It's about to get more complicated for town on Israel-Lebanon border

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 10, 2010 

ISRAELI-OCCUPIED GHAJAR — There's no line marking the divide between the north and south Ghajar, a village that straddles Israel's northern border with Lebanon, but soon there could be an international border between the two parts, thanks to Israel's new decision to accept a United Nations demarcation line.

For the 2,200 ethnic Syrian inhabitants — who carry Israeli passports — long at the nexus of one of the region's most complicated territorial disputes, life is about to become still more complicated.

Israel is giving the northern half to the U.N. peacekeeping force, while retaining the southern part, which according to all maps belongs to Syria.

"We are between three countries with complicated relationships, so we suffer," said Bader Bader, 30, who lives in a modest half-built house on the northern tip of Ghajar village. He's been trying to build his home for six years, but the shifting policies on his home's nationality have made it impossible.

A long, single-lane road separates Ghajar from the nearby Israeli city of Kiriyat Shmona, but Israeli soldiers, from a checkpoint outside Ghajar, monitor the comings and goings of the villagers. From their outpost, the soldiers said they can see well into Israel, Lebanon and Syria — the three countries to which the villagers are all tied.

Since 1967, when Israel wrested control of the Golan Heights from Syria, Ghajar's fate has been left to the complexities of Middle East diplomacy.

Maps of Ghajar originally put it entirely on the Syrian side of the border, but 10 years ago a U.N. cartographer ruled that the southern side of the village is on the Syrian side of the border (now controlled by Israel), while the northern portion is in Lebanon.

Following the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 ruled that Israel should leave northern Ghajar. Israel has long refused to do so, arguing that the division of the village would be used by Hezbollah to smuggle information and weapons across the border.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced to the U.N. Tuesday that Israel would begin to take steps to hand over the northern half of the village to U.N. control. Residents of Ghajar, who were caught by surprise, said they feel like pawns in the hands of regional powers and fear the decision will complicate their already difficult situation.

Bader Bader has collected armfuls of building requests, construction orders, and cancelled receipts but he can't complete his house.

"All I want to do is build a house, but nothing is simple. It is like living in a no-man's land. Nobody wants to take responsibility for us," he said.

Because his house is on the northernmost edge of the village — only 50 yards from the border — it is technically on Lebanese land, and he is unable to get the building permits from Israel or transfer materials he needs to finish building. "We know who we are, and we want a simple solution, not these complicated things that make our lives more difficult."

But he acknowledged that little is simple in Ghajar, including how Bader describes their identity: Ethnic Syrians with Israeli passports who live on legally Lebanese land.

The residents of Ghajar are Syrian-speaking Alawites — and that is where most of them still see their identity.

"We, at the end, want to see our city returned to Syria. That is where we belong, that is what we are," said Najib Al-Khatib, a spokesman for the village.

But peace talks between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights have stalled for years, with neither side predicting an imminent resolution.

"It's a bizarre existence, it is untenable," said Al Khatib, who likened life in the village to living on an island.

He questioned what life would look like when U.N. forces patrol the northern part of the city, while Israeli soldiers maintain a military presence in the south. He said the residents would legally maintain their Israeli citizenship and access to Israel, but would be living on Lebanese ground.

The details of the future arrangement, however, are unclear. The village's schools, hospital, and public facilities are all in the south, and residents are afraid that the presence of UNIFIL will complicate, not simplify, their lives.

Today no physical markers separate the north and south, but the town's inhabitants know the line — a street that looks like any other in this crowded, simple village — but ambulances, fire trucks, and other public services won't cross the invisible barrier into Lebanon.

Though Israeli soldiers patrol all of Ghajar, Israeli public services reach only its southern half. Because the north is technically in Lebanon, Israeli companies can't service phone and cable lines, electricity and water.

"This is the real problem we need solved, not more U.N. people or more complicated security arrangements," Bader said. "For years they've been telling us that they will solve this. And nothing good has ever happened."

Khatib describes how a process as simple as fixing a broken refrigerator, becomes a major undertaking. The refrigerator is either transported out of the northern village into Israeli territory, or fixed by a handyman who happens to be a northern resident. Larger companies, such as the Bezeq phone corporation, have trained local staff for the singular service of northern Ghajar residents.

"Then there is the problem of ambulances, what happens when you have a sick child in an emergency? Do you move your child like you would a refrigerator?" Khatib asked.

Ambulances were not able to reach the home of Ataf Khatib, a 23-year-old pharmacy worker, when his brother suddenly had trouble breathing.

"I took him in my car to the doctor, because I knew the ambulance wouldn't come to us," he said. As he spoke, he easily switched between Hebrew and Arabic. He works in the nearby Israeli village of Kiriyat Shmona, and attends evening classes there. Still, he's never thought of relocating.

"Nobody here talks of leaving the village, because this is our land, this is our life. It is our history."

On the construction site of his home, Bader said he can see well into Lebanon. In the distance is a Syrian mountain range.

"Of course, it would be easier to live somewhere else, to build a home somewhere else. But I am connected to this place, like my parents and grandparents. One day my children, God-willing, will be able to travel to all three countries without an army of U.N. people discussing where they can build their porch."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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