Getting Rid of Ghajar

Things were interesting in Lebanon this week, but not because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is mulling withdrawing from the northern part of the border village of Ghajar. Two other issues have been grabbing attention up north as the country prepares for next month's elections.

One was the start of deliberations by a committee examining the detention of four officers and senior officials suspected of involvement in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. The other was the cracking of alleged Israeli spy rings in Lebanon. Ghajar was relegated to the sidelines.

Even Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, whom the Israeli gesture is supposed to help, chose to keep mum. He had only one comment, that the news from Israel on the withdrawal from Ghajar "is nothing but an expression of Israeli confusion following the exposure of the Israeli spy rings in Lebanon."

Nor did Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah seize on Netanyahu's gesture to claim another victory. In any case, southern Lebanon is under Hezbollah's control and the next struggle against the "Israeli occupation" will be about the Shebaa Farms, also on the border between the Golan Heights and Lebanon. That's a proper struggle, according to Hezbollah.

Ghajar, on the other hand, is not a challenge. As far as the government is concerned, the big achievement happened in 2000 when the United Nations drew the so-called Blue Line to determine the final border between Israel and Lebanon, after the Israel Defense Forces left.

But in doing so the UN created a human tragedy, with the northern part of the village in Lebanon and the southern part in the Golan under Israel.

Who in Lebanon needs Ghajar? It's the only Alawite village in the world whose residents, some 2,000 people, hold Israeli ID cards. Even in Lebanon it's considered part of Syria. Ghajar's residents petitioned UN representatives but failed to convince them.

The border between Syria and Lebanon has not been demarcated or described in writing, the customary procedure in border agreements. The two states still dispute the line. After the UN demarcated the Blue Line, Syria found itself in an unpleasant situation. It could have claimed that Ghajar belongs to it and proved that its residents registered in the 1960s Syrian census. But so far, Syria prefers to keep quiet so as not to create another border dispute and impede the Israeli withdrawal.

The Syrians' silence annoyed Ghajar's residents, who consider themselves Syrian, not Lebanese, citizens - so Syrian that in 1967 they petitioned the Golan's Israeli governor to be annexed to Israel because they were part of the Golan Heights. Two months passed until Israel agreed to include Ghajar in its occupied territory. Ghajar was recognized as a Syrian village and Israel laid its hands on some 500 dunams (about 125 acres), transferring it to the custodian of absentee property. The reason: The landowners are registered in Syria.

The villagers' request to lease the land was rejected and the real estate was transferred "for the time being" to Kibbutz Snir. "That is until there is peace with Syria," they were told. Ghajar, by the way, was annexed to Israel in 1981 under the Golan Heights Law but was not included in the government's list of border settlements.

The phenomenon of foreigners' taking over the village is not new. Around 300 years ago, Kurds seized the village and forced its residents to sell them their lands. That's when the Kurdish governor, who represented the Ottoman ruler, changed the village's name from Taranjeh to Ghajar.

One hundred and fifty years later, a local legend says, the Kurdish governor wanted to ride his horse onto the tomb of a local holy man, Sheikh al-Arba'in. The horse refused and the next day a fire broke out, destroying the governor's shield and sword. The governor realized that the holy man was taking revenge, so he and his soldiers fled the village. The Kurds quickly offered to sell the land back to its original owners; the residents collected penny by penny and bought it from their oppressors.

This legend provides the background for the current dilemma, but it doesn't interest those who want to transfer half of Ghajar to a country it doesn't belong to.