Proposed Golan map divides families

Residents of an Israeli-occupied Syrian village oppose a UN effort that would make many of them Lebanese.

The folks in this scenic village are caught in a precarious triangle: They are Syrian by heritage, Israeli by citizenship, and soon they could be something they never expected - Lebanese.

In a quirky twist, history, geography, and hard-edged international law are conspiring to divide territory and families that have lived comfortably for three decades under Israeli occupation.

The ongoing United Nations cartography to monitor Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon, based on 1923 borders, places two-thirds of Al-Ghajar in Lebanon, a shock for residents who prospered under Israeli rule. The other one-third of the village would remain in Israeli-occupied Syrian territory.

"If a person is divided into two, he dies," says Adil Shamaly, a spokesman for the municipality. "We are Syrians, not Lebanese," adds a youth. "Being a part of Lebanon would be like becoming a refugee." According to UN maps, Mr. Shamaly and his father, Mohammed, would live in Lebanon, while his sisters Raja, Adla, and Asma would continue to live under Israeli rule. Given the absence of open borders between the two countries, and their unremitting enmity, it is hard to see how the family members could maintain contact except, perhaps, through a fence.

Al-Ghajar, which has 1,700 residents, is a unique blend of Syrian and Israeli influences. Black flags flutter from houses to mark the 40-day mourning period for Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who died on June 10. Youths speak an Arabic peppered with Hebrew slang and children play with the Israeli soldiers keeping watch across the Hazbani River into Lebanon.

According to Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN special envoy for the Middle East, Al-Ghajar historically was divided between Lebanon and Syria. In 1964, Syria annexed the Lebanese part, but the step was never recognized by Beirut, notes Mr. Larsen. During their 1967 war, Israel captured the entire village from Syria, along with the rest of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau whose complete return has been demanded by Syria during peace diplomacy.

Larsen says it is "entirely up to the government of Lebanon" to determine whether there is a way to keep al-Ghajar unified. He adds the UN is merely following international law in its determination that the Lebanon-Israel border cuts through al-Ghajar.

"Every Arab welcomes the liberation of every inch of Arab land [from Israel] but you can't liberate residents without their land," says Shamaly.

In 1981, when Israel annexed the Golan Heights, al-Ghajar residents opted for Israeli citizenship, in contrast with other Golan towns, where the Israeli move was strongly opposed. "It was just to have a card to help you work," says Imad Khatib, a schoolteacher. "It doesn't change your nationality."

The rewards are clear, al-Ghajar has all the municipal facilities it needs, and more: clean streets, large houses, a clinic, a new school building, and a well-manicured soccer field.

As adherents of the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, residents have religious links to the Alawite minority that rules Syria. They also have relatives in Syria who fled during the 1967 war. "Syria is our mother, while Lebanon is our aunt," says Shamaly. "It is a sister state of Syria."

A young man in his twenties offers a different view. "The new generation prefers Israel," he says. "We know nothing about Syria. But if we have to return to Syria, we won't have a problem."

UN cartographers tried to enter the village two weeks ago, but changed their plans after meeting up with demonstrators and burning tires. Youths still lie in wait at the village entrance, ready to sound the alarm if UN personnel approach. Tires are stacked nearby in ominous preparation.

But it seems doubtful that al-Ghajar will be able to thwart its fracture.

Voicing sympathy for the plight of town residents, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday said, "I believe that an effort will be made by all the players to keep to the right way, which is that human beings who are Israeli citizens won't be detached from their families."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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