Thin Blue Line

The village of Ghajar on the Lebanese border has always been a marginal pawn in the Middle East power game. Now, after 30 years of occupation, its inhabitants fear that Israel is about to abandon them.

Ada Ushpiz
Ada Ushpiz
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Ada Ushpiz
Ada Ushpiz

Soldiers of the Golani Brigade stationed at the entrance to the Alawite village of Ghajar on the Lebanese border already recognize almost every one of its inhabitants. About two weeks after a closure was imposed on the small village, which denies entrance to anyone from outside, the absurd situation of inhabitants showing identity cards at the entrance to their home has become a boring routine. "That fellow got a haircut, and I didn't recognize him," remarks one soldier to his companion.

The stifling heat brings the soldiers out of their post on the inner side of the village gate to an improvised post outside it, under a camouflage net that cast softs shadows on their uniforms and their faces. To the northeast of them stretches the exposed and rocky slopes of Har Dov. Not far from them passes the virtual Blue Line, the border of the withdrawal from Lebanon, which was drawn up by the United Nations on the basis of the 1923 border; some of it is marked by a fence that ends where the houses of the village begin. If the UN were to continue building this fence according to the border, a number of houses would have to be split in two.

The soldiers lean on their gear, relaxed, munching biscuits with chocolate spread and joking about the production date stamped on them: 1997. A three-year-old amuses himself with the black plastic curtains of the military latrine, toddling in and out undisturbed. Cars go by. The passengers faces show anger and a silent coming to terms with the rules of the new game. The faces are flashes of loaded anxieties that could spark into trouble in a fraction of an unexpected moment.

"These people have just come back from Horshat Tal," guesses one of the soldiers, judging by the wet hair of young people who have just returned to the village in the family Mercedes. "Did you see those girls? Wow."

Tired - but true to their training - the soldiers hasten to don helmets and jump into trenches a few meters away when someone on the Lebanese side of the border is seen approaching the fence. The figure disappears, and routine returns.

Laughter, partly cynical and partly taunting, in a style distinctly Israeli, of some village young people spills from their car, halted at the barricade. The soldiers are languid and exhausted.

"Yom assal, yom bassal" [One day you're up, one day you're down), says one of the young men from Ghajar with amused bitterness. His friend presses the soldier to finish his business: "Soldier, nu, is that it, brother?" There is ironic stress on the word "brother."

The soldier waves them on. "As far as I'm concerned, that's it. Great," he says, turning his back.

Persecuted past

Since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon over a year ago, the quiet and isolated village has been horrified by the UN decision to split it. Ghajar has always been a border village, neglected and forgotten on the Syrian, Lebanese or Israeli border. In the Middle East power game, it was one of the most marginal pawns. The UN's arbitrary choice, with Israel's agreement, of the 1923 border, which had been the artificial result of French and British colonial border agreements, is perceived by the village as a direct continuation of its history of oppression.

With a bit more sensitivity, the UN could have chosen the border set by the Lebanese-Syrian agreement of 1949, say the inhabitants of Ghajar. That border de facto transferred the Alawite village to Syria, where the inhabitants are co-religionists of the Assad family and about another two million Syrians. This agreement, they claim, also applied to the northern lands of Ghajar, where the village spread during the period under Israeli rule.

"My father was a soldier in the Syrian army," was the mantra this week at the entrance to the village.

There is no doubt that Ghajar's most natural religious-ethnic affiliation is Syria, even if it has not always suited the immediate preferences of the inhabitants. In the present situation, the 1949 Lebanese-Syrian agreement is also a way to preserve the wholeness of the village and leave it for the moment within the borders of Israel, without unnecessary upsets, until a peace agreement is signed.

"Israel conquered us from Syria in 1967, so why should it give us back to Lebanon?" ask villagers, taking good care to remain anonymous. The UN, Israel, Lebanon and Syria agreed, "for humanitarian reasons," not to split the village with a fence, in return for the disarming of the Lebanese side and part of the Israeli side.

About three weeks ago, the agreements were broken when Lebanese journalists and cameramen, in disguise or not, infiltrated into the Lebanese part of the village. The mayor of Ghajar begged them over the loudspeaker "not to complicate our lives," but in vain.

The Israel Defense Forces responded by imposing an immediate closure on the village and left it without basic services: a doctor, nurses, the mother and child clinic, orderly food deliveries, telephone and electricity repairs and mail. Visits by family members and friends who are not residents of the village were prohibited by the command of a major general.

