Sunday story time.
The Levant is a giant theatre of the absurd; yet absurd is what actually defines our existence – so in the end, absurd is actually the norm.
In 1967, on the final day of the Six Day War, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria (no new information here). In the immediate aftermath of this earthquake that completely reshaped the Middle East , an elderly man waving a white flag approached the newly-established IDF command post in Quneitra, Syria. This man – to the astonishment and confusion of the local IDF commander – demanded that the village start receiving services from the new administration in the area immediately.
The confused commander asked the man from which village he had travelled to which the man answered – Ghajar. In turn, the IDF commander told the elderly man that there has to be some mistake since the village of Ghajar is in Lebanese territory and that Israel did not capture anything on Lebanese soil since Lebanon was not involved in the war. Rather, the IDF had simply confiscated arms supplies so that they wouldn’t fall into Syrian hands.
At this point, the elderly man – who happened to be the Mukhtar of the village – told him that indeed his village was a Syrian Alawite community despite the majority of post colonial maps from 1943 (Lebanese Independence)-1946 (Syrian Independence) that demarcated the border between the previously held French mandated territory that included Lebanon and Syria. The Mukhtar further explained that the Lebanese wanted no part of the village as not to infuriate the Syrian regime; likewise, Syria had a sizeable Alawite community. Nor did the Lebanese want to deal with Israeli incursions in the area during the years of the water conflict between Israel and Syria and the hostilities between the two countries after the 1948 War and the ensuring armstice agreements.
Due to the fact that the village sits close to the source of the Hasbani River, which feeds the Jordan River, the Lebanese didn’t want to take a chance of Israeli reprisals against Lebanon for actions undertaken by Syrian to cut of a major source of the Jordan.
After the Mukhtar made his case and continued to hammer home the fact that in no way did the village have any connection to Lebanon, the village of Ghajar came under full Israeli control just like the rest of the Golan Heights and a small percentage of the Hermon mountain range. Unlike the two other Alawite Villages in the Golan, whose residents fled the Israeli conquest in the area, most of the residents of Ghajar decided to throw all their chips in the Israeli pot.
Come 1981 and full Israeli sovereignty being applied to the Golan/Hermon, the residents of Ghajar took full Israeli citizenship – unlike the four Druze villages in region that for a number of complicated political reasons decided to keep their loyalty to Syria by denying themselves of Israeli citizenship. One year later, the Israeli military enters Lebanon to oust the PLO from the quasi-state it had established to launch attacks against Israel (both at home and abroad) and will remain there for another 18-years, eventually creating the ‘security zone’ in south Lebanon in 1985. And here the dispute over the village takes another turn….
With the Israeli presence in south Lebanon and the establishment of the security zone, Ghajar expanded in territorial size and population stretching farther into Lebanese territory. During this time, Ghajar’s economy flourished as Israelis came to frequent the area (remember, up until the exit from Lebanon, most of the Hermon was opened to travellers and Israelis had a lot more access to the area in general).
May 24th, 2000. The last Israeli soldiers along with thousands of South Lebanese Army personnel and their families cross the border into Metula and Benny Gantz, Israel’s alternate Prime Minister and former head of the IDF – a Brigadier General at the time – locks the Fatma Gate, officially ending Israel’s 18-year foray in Lebanon.
So what is the status of Ghajar? According to most maps, prior to 1967, it’s part of Lebanon. But the villagers say they are Syrian with no connection to Lebanon; yet at the same time, the village clearly expanded into Lebanese territory over Israel’s 18-year presence in Lebanon. Thought it couldn’t get any trickier? Well, it’s in your interest to keep reading…
In the years from 2000-2006, on an international level, Ghajar was defined as a divided Lebanese-Syrian village since the UN doesn’t recognize official Israeli control over the territories it captured in 1967. Therefore, the southern side is technically, according to the UN, Israeli occupied Syrian territory while the northern side (the area that expanded while Israel was in Lebanon) falls under Lebanese jurisdiction. However, the Lebanese government never officially negotiated this and the agreements were made between Israel and the UN with the UN creating the Blue Line between Israel and Lebanon. Therefore, from 2000-2006, Israel soldiers only patrolled the southern half of the village while the northern side had open access to the rest of Lebanon with Hezbollah assuming armed control within the area and establishing a number of outposts in the area. At that time, the Lebanese Army had minimal to no presence in south Lebanon and the area became Hezbollah-land with UNIFIL blue helmets trying to maintain the peace.
