Border village drawn unwillingly into Mideast conflict

Hizbullah fighters last week gained entrance into an Arab village thriving under Israeli occupation.

When Israeli soldiers marched over the dusty grass plain into the Syrian village of Ghajar in 1967, they found an impoverished village at the Lebanese border, inhabited by a few dozen Muslims in run-down homes.

But under 34 years of Israeli rule, the Arab village has blossomed into a haven for 2,000 residents, most of whom work or go to school in Israel, just 1-1/2 miles to the south. Purple bougainvillea and slender eucalyptus trees line streets of white-washed homes. The people of Ghajar were even granted Israeli citizenship 20 years ago when the Jewish state annexed the territory, allowing residents to vote in elections.

Until last week, Ghajar was insulated from the daily firefights between Israeli forces and Lebanese Hizbullah fighters, who successfully caused Israel to end its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

But now, this oasis-like village of Arab-Jewish harmony has been drawn into the last remaining border dispute area between Israel and Hizbullah fighters - the Shebaa Farms, just two miles away. Last week, Hizbullah fighters entered the northern perimeter of Ghajar, setting off alarms with Israeli forces, who are now thinking of erecting a fence through the village, which would cut off most of the residents.

With tensions soaring in this tinderbox region, this small patch of land could spark a wider outbreak that no one wants.

"We hope and plead ... to our Lebanese brothers not to try and cross into our village, because every single entry is going to cause us problems," says Hussein Khatib, Ghajar's mayor.

Redrawing borders

Ghajar's problems began when the Israeli army withdrew from south Lebanon last year. The United Nations drew a line - the so-called Blue Line - corresponding to the international border between Lebanon and Israel, behind which the Israeli forces were obliged to pull back to fulfill UN Security Council resolutions.

But the UN's cartographers deduced that the border between Lebanon and Israeli-occupied Syria actually ran through Ghajar. Suddenly, the Syrian village was technically split into two, with the northern two-thirds in Lebanon and the southern third in Israeli-occupied Syria. For the past year, Israeli troops have maintained a presence in southern Ghajar, but the northern "Lebanese" end is off-limits.

The UN's Blue Line through Ghajar made residents here furious. It meant the Israeli army - which is erecting an electified security fence along its 70-mile-frontier with Lebanon - could physically divide the village. That would cut off the majority of residents from their jobs and schools in Israel.

The Israeli army has described Ghajar as Israel's "soft underbelly," reflecting its concern that Hizbullah fighters might try to infiltrate the Jewish state through the unfenced village. Despite its misgivings, the Israelis chose not to split the village, in deference to the wishes of the residents.

The UN last year extracted a tacit understanding from Lebanon that the village would be left alone. For a year, the uneasy status quo remained unchanged.

New visitors from Lebanon

Ever since 1967, Ghajar was effectively sealed off from the rest of Lebanon by a belt of minefields and an old Israeli security fence. Last week, however, a unit of UN peacekeepers redeployed from a temporary position beside a gate in the old Israeli fence, one mile east of the village.

For the first time, anyone in Lebanon could drive through the unguarded gate, turn right, and follow the mile-long road into northern Ghajar.

To the alarm of residents and the Israeli army, the first visitors to the village were Hizbullah fighters. One group planted a Hizbullah flag, and others have been seen peering south toward Israeli forces through binoculars.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer said Hizbullah's entry into northern Ghajar is "a gross violation of the status quo," adding that the Jewish state would "not tolerate" such a change.

Hussein Khatib, Ghajar's mayor, says the villagers are "very afraid" that the Israeli army will change its mind and run a fence through the village if Hizbullah and other Lebanese continue visiting.

"All we want is to be left alone by the Lebanese, the Israelis and the UN," says Mohsen Karmouz, a resident of Ghajar. "We're willing to live under occupation so long as we are all together."

While Hizbullah's forays into the village could be little more than taunts to Israel, the atmosphere of amicable coexistence in Ghajar has changed dramatically in the past week. The UN has received harsh threats from Israel that it will attack anyone entering "Lebanese" Ghajar whom it considers a security risk. The UN warned last week that Ghajar could become a "new unwanted flashpoint" along the border.

"I see the situation at the moment with concern," says Staffan de Mistura, the UN secretary-general's personal representative to south Lebanon.

"The best solution is to return to a benign neglect by everyone, a so-called gentleman's agreement [not to interfere in the village's affairs]," he says.

On Saturday, the Israeli army declared Ghajar a military zone, banning everyone from the village except for soldiers and residents. But yesterday, Hizbullah's southern commander, Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, led some 200 Lebanese into the northern end of the village in defiance of the Israeli order. "This is Lebanese land, and we naturally come when we want to," Qaouk said.

But in the bigger picture, UN sources say they doubt Hizbullah is about to establish a permanent presence in northern Ghajar.

Ghajar is surrounded by minefields and barbed wire left by Israeli forces during the 1967 war. With only one usable road in and out of the village, Ghajar would become a death trap for any Hizbullah fighters positioned here if fighting broke out.

Furthermore, the residents have a powerful ally. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is of the same Alawite Muslim sect as the villagers here. And Syria is the powerbroker in neighboring Lebanon.

Hizbullah, which operates in south Lebanon with the blessing of Syria, risks angering the Syrian president if its fighters cause trouble for Assad's co-religionists in Ghajar.

Last week, the village sent a letter to President Assad, requesting him "to ask the United Nations to guarantee that the village will stay unified ... and not to allow anybody to enter the village, because any change endangers us and our families."

Other unwanted visitors

The only Lebanese visitors to Ghajar so far are Hizbullah fighters and reporters. Neither are made particularly welcome by the residents.

"Israel is making it very difficult for us because of you coming here," says resident Bassem Khatib to a group of Lebanese reporters. "When the Israeli soldiers see someone coming to Ghajar, they close the gate at the [southern] entrance of the village, and we are stuck here. It doesn't matter if someone is sick, they won't open the gate to let them out."

A young girl hurries past as a car pulls up. A cameraman and his colleague climb out. "Hi. We're from Channel Two," says the cameraman cheerily, referring to Israel's English-language TV station. He shoulders his camera and begins filming.

The Lebanese reporters pale as they realize they are going to be splashed all over Israeli television news that night. It's illegal in Lebanon to have any contact with Israel.

"How did you get into the village?" the cameraman asks, apparently unaware that he is in fact standing on Lebanese soil.

The Israeli cameraman and his Lebanese counterpart stand two yards apart and film each other filming each other, while standing in part of a village that is inside Lebanon, but whose Syrian residents hold Israeli citizenship. Such is the unusual position in which Ghajar finds itself.

A convoy of cars slowly drives past, kicking up a cloud of white dust. Stony-faced men - some with shaved heads and wrap-a-round sunglasses - glare though the car windows at the Lebanese visitors.

"Israeli mukhabarat [secret police]," mutters the Lebanese cameraman.

Mayor Khatib says the village cannot survive if Israel chooses to erect a security fence through the middle. "On a map, the village is divided," he says. "Our position is not to allow anyone to impose this line on us, be it Israel, Lebanon, or the UN. There is no way we will let this happen. It will destroy our village."

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