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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 / May 25, 2010

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.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/File

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Ghajar, on the Lebanese border

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.

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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.

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'

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