During this period, the area around Ghajar and the base of Mount Dov became a prime flashpoint between the IDF and Hezbollah including many attempts by Hezbollah to kidnap Israeli soldiers along this part of the border. Likewise, since there was no fence on the northern side of Ghajar, the area became a hotbed for drug smuggling into Israel (something of which Hezbollah profits greatly). At the same time, the villagers in Ghajar greatly objected to this division since the northern side wasn’t allowed to receive services from Israel, nor was the Lebanese government interested in providing for the town.
In 2006 with the eruption of the 2nd Lebanese War, the Israeli army reoccupied the northern half of the village and and has remained there ever since, even after the signing of UN Resolution 1701 which ended the 34 days of fighting and was supposed to keep Hezbollah beyond the Litani River. However, due to the international agreements, the IDF couldn’t build a fence on the northern side so the villagers themselves built a fence to keep Hezbollah operatives and other unwanted characters out of the area. Bear in mind, during the years of 2000-2006, the villagers were lobbying the Israeli government to assume full control of Ghajar since the Lebanese government refused to provide civil services to the village.
Multiple times since 2006, Israel has agreed to give up the northern side of Ghajar to Lebanon; however, these attempts have failed for a number of reasons, the least of which happens to be the village’s residents desire to remain a singular entity. Furthermore, with the eruption of the Syrian civil war, Israel has redeployed its forces in greater mass in the area to look out for its security interests in the foothills of Mount Hermon. The residents of Ghajar have protested any move to be transferred to Lebanon since they are Syrian and Israeli well before they have any connection to Lebanon. To make things even more complicated, there is a full dispute over the entire area of the Shaba Farms between Lebanon and Syria while Israel maintains its security interests in the area through controlling Ghajar.
Today, only residents of Ghajar are allowed into the village. Both those on the Lebanese and the Israeli side hold Israeli citizenship and all work in Israel across all professions. According to figures on higher education, the people of Ghajar hold more advanced degrees per population than all regional councils / cities in Israel. Many work in science and medicine both in Israel and abroad. Despite the complexities of their situation, they are proud Israeli citizens who have an excellent way of dealing with the absurd situation of regional politics. The villagers have petitioned the IDF to be able to volunteer for service but the army believes this is too risky to have a number of resident-soldiers at such a key strategic area who actually live within the village and could create more incentive for Hezbollah to carry out attempted kidnappings.
Today, there is neither a demarcation line nor anything that resembles any kind of border – you just know that one side of the street is Lebanon, the other side is Israel and the residents are Syrian Alawites with Israeli citizenship.
For years, we have been trying to get into Ghajar and were lucky enough to have this opportunity last Friday on a special visit arranged through the military and in coordination with a local Golan kibbutz.
The thing that stuck with me the most was when Najib – head of village security – said that for years he’s spent every Friday night dinner with either military personnel or friends from the Jewish communities in the area yet he hasn’t been able to return the gesture since the rest of Israel has no access to Ghajar.
But hey – this is the Middle East and in the Middle East the only thing that makes sense is the understanding that everything is surreal. So next time you hear one of Hasan Nasrallah’s fiery speeches about recovering Lebanese lands and blanketing Israel with missiles, the first piece of land he’ll mention is North Ghajar
(Photos from Ghajar and the Security Zone viewpoint on Mount Dov.)