Flashpoint village that straddles Lebanon-Israel conflict seeks peace

The Israeli-controlled village of Ghajar is one of several flashpoints between two neighbors jittery about a fresh war. It may be on the cusp of a solution.

By , Correspondent

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    Children stand on a street in the village of Ghajar on the Israeli-Lebanese border August 5, 2009. Ghajar straddles the border between Lebanon and land Israel captured from Syria.
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This sleepy Alawite Muslim village hardly seems like a place that could spark a fresh war between Israel and Lebanon – a conflict that could escalate into a regional conflagration.

But after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon a decade ago today, United Nations cartographers drew a line up the street bisecting Ghajar – putting the village council building in Lebanon and the falafel restaurant across from it in the Golan Heights, a Syrian territory controlled by Israel since 1967.

With the UN now calling for Israeli troops to withdraw from the southern part of the village, Ghajar's 2,200 residents have found themselves caught in the middle of a possible flare-up between Israel and Lebanon – but also on the cusp of a solution.

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Many in Lebanon, most prominently Hezbollah, argue that Israel's 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon remains incomplete as long as it remains in Ghajar and Shebba farms just north of the village – a lush agricultural area that was never precisely demarcated under European colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century.

"[Ghajar] is a symbol of Israel's power struggle with Hezbollah,'' says Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East affairs commentator based in Tel Aviv. "It’s a security headache for Israel, when it's difficult to demarcate and it's on the border with an enemy country."

Proposed solution for Ghajar

Israel initially honored the UN "Blue Line'' in Ghajar, but returned to the Lebanese part in the north after the 2006 war with Hezbollah spurred concern about infiltration into Ghajar. Today, with Hezbollah stronger than ever, Israel's army still patrols the section of the village recognized as Lebanon.

But to comply with the UN cease-fire resolution that ended that war, Israel, the UN, and Lebanon are now trying to negotiate an Israeli withdrawal to the southern half while allowing UN peacekeepers to patrol the northern Lebanese half.

"All parties have recognized and accepted that this is Lebanese territory. Israel is obliged to withdraw from this area,'' says United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) spokesman Neeraj Singh in an e-mail. He added that the most recent round of talks were held last week in Jerusalem. "This will not only help reduce tensions, but will also greatly contribute to confidence-building in the area.''

Under the proposed compromise, the village would remain one unit even though security authority would be divided. Indeed, maps in the village council offices show no political division and there's no border demarcation inside the hamlet.

But for Ghajar residents in the cross-hairs of a geopolitical spat, any solution that splits the village even conceptually is a cause for concern.

"We are totally opposed to have any lines introduced to the village," says village council secretary Hussein Khatib, standing at the end of the street which the UN says is an international border. "We are all one family and can't afford to have a line to cut us off from one another… The UN could impose more checkpoints in addition to the Israeli checkpoints."

'We used to live OK'

Israel in effect annexed Ghajar and the Golan Heights two decades ago. After the 2000 withdrawal, the Israeli army declared Ghajar a closed military zone out of fear of infiltration and kidnapping attempts by Hezbollah operatives in neighboring Lebanese villages.

A military checkpoint stands at the entrance fortified by a watchtower, barbed wire, concrete embankment, and camouflage netting. A sign warns, "Stop! Border Ahead!'' Nonresidents must obtain special permission to visit.

"Our main concern is that Israel's security interest not be harmed, and that the residents of Ghajar continue their daily lives unhindered and without any obstacles," says Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

But villagers complain that neither Israel nor the UN have sought their input. Some worry that a division of the village could prevent them from getting to their jobs in nearby Israel proper, where many work, and put them under the watch of Hezbollah in a country they say they have no connection to.

"We used to live OK,'' said Rashash Naif, who works at a local kibbutz in Israel proper and owns olive tree orchards. "But since the [2006] war we've been living without rights because of the security situation.''

A military spokesperson said the army has no choice but to control access.

A border lined with pink wildflowers?

Council secretary Khatib says the villagers have land registry documents indicating that the Lebanese border is several miles north of village. The spokesman claims that the canyon of pink wildflowers bordering just beyond the village to the east was once considered a natural divide between the countries.

At the bottom sits the Hatzbani, a stream that runs from Lebanon into Israel to feed the Sea of Galilee, Israel's biggest natural reserve of fresh water. In 2002, Israeli officials became anxious when Hezbollah built a pumping station on the Hatzbani.

The army says that in 2005, Hezbollah attempted to kidnap Israeli soldiers stationed in Ghajar. Then during the 2006 war, the village came under attack from Hezbollah-fired rockets. There's also been concern about cross-border drug smuggling.

Tensions on the rise

With the onset of summer, tensions are once again on the rise between Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.

Israel, which has accused Syria of transferring advanced weapons, including Scud missiles, to Hezbollah this week launched a series of emergency drills to prepare for potential rocket attacks.. The Lebanese consider Israel's week-long, nationwide dress rehearsal for a catastrophic attack to be saber-rattling.

“Israel has to go to the negotiating table in order to achieve peace. To launch military exercises at such a time runs counter to peace efforts,” Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri told reporters in Cairo on Sunday. “How can you launch peace negotiations with the Palestinians while holding military maneuvers?”

Meanwhile, as diplomatic negotiations continue, Ghajar residents say their lives remain in a decade-long limbo.

"Since 2000, everyone lives in fear. All of my family lives in the northern half of the village and I live in the south,'' says Miki Zamar, sitting in the courtyard in Lebanese part of Ghajar. "It's either all of the village together or nothing. No one will agree to a division.''

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