Ghajar Residents Could Go to Sleep in Israel, but Wake Up in Lebanon

It was only when the sun rose on Tuesday morning that the inhabitants of Ghajar ascertained their village was still in same country.

It was only when the sun rose on Tuesday morning that the inhabitants of Ghajar ascertained their village was still in Israel and had not gone over to some other sovereignty during the night. The United Nations soldiers had not yet fanned out into the streets, and the Israel Defense Forces soldiers were still manning their nearby positions.

Every few months a new rumor crops up concerning the future of Ghajar, the inhabitants of which are at the focus of a continuing border dispute between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. The most recent rumor was that during the first night of February the northern part of Ghajar would be transferred to the UN forces and be officially declared Lebanese territory. The rumor first appeared in a Lebanese newspaper, was repeated on Arab television channels and gave rise to increased tension leading up to the crucial date.

In the absence of any declared Israeli policy or any other certainty to hang on to, the inhabitants of Ghajar have to peek out their window every morning to see who their current sovereign is.

"It's worthwhile checking well in the morning whether you're still in Israel or perhaps during the course of the night you've become a Syrian, a Lebanese or an international citizen," says Ali, who lives in the northern part of the village. He declined to give his surname for fear for his personal security.

"It could be very unpleasant to go outside to drink coffee on the veranda wearing a T-shirt of the Israeli national soccer team only to find Hezbollah solders directing traffic in the street," he says, in an attempt at a joke.

Ghajar is a small village, even very small. It is located on a green hill overlooking the Hatzbani River, at the foot of Mount Dov. A total of 2,200 people live there, all of them members of the Alawite sect. Until the Six-Day War in 1967 the village was under Syrian sovereignty, even though according to old French maps its northern part was supposed to belong to Lebanon.

The disagreement stemmed from the fact that the cartographers who drew up the maps of the Sykes-Picot agreement signed in 1916 between the British and the French, who controlled the region at that time, drew the lines using a ruler and did not take the conditions on the ground into account. The border between Syria and Lebanon was arbitrarily indicated north of the center of Ghajar, ignoring the Hatzbani streambed, which passes several dozen meters from there. The northern part of the hill, an area of just a few dunams, officially belonged to Lebanon, whereas the southern part of the hill, where the village was located, came under Syrian sovereignty.

According to villagers, both countries related to the entire hill as though it was in Syria. In support of this claim they show documents indicating that houses built north of the village, beginning in the 1950s, were registered at the Syrian interior ministry office in Quneitra. The Hatzbani served as the unofficial border between the two countries.

IDF soldiers also used those disputed maps, and when the village was occupied in the Six-Day War they collected the inhabitants' weapons but withdrew from the village and established the border south of the hill. They preferred to give up several dozen meters of land, just so the village and its inhabitants would not come under Israeli sovereignty.

For two and a half months after the war, the village was left without any citizenship. The inhabitants were prevented from cultivating their lands, which were now in the territory of the State of Israel, and they were also unable to enter Lebanon. The supply of electricity from a Syrian military post was stopped, the food ran out and all the sources of income were out of their reach. Having no alternative, the inhabitants turned to Israel and asked that the village be annexed to it, like the Druze villages on the Golan Heights.

An electric fence set up by the IDF ran alongside the Hatzbani, leaving the northern part of the hill in no-man's land. However, in the mid-1970s natural population increase and the shortage of lands in the southern part caused the homes of the village to spread northward, and now two-thirds of them are on the northern part of the hill.

The unmarked border passes through Ghajar's main street. It separates the school and the mosque on the southern side under Israeli sovereignty from the town hall, the clinic and the Merkaz Payis community center built by Israel's national lottery on the northern side, which according to the Sykes-Picot map belongs to Lebanon.

At the southern entrance to the village is an IDF roadblock, and only the inhabitants are allowed to enter or exit the village - and that only after a thorough search of their vehicle and sometimes a body check. Outsiders are not allowed in at all, and therefore in recent years the falafel stall, the restaurant and the cafe in the village closed, though in the past they enjoyed visits by Israeli tourists.

Trucks bringing provisions to the grocery store unload their contents several dozen meters before the roadblock, and the merchandise is loaded into cars allowed into the village. When an inhabitant wants to have a tradesman such as a plumber or electrician, or even a doctor, come to his home, he must coordinate this with the security forces several days in advance. Even then, in most cases, the visitors will not be allowed to enter the northern part of the village. Inhabitants relate that in any case the Israeli forces prefer to allow visitors of Arab origins into the village.

"Impossible," is how the situation is defined by Najib Hattib, the Ghajar council spokesman, but even he finds it hard to describe the ideal situation for the village's inhabitants. "It's impossible to cut the village in two. It's like dividing a family in two," he says of the idea that Israel withdraw from the northern part of the village, and he tries to imagine how the UN forces would be able to arrange the passage of 650 school children from the northern part of the village every morning. "And what citizenship will the inhabitants of the northern part have? Lebanese?" he wonders.

Hattib rejects outright the possibility that the entire village be handed over to Lebanon, because the thousands of dunams of land from which the village's farmers earn their livelihood are located inside Israel. Reverting to Syria, of course, is not on the agenda at the moment.

In the meantime, the inhabitants of Ghajar are living in uncertainty. Y., a successful 46-year-old building contractor, bought an apartment in Kiryat Shmona half a year ago. He sleeps there only on weekdays and on the weekend he returns to the village, where he tells people the apartment is rented, for fear that rumors potentially harmful to his future might spread. For the same reason he, too, refuses to divulge his name.

Like most of the inhabitants, Y. isn't interested in opening an account with the Syrians by displaying excessive enthusiasm for Israel. However, he says, many of his neighbors would rather flee to Israel than live in Lebanon or return to Syria. He also says he knows of at least 10 other villagers who have secretly bought apartments in Israel.

Hezbollah has a long account to settle with the villagers, who 40 years ago asked to be annexed to Israel. For its part, Israel has only one interest - to get rid of the last bone of territorial contention with Lebanon. The Lebanese will not dare annex Syrian territory, while the Syrians, of course, prefer to sit back and observe the predicament from the sidelines.

The villagers perceive the UN as the bad guy. According to Hattib, when they want to persuade a child in Ghajar to eat, they threaten to call in a UN soldier.

In the Arabic version, the idiot who throws the stone into a well that even a thousand wise men will not be able to retrieve becomes a majnoon - a crazy man. "After all, even a complete imbecile should know that you don't throw a stone into a well," explains Ali, taking a sip from his cup of coffee on the veranda of his home and wearing an Israel soccer all-stars T-shirt.

"More than a thousand wise men have already sat and tried to find a solution for this village," he says, "and there is no solution, at least not until peace comes. But in the Middle East, for that you have to be crazy."