Israel approves withdrawal from Ghajar, flashpoint village on Lebanese border
The decision to withdraw Israeli troops from Ghajar comes more than four years after Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon's militant Shiite Hezbollah ended.
Israel's cabinet on Wednesday approved a United Nations proposal to withdraw Israeli troops from the divided village of Ghajar, which straddles the UN-policed boundary between Lebanon and Israeli-occupied Syria. The move is likely to ease tensions in the area, but could complicate the lives of residents, who oppose any sort of "Berlin Wall" dividing them from each other.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The withdrawal will leave one less bone of contention along a border that, while presently calm, has remained a potential flashpoint since the end of the month-long war in 2006 between Israel and Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah. Though it lies in Lebanese territory, it has remained under Israeli occupation since the war.
Intensive UN-led diplomacy led to today's decision by the Israeli cabinet.
“We have been discussing with both parties the specifics of the withdrawal because of the specifics of the situation where the village is divided in two,” says Milos Strugar, the top political adviser in the UN peacekeeping force based in south Lebanon, known as UNIFIL. “UNIFIL within its mandate is there and ready to provide all the support required by all the parties.”
No date has been set for the withdrawal, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet citing a need to work out security arrangements in coordination with UNIFIL "as soon as possible." A statement from the prime minister's office said that "the normal life of the residents of Ghajar, which remains undivided, will continue to be maintained while the new arrangements are being put in place."
The significance of Ghajar
At first glance, it can be difficult to understand why so much fuss has surrounded Ghajar, a village of some 2,000 residents, all of whom are Alawites, an obscure offshoot of the Shiite sect. There is no permanent Israeli troop presence in the northern sector of the village – soldiers patrol it each day before returning to the southern, Israeli-controlled, side. The residents want to remain under Israeli authority and there has been no fighting in the area for 4-1/2 years.
Yet there are few border issues in the Middle East as tangled as that of Ghajar. The village owes its complicated status to the indifference of the French mandatory authorities in the 1920s that never clearly delineated the border between the new state of Lebanon and Syria. Successive Lebanese governments also ignored this remote rural pocket of southeast Lebanon, essentially turning the unmarked, unfenced, and poorly policed border into a smugglers' corridor.
Israeli troops overran Ghajar, then a small farming community, when it seized and occupied the adjacent Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The residents considered themselves Syrian nationals but accepted Israeli citizenship in 1981 when Israel formally annexed the territories occupied in 1967. Over the years, Ghajar grew wealthier and expanded in size.