Ghajar Says Don't Fence Me In'

In the divided village of Ghajar, they're building new homes as quickly as they can, worried that Israel will move the border and they will end up in Lebanon.

There's a building boom in Ghajar. On practically every street workers are hammering and laying cinder blocks, building new homes. In most, the roofs have already been laid.

Ahmed Vanus, a builder and village resident is putting up a house for his sons. He's been planning it for more than two years, even before the period of uncertainty that began last summer, but the motives for the housing boom are obvious to him. "We have to exploit the opportunity. If they return us to Lebanon, at least we'll have a house, so we don't sit in the street," he says, leaning on the window frame on the second story of the new house. "I don't need anything fancy, but at least let there be a house. In Lebanon, it's hard to get cement. It takes a long time." He's not building a shelter, just a basement.

Vanus scoffs at the assertion that the building boom is being helped along by the lack of zoning inspectors from the regional council. "They told the inspector a lot of people were building here. He came five times before the army let him in. By law, he's not allowed to come in, but he did, because he's Circassian," Vanus laughs. "For him, the point is to catch people. But the fact is most people are building with permits."

Other Ghajar villagers also say the fear that the village will be transferred to Lebanon is the main reason for the construction boom. Indeed, despite all the explicit promises from Israel that there's no intention to move the village - in reality the fence demarcating the border - to Lebanon, the residents are nervous. The new stretch of security fence, finished in recent weeks, justifies their fears.

The fence that goes around Israel's borders doesn't always follow precisely the boundary lines. Sometimes, for security reasons, technical feasibility, or just convenience, it runs a dozen or two meters, and sometimes up to a hundred meters, inside Israeli territory - usually to circumvent a particularly steep hill or a thicketed river bed or woods. Only in Ghajar does the fence leave Israeli citizens, half of the villagers, stuck in an area between a security fence and the actual border - and another half of the village is on the other side of the border, inside Lebanon.

Until 1967, Ghajar was a Syrian village on the Syrian-Lebanese border. In 1967, it was captured by Israel when the IDF took the Golan Heights. Apparently the northern part of the village was then already inside Lebanese territory, but it was only when Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000, that the UN drew the international border between Israel and Lebanon. It turned out this "Blue Line" runs precisely through the middle of Ghajar at its narrowest point, cutting it in two, with the northern part inside Lebanon, and the southern part inside Israel.

Vehement opposition by the residents prevented marking a border inside the village. On the other hand, despite encouragement from the defense establishment, the residents were unable to build the fence they wanted on the northern side, inside Lebanese territory. Hezbollah troops threatened them, and the villagers ceased work. That left the northern side of the village wide open to Lebanon, and in the summer of 2001, some Lebanese entered the village, convincing the IDF Northern Command that the situation was intolerable. They declared the village a closed military area.

Since it was impossible to run the security fence through the village, precisely on the border, the army decided to put it on the eastern and southern sides of the village, despite opposition from the villagers and the regional council. In the last few weeks, the fence was completed. It runs a straight line from Mt. Dov eastward, but when it gets to the village, a few dozen meters north of the entrance, it turns south, parallel to the houses.

Some residents are afraid of the proximity of their settlement gate to the Hezbollah patrols on the northern side of the village and along the security fence. The villagers demanded that the fence include the cemetery on the eastern side of the village, but an area of land reserved for the village's growth is not inside the demarcated area. "When you run out of space in the village and need to build, we'll move the fence," the villagers say the defense establishment promised them. In any case, two brown horses were unimpressed by the fence and its electronics when they found the village gate open this week - and ambled right through as we watched.

The T- word

The real worry in Ghajar as to their objections to the fence, was transfer - that it would be the first step toward moving the entire village into Lebanon. That's the reason for the massive building boom, and the fear of being moved to Lebanon includes a number of factors. There is loyalty to Syria, at least rhetorically; there is acceptance of the clear advantages of being Israeli citizens (though it's not something they boast of loudly) compared to being Lebanese; and there is ownership of land inside Israel, most of which is outside the area that has been fenced.

Ghajar's residents are Alawite Muslims, like the presidential family in Syria, and they are the only Alawites in Israel. When asked about the possibility of being moved from Israel to Lebanon, they prefer to say "We're not Lebanese, we're Syrian." But unlike the Druze from the four villages on the Golan Heights that came under Israeli rule in 1967, the identification with Syria in Ghajar is not absolute. The residents agreed to accept Israeli citizenship in 1981.

"Nowadays, if you live in this country, you need an identity card, if you want to come and go," says Hussein Hatib, the secretary of the Ghajar Local Council. "Besides, our situation is very different from the Druze. Because of our distance and isolation from the surroundings, we stay at home." Vanus likes to quote village mayor Salman Hatib: "We aren't going to Syria, they're coming to us."

