A life straddling political fault lines

 GHAJAR, Israel — In this far-flung village that straddles a tense international border, location is not just a real estate issue. It determines in which country you reside.
         The village, a cluster of pastel-coloured houses in a deceptively tranquil valley, sits at a volatile juncture where regional rivals Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet. It commands crucial water sources, perched above the Hasbani River and the Wazzani springs.
         Ghajar (pronounced RAH-jar) has a complicated history, adapting to the shifting map of territorial conquests and squeezed between Israel, which currently controls the village, and its enemies, including the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
         Now international powers interested in stabilizing the region are pushing for another change in Ghajar’s status by returning the northern part to Lebanon, unnerving the residents.
         “These are simple people who want to live and earn a living in dignity,” said Najib Khatib, the official village spokesman.
         “What we want is for the village to remain united” with its 1,133 hectares of agricultural land, he said.
         The latest chapter in the village’s saga began with Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000. The United Nations determined that the international border with Lebanon ran right through Ghajar’s central square. The border has mostly been a virtual one, however, and with Israel’s war against Hezbollah in 2006, Israeli soldiers returned to take control of the Lebanese side.
         But with a new government in Beirut and a desire to deny Hezbollah any justification for attacking Israel on grounds that it is occupying Lebanese territory, interested parties, the United States among them, want to see Ghajar removed from a long list of grievances. Israel also wants to show a willingness to complete its withdrawal from Lebanon in compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war.
         As a temporary solution, UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, has proposed taking control of the village’s northern part.
         Yet the roughly 2,200 residents of Ghajar are Israeli citizens whose allegiance is to Syria. They insist that they never belonged to Lebanon.
         “Now, Israel is occupying me,” said Atef Khatib, a pharmacist who lives in Ghajar’s northern section. “I prefer to live in Syria. That is my country and my home.”
         Personifying the somewhat paradoxical existence of the villagers, Khatib, who drives a shiny sport utility vehicle, studied pharmacology in Syria and works in Qiryat Shemona, an Israeli border town that has suffered greatly over the years from Hezbollah rocket fire.
         Despite signs of relative affluence in the village, daily life there already borders on the bizarre.
         Because of Ghajar’s location, the Israelis have surrounded the village with fences and declared the area a closed military zone. Border police officers control the southern entrance to the village and inspect every vehicle that comes and goes. Access to the village for outsiders is strictly limited; a group of reporters recently visited with special permission from the military and were allowed to stay little more than an hour.
         Since 2000, Israel has stopped providing services to the north. Khatib, the spokesman, said that if a refrigerator broke down, it had to be taken to the southern entrance for repairs, with electricity from an extremely long extension cord.
         Similarly, if the police need to certify the cause of death of a villager from the north, the body has to be taken to the village entrance — “like a refrigerator,” Khatib said.
         The residents of Ghajar are members of the Alawite sect, the governing minority of Syria. The village came under Israeli control as part of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Syria lost to Israel in the 1967 war. When Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, the villagers chose to become Israeli citizens.
         At the same time, with Israel occupying a buffer zone in southern Lebanon, the village expanded north into the territory now marked as Lebanese soