On the News but Off the Map

In the nine years since Israel withdrew from Lebanon, residents of the border town of Ghajar have felt like they were under siege. The news that Israel plans to hand the town's northern half over to Lebanon has only increased their uncertainty and despair.

About a month ago, four-year-old Hiyat Jabar woke up in her parents' home in Ghajar and kissed her mother, father and brothers good morning as usual. But "when I entered the shower, they suddenly shouted for me, saying she didn't feel well and was having trouble breathing," her father Malik recalled on Sunday.

Malik understood that time was of the essence. "We don't have the normal life of [other Israeli] citizens," he explained. "It takes at least 15 minutes for an ambulance to receive permission from the army to enter the village." So he gave up on the idea of an ambulance and drove his daughter to Kiryat Shmona himself. By the time they arrived, the girl was dead.

Ghajar residents say the Jabar family's tragic loss embodies their impossible living conditions. And a report in Sunday's Haaretz about Israel's intention to hand the northern half of the village over to Lebanon has only deepened the feelings of despair and helplessness with which residents have lived since the Israel Defense Forces left Lebanon nine years ago.

Ever since that withdrawal, the village, which is split between Lebanon and Israel, has been a point of friction between the two countries and a security problem for the IDF. All Ghajar residents hold Israeli citizenship, which they received in 1981 when the area, located between the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights, was annexed along with the Golan. Until the Six-Day War in 1967, this area was under Syrian sovereignty.

The imaginary line that divides the village in half, called the Blue Line, runs along the international border between Syria and Lebanon that was set by Britain and France in 1924. Once, the entire village was located south of the Blue Line. But during the years when Israel controlled southern Lebanon, the village spread northward, into Lebanese territory.

Thus when Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, the United Nations marked the border between the two countries as running right through the middle of the village. The IDF initially withdrew from northern Ghajar, but moved back in during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended that war, requires Israel to vacate the Lebanese portion of the village.

Checkpoints and cameras

Ever since the 2000 withdrawal, Ghajar's residents have felt as if they were living under siege. A checkpoint stands at the southern entrance to the town, and citizens must pass through it on their way to and from the rest of Israel. The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) erected a fence around northern Ghajar on the Lebanese side, and there are guard posts just north of this fence. Overt and covert surveillance is conducted in the village, and many closed-circuit cameras are in evidence. And IDF soldiers are a regular presence in Ghajar, especially since November 2005, when Hezbollah tried to kidnap a soldier there.

In addition, drug smugglers have abused the village's special status to smuggle drugs from Lebanon into Israel via Ghajar. And the methods used to try to prevent both the smuggling and terrorist infiltrations have made the lives of Ghajar's 2,000 residents unbearable.

Najeeb Khatib, head of the local community council, has many stories of routine difficulties. "The medical team that worked here for 18 years is no longer allowed to enter the village; it has been replaced by Druze health-care workers from the Golan," he said. "In order to repair electric appliances, you have to bring them to the entrance gate or to Kiryat Shmona. There have even been cases in which people had to bring a corpse to the checkpoint in order to get a death certificate."

Another absurdity, residents said, is that they are required by Israeli law to insure their cars, but if they try to use the policy following an accident in the Lebanese sector, they are told by Israeli insurance companies that the accident did not take place in Israeli territory.

The villagers learned of the withdrawal plan for the first time from the newspaper.

"We learn what's happening from the media," Khatib said angrily. "We live with a terrible weight on our minds, with unending anxiety about our fate. Maybe someone [from the Israeli government] could come up here and talk to us? Tell us what's going to happen, what to expect?"

On Sunday, most of the residents withdrew into their homes - beautiful houses made of basalt, with wooden window frames and doors, that look out on the Lebanese countryside and the now desolate lookout point known as the Terrace, with its lovely view of the riverbed below. In the past, the Terrace attracted many Israeli visitors. Now, it merely illustrates the village's lost potential.

Most of the residents refused to talk to Haaretz. Three men sitting on a porch interrupted their conversation to announce their refusal before I had even asked the question. Strangers rarely appear in the village, as all visits require a special permit from the IDF. Thus the residents know that such visits only occur when Ghajar's future is making headlines.

The few who did agree to speak to me gave voice to feelings of isolation and hopelessness. They also said they would fight the withdrawal plan by petitioning the High Court of Justice, and even the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The politicians know the residents will not give up without a legal battle; thus the withdrawal is not expected to take place before next month's Lebanese elections.

"We don't feel Syrian, or Lebanese, or Israeli," said another resident, Bilal Khatib. "We don't belong to anyone. Syria, which owns the land, is keeping mum. Lebanon knows these aren't its lands, and wants them anyway. And Israel is making a bad decision about a village it occupied, and for whose residents it is now responsible. How can you take a body and cut it in two?"

"The uncertainty is consuming us little by little," said Malik Jabar, who is in charge of welfare services for the village. "People live with the feeling that they go to work in the morning and don't know where they will be coming back to. There's a genuine fear that we'll continue living in our village but turn into refugees, cut off from our lands and our families on the other side."

It is not clear what legal status residents of the northern sector will have post-withdrawal. In effect, Israeli citizens will be living under Lebanese jurisdiction. Will they be able to enter Israel to go to work? How will they move from one side of the village to the other? Moreover, some residents of northern Ghajar own land in Israel. Will they be able to continue to work it? At the moment, all these questions remain unanswered.