Ghajar is surrounded by 11,000 dunams of agricultural land used mostly for cattle grazing and raising hay. The new security fence, which runs close to the built-up area of the village, seemingly cuts off the residents from their land, which in their view is their only real asset that they have had through all the turmoil that's passed over and through their village.

"We don't care if they put the fence on the edge of Ghajar, and turn it into the border," says the village secretary, Hatib. "That's been our objection all along. Not that the village be Syrian or Lebanese, just that we have access to all our land and property."

But conversations with the residents reveals that the possibility of becoming landowners in Lebanon or Syria is the least of all evils for them, slightly better than being transferred to Lebanon or Syria with nothing to their names. More than they are Syrians who don't want to be Lebanese, they are Israelis who want to remain Israelis, so for them, the fence is a threat. The improvement in their economic circumstances compared to the years under Syrian rule is obvious (as it is on the Golan) - they even enjoyed a little bit of local Israeli tourism when the IDF was still in south Lebanon and the border in their area was quiet.

Nearly every resident of Ghajar owns land south and east of the village, Only some 30 percent actually earn their livelihoods from farming, however. This is the season to see women harvest hay with scythes in the fields, and scarecrows frightening away birds. Some plots have fruit trees, but most are used for grazing cattle. Although farming is not the mainstay of the village, the villagers all say that if necessary, they'll go back to farming.

No access for Jews

Getting into Ghajar if you're not a resident is not easy. The northern half is in the sovereign territory of a hostile state, the only border from which shooting at Israel takes place. The defense establishment prohibits Israeli Jews from entering that area, particularly civil servants or state employees. Bezeq technicians don't show up to repair phone line problems, Health Ministry officials who ran the Tipat Halav infant care center have stopped coming because it's housed in a building just on the other side of the official border with Lebanon. Goods and merchandise for the local shops are held at the entrance to the village, while the mail only gets as far as the turnoff from the main road, and then the local council sends out someone to pick it up.

Musa Hatib's pita bakery did well for a long time, even though it was in the northern part of the village. With contracts to supply supermarkets and groceries in the area, the bakery was able to employ some people. But with the declaration of the area as a closed military zone, and the ban on Israelis in the northern half of the village, the kashrut inspector stopped coming. Without a kashrut inspector, Hatib's business was nearly ruined.

"He should simply move the bakery to the center of the village," suggests Rabbi Nissim Malka, head of the Kiryat Shmona Religious Council, who helped Hatib get his kashrut license. "Or maybe the army should provide our inspectors with security."

Even police are not allowed in the northern part of the village. Sometimes, when someone dies, they have to determine whether it was from natural causes. When someone dies in the northern part of Ghajar, say the army's rules, the body has to be brought to the center of the village, on the southern side, where the necessary inspection can be done for a death certificate. "We had one case like that and special passes had to be arranged for the police to come in," says Hussein Hatib.

The conflict on the border, with the Hezbollah and their Palestinian allies, doesn't make the dilemmas any easier. Ghajar is the only Israeli settlement with casualties from the latest round of hostilities, after Pessah. A few anti-tank rockets fired from Lebanon toward the IDF position at the western end of the village, hit some houses owned by the Salman family. Three of the family's children were wounded by shrapnel, two seriously. They were evacuated by soldiers to Rambam Hospital.

"We never thought something like this could happen," says Amana Salman, mother of the three children. "Who am I angry at? My luck. The person who fired wasn't aiming at the home of Hussein and Amana Salman. They were aiming at the army base near the house. Of course they made a mistake and they shouldn't have done it and they should think first there might be children the house. If they want to shoot, they should at least be accurate. I am not angry at anyone. It's not right that they shoot at the soldiers, but if there was no base here, they wouldn't be shooting.

"It's not like when a Katyusha hits a house in Kiryat Shmona. They weren't aiming at us. They didn't think a little child would be hurt. We ask the soldiers to always be on guard and keep an eye on Lebanon, to make sure it doesn't happen again. There's a fence, and an army base in the middle of the village and life is difficult. We can't just walk around in our own village There are soldiers, a fence. A feeling of fear. After it happened to us we're afraid to go out. I stand in the kitchen and am afraid that any minute a missile could come in."

Salman goes over the details of how the missile hit her kitchen, and how she found her son, Sa'id, lying wounded on the ground. She points to where she found him. Now there's a large pit there, a construction site - for a shelter. "We're building a shelter now, because of what happened. We have to. Otherwise, where will we go? Who knows, maybe it will happen again. After the attack, and we saw we didn't have any place to go, so we immediately thought about a shelter."