayor.” No official came to explain anything.”
A UNIFIL official refused to comment on the question of whether there had been any interaction with Ghajar residents.
“We have been discussing all this time with the parties is precisely how to best address the humanitarian concerns of the people of northern Ghajar in the context of IDF's withdrawal from the area,” says Neeraj Singh, spokesperson for UNIFIL. “At this stage of our discussions with the parties, it will be counterproductive to discuss the details in public.”
MK Peled visited the village for the first time on December 7. During the visit he sought to re-assure villagers that they would not be separated. “I went to promise [the people of Ghajar] that they will have all the civilian services they need,” says Peled. “If they need an ambulance, we will send one. They will be able to move freely to [the Israeli town] of Kiryat Shmona.”
“People will be able to move freely, the village will be connected. We are not going to put any obstacle on the Blue Line – it will be an international border [but not with a barrier],” says Peled.
Refusing to comment on the villager’s Syrian attachment, he merely said, “It will be a strange situation.
Practical details of remain unclear, however. “If we come to the agreement, UNIFIL will be responsible for the north part, outside the village,” says Peled. “If we withdraw, the difference will be that we will not have a military presence in the north.”
For six years between 2000 and 2006, Israel pulled back from the north of Ghajar. However, Israel reoccupied the area, deeming the UNIFIL border force too weak, after smuggling into Israel increased and it was discovered that Hezbollah was using smugglers as spies for information on Israel.
On this background, the idea of maintaining a fluid border for Ghajar’s residents seems unlikely, and the chance of finding a deal that satisfies Israel’s security guarantees, highly problematic. In the meantime residents wait, concerned that their jobs, nationality and country of residence still hang in the balance.