Ghajar's residents became citizens of the State of Israel when Israeli law was imposed on the Golan Heights in 1982 and yet again have to face up to the fiction of "Israeli citizenship" for purposes of annexation. "If Hezbollah were to manage to infiltrate Kibbutz Dan or Metula, would anyone even conceive of abandoning those kibbutzim or closing them?" they ask in fluent Hebrew.

Forever refugees

"In 1967, Israel didn't even want to occupy Ghajar, because it mistakenly thought it was a Lebanese village," relates Ahmad Suleiman, a portly and smiling father of three who works in quality control at the factory in Kfar Szold.

About 40 percent of the inhabitants fled to Syria. Only those who owned land stayed behind to protect their holdings. The heads of the orphaned village, which remained cut off for a while, showed the Israelis maps, according to which Ghajar was part of the Golan and the village was officially occupied.

Suleiman was five years old at the time. Like many in Ghajar, his generation grew up under the occupation. They ostensibly become part of Israel, have been absorbed into its labor market, got an education, built homes with the help of mortgages. He looks Israeli and his culture is Israeli-Arab, only more restrained, more cautious. His two brothers are university graduates but his father, a farmer who can barely write his name, has never stopped feeling like a refugee, not even even when his sons arranged a National Insurance Institute old-age pension for him, to which he is entitled.

The disaffection, the alienation, the adjustment to the demands of the "sovereign" are all integral parts of the daily texture of life, especially in a village like Ghajar, where survival has been its daily bread throughout history.

"We are afraid of waking up in the morning and finding ourselves on the other side of the border, torn from our lands," says Suleiman. The 12,000 dunams of pastureland, some of it cultivated, spread south of the village beyond the fence that surrounds the houses. As the pressures from Hezbollah increase, fear grows in Ghajar. Israel is liable unhesitatingly to transfer to Lebanon the southern part of the village and to keep only the lands for itself. After all, say the villagers, the idea of "giving back" Arabs and keeping their lands has always enchanted Israel.

"This scenario is too easy for Israel," says Suleiman. "Within a few hours they can put up a fence, leave us the cemetery and take over all the land. And what will we do in Lebanon? What will we be there? Citizens? Refugees? Collaborators?"

Proud and wounded, Suleiman struggles with the heavy historical burden of 30 years of occupation, which was accepted and which did bring economic prosperity.

"We worked hard and we earned a living, we paid taxes, and no one did us any favors," he said defensively. "Sure, everyone wants to live well, to improve his life and not just sit around with his arms crossed, waiting for opportunities to fall from heaven, but that's not the point. We stayed here only because of the land. It is our land, and we won't go anywhere without it. Listen - Israeli planes are making their presence felt in the skies of Lebanon," he says, as sonic booms shake the village. "We're the only ones still living in a state of war; here, there is no quiet.

"Look," he says, indicating two IDF armored vehicles raising columns of dust at the entrance to the village. "It's enough that they get hit by a shell, and it will all fall on our heads. We're in the middle, between the hammer and the anvil."

Identity card

Unlike the Golan Druze, the inhabitants of Ghajar were glad to get Israeli identity cards. Isolated and neglected, they had never received the same backing as the Golan Druze did from their brothers in Israel. "And the truth is, no one got tough with the Druze when they tore up their Israeli identity cards. They didn't have happen to them what happened to the Arabs of Israel last October, so is there a difference or not?" asks Suleiman. "We have no alternative but to be careful. If I want to gamble everything in a certain direction, maybe it will do me harm."

Unlike many others in his village who held back from expressing their opinion of the intifada, or made do with some murmured generalities about bewailing terror attacks and the killing of innocent victims on both sides, Suleiman is prepared to support openly the Palestinians' right to an "entity" of their own. "But, how, who, what has to happen, how it will be done - I don't know. I have my own serious problem that I want to deal with."

The fate of the South Lebanese Army people serves as a threatening reminder with which the inhabitants of Ghajar would rather not identify. "True, the SLA people helped the state, but in the end they were mercenaries. We are citizens of the state," insists Suleiman, clinging to his dubious Israeli citizenship. He has a very clear memory of the day he appeared before an Interior Ministry official in Afula, raised his right hand and swore allegiance to the State of Israel.

