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Email from Ghajar

The Guardian – 6 May 2002

An arched sign at the village entrance reads “Welcome to Ghajar” in Arabic and Hebrew, but the approach road and soldiers dug into an army post belie the greeting. Ghajar, which along with the rest of the Syrian Golan Heights was captured by Israel in the Six Day war of 1967, is reached by a four-mile road marked with yellow signs warning “Danger: Mines” and a humming electrified fence. On the other side is Lebanon.

My car’s way into the village is blocked by concrete barriers. Just visible in a raised concrete pillbox is a soldier studying the horizon through binoculars. An armoured vehicle mounted with a machine gun peeks out from behind a high grass embankment.

After inspecting my passport, a young armed soldier offers advice on Ghajar’s treacherous geography. Pointing ahead to the high street, he says: “This road is the border. As long you keep to the left of it you’ll be OK, you’re in Israel. Don’t go to the right, that’s in Lebanon. We won’t be able to help if you get in trouble.”

The “trouble”, although he is not more specific, refers to the Hizbullah militants who Israel says infiltrate Ghajar. Threats by the group to use the village as a base from which to launch attacks have made the army increasingly jittery. Such assertions are taken seriously in occupied territory only miles from where Hizbullah kidnapped three soldiers 18 months ago.

Israel has been unusually indulgent of this gaping, and embarrassing, crack in its iron wall of security, possibly because the problem is largely of its own making. When Israel hastily withdrew from its buffer zone in south Lebanon in May 2000, it could not determine where the original border around Ghajar lay. It sought clarification from the United Nations, which consulted old British maps before declaring that two-thirds of the village was now in Lebanon.

It appears that after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1978, which effectively erased the border, the villagers mistakenly built new homes in the wrong direction, expanding northward into Lebanon. The 1,800 inhabitants, who have lived under Israeli control for nearly two generations, were made Israeli citizens in 1982.

Since its withdrawal the army has been pondering how to secure the village. Its first plan – to build a fence to split Ghajar down the middle – was quietly dropped after the inhabitants staged angry demonstrations, saying families would be torn apart. Instead it settled for Plan B: sealing the village off from the rest of Israel.

Work began last month on an electrified fence and should be completed in the next few weeks. Against their wishes, the villagers are effectively being abandoned to Lebanon. Israel’s quiet withdrawal – from land it has illegally occupied for 35 years – has not raised a squeak of protest from the country’s right wing.

The interior ministry has promised the villagers their status as Israeli citizens will remain unchanged. But to what extent Israel will be prepared to come to their aid is unclear. Fears were not eased by a Hizbullah missile attack last month which injured five Ghajans.

“Most of us are resigned to the fence,” says Ali, a 29-year-old taxi driver who refuses to give his full name. Sipping thick black coffee outside the Miznon cafe on the “Israeli” side of Ghajar, he adds: “Now Israel just sees us as a problem and wants to get rid of us.”

After 35 years of occupation, the villagers drive cars bearing Israeli number plates and own satellite dishes that receive Hebrew TV. Even the local politicians ally themselves with Israeli parties. But visitors, including from Israel’s public utility companies, are increasingly rare.

Being forced to live in Lebanon will be like a second occupation, says Ali. “We have no historical or emotional connection to the Lebanese. What we really want is to be returned to Syria.” That, for the time being, is not part of Israel’s plans.

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