Al-Ahram Weekly – 9 May 2002
The large arched sign over the village entrance reads “Welcome to Ghajar” in Arabic and Hebrew, but the approach road and soldiers dug into a nearby fortified army post belie the greeting.
Ghajar, which along with the rest of the Syrian Golan Heights was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, can only be reached by a four-mile road marked with frequent yellow signs warning “Danger: Mines” and a humming electrified fence reinforced with barbed wire. On the other side is Lebanon.
Our car’s way into the village is blocked by concrete barriers. To the right, just visible in a raised concrete pillbox, a soldier studies the horizon through a pair of high-powered binoculars. An armoured vehicle with a machine-gun mounting peeks out from behind a high grass embankment, where more troops are hidden from view.
A young armed soldier asks for identification. He looks at my passport suspiciously and temporarily confiscates the identity card of the driver, an Arab citizen of Israel from the neighbouring Galilee region. Then he offers advice for coping with 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 okay, 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 claims regularly infiltrate Ghajar. The army says it is virtually powerless to stop them since the United Nations abandoned a post to the north of the village last year.
Since Israel’s hasty withdrawal from its south Lebanon buffer zone in May 2000, Ghajar has become one of the most gaping, and embarrassing, cracks in Israel’s iron wall of security.
The 1,800 inhabitants, despite living under Israeli control for nearly two generations and being made Israeli citizens in 1982, still regard themselves as Syrians.
But their confused search for identity was further complicated after Israeli troops pulled out of Lebanon two years ago. When the army withdrew to Ghajar they could not identify the original border and so sought advice from the UN.
It too was unsure and, after consulting old French and British maps, ruled that only a third of the village now lay in Israeli occupied territory. The rest was in Lebanon.
The map-readers say that after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1978 effectively erased the border, the villagers mistakenly built new homes in the wrong direction, expanding northwards into Lebanon.
The resurrected border now runs down the high street.
Noises from Hizbullah leaders that they may reclaim the village and use it as a base from which to launch attacks on Israel have made the army increasingly jittery.
Such assertions are taken seriously in a corner of occupied territory that lies only a few miles from where Hizbullah kidnapped three soldiers 18 months ago. Uncertainty over their fate has wracked the Israeli public’s nerves ever since.
Since its withdrawal, Israel has been pondering how to secure the village. Its first plan “to build a fence to cut Ghajar in two” was dropped after the inhabitants staged angry demonstrations, complaining that the scheme would tear families apart.
Now the villagers have been forced to accept Plan B: sealing off Ghajar from the rest of Israel with an electrified fence.
Work on the one kilometre fence began last month and, according to army spokesman Major Dinor Mizrahi, will be completed in the next few weeks. Against their wishes, the villagers are effectively being exiled 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-wingers, who normally vehemently oppose ceding even an inch of territory, especially in response to threats. The fate of the villagers and their wishes are a low priority on their agendas.
The inhabitants are likely to find themselves in an awkward position. The interior ministry has promised that their status as Israeli citizens will remain unchanged. But to what extent Israel will in practice be prepared to come to their aid after the fence is completed is unclear.
The villagers’ fears were heightened last month when stray missiles from a Hizbullah attack injured five of them.
“It is not our choice but most of us are resigned to the fence,” says Ali, a 29-year-old taxi driver who refuses to give his full name. In the village there is uniform distrust of outsiders.
Sipping thick black coffee outside the Miznon café on the “Israeli” side of Ghajar, he adds: “Now Israel sees us as a problem and wants to get rid of us. We’re just pawns in its political games.”
Being forced to live in Lebanon will be like a second occupation, he says. “We have no historical or emotional connection to the Lebanese. We want to be returned to Syria but if that is not possible we would prefer to remain in Israel.”
Part of the reason for their reluctance to be “transferred” to Lebanon is that the villagers own 13,000 dunams of farm land in the area. There are fears that promises made by the army that they will have continuing access to the land may not be honoured.
“We have been told that there will be a security gate through which we can pass, but all of us know they are not going to make it easy to get in or out,” says Khatib, a local council spokesman.
The villagers are all members of a small sect of Islam, the Alawites, to which the family of Bashar Al-Asad, the Syrian president, belongs.
But after 35 years of occupation they drive cars bearing Israeli number plates and own “Yes” satellite dishes that receive Hebrew TV. Even the local politicians ally themselves with Israeli parties.
“The situation is getting very difficult,” says Ali. “Visitors are frightened to come here. The gas and electric companies won’t come to read the meters any more, and the phone company won’t install new lines.”