The official shook his hand with a smile that was not entirely free of hypocrisy. "Congratulations," he said to Suleiman. "From now on you are a citizen in every respect." Suleiman never labored under the delusion that he was indeed a citizen in every respect, but nevertheless he cannot conceal his disappointment.

"I don't think Israel has ever taken our Israeli citizenship seriously," he says sadly.

"We had no alternative. We had to go on living, but this doesn't mean that I forget that they call me Ahmad, that I'm a Muslim, that I celebrate Ramadan and the Feast of the Sacrifice, that I live in an environment of 250 million Arabs, and that there is a good chance that in the end I will be back under Syrian rule."

There is no fear of Hezbollah, says Suleiman. There is anxiety about a drastic change in their way of life, fed by generations of experience as refugees who lived under many different rulers. Were it not for his lands, he would go back to Syria without a second thought, he stresses.

In the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir this week, Naim Kassem, who is in charge of information for Hezbollah and a deputy of Hassan Nasrallah, sounded a note of escalation that worries Suleiman. Israel has three options, Kassem is reported as saying: to withdraw from the entire village, to allow Lebanon to impose its rule in its part or to turn this border point into a new conflict area.

The Israeli defense minister has talked about efforts to preserve the status quo, which worries Suleiman even more. The status quo with respect to Ghajar changes from moment to moment, according to where the IDF is positioned. In this fluid reality only the inhabitants of Ghajar are liable to drown.

Not far from the IDF position, north of the gate with a sign saying "Welcome to Ghajar," beyond the fence that surrounds the village homes, lives the Marj family. The scent of hay rises from the small farmyard where there are a few chickens and goats. In this part of the village, all the houses are new, and some have not even been whitewashed yet. "Why did Israel permit construction only in an area that it knew was in Lebanon according to some of the maps? I'm afraid that there weren't good intentions here," says Suleiman.

Hassan Marj, 22, is unemployed and has only eight years of schooling. He has a thin mustache on his youthful face, his oiled hair is combed back, and he now lives in effect on the Lebanese side of the village with 15 members of his family. To visit his uncle next door he has to cross the imaginary border. "It's hard, it's very hard," he says relatively openly over the fence, though he absolutely refuses to be photographed. "For 30 years we've been here, even though we're really Syrians, not Lebanese. How can we go back to Lebanon? It's hard, there's no desire to work, no appetite to eat, no desire to sleep and altogether, what can we do?"

Until not long ago, he worked at a plastic factory in Kiryat Shmona. His father is still employed at the Kfar Giladi quarries. He is sorry about the intifada; he doesn't understand why anyone who has a job in Israel needs independence, but he feels the pain of the death of any human being.

Since the withdrawal, he and his friends and his family have been living in a tizzy of uncertainty. He has suspended plans to build a house and prefers to save the money for hard times. Many of his friends have sold their cars or valuables, to be prepared for the worst. Students have not registered for the academic year, for fear that in any case they will have to complete their studies in Beirut.

The feeling is that any minute the gates will be closed on them. Any suspicious movement along the border, any rumor of the entrance of Lebanese into the village could be the signal, and the people of Ghajar are immediately alerted to return to the village from their workplaces, lest they be cut off from their families forever.

"I'm prepared to kill myself and not leave our land," Hassan bursts out. "If they throw us into Lebanon, it's hard, but we'll manage. There's no fear. They will understand us. They're not donkeys. The fear is of leaving the land. What will we live from?"

On Sunday, Lebanese again came into northern Ghajar. Hassan's younger brother, who was grazing the family's flock, could not get back into the village for five hours. "It was scary. We didn't know what was going to happen. Out life is the pits. It's a war," he says. He mentions how a tank burst into the village on its way to the military overlook, "and began to pound Hezbollah. What a terrible feeling. I ran to the school - it's next to the overlook - and I yelled to my sister; `Maher, come home.' I saw the children run from the school, wailing, screaming. The teacher tried to get them down into the shelters, but they ran about in all directions and didn't hear. It was just a miracle that nothing happened. This is how we're living here."

Evening falls. The flocks returning from pasture mingle with the clouds of bright dust raised by the armored vehicles and Jeeps at the edges of the fields. This is a reassuring sight for the inhabitants of Ghajar. They are afraid of the moment the Jeeps will vanish, the electricity will be cut off and there will be no more water in the taps. This is how they imagine the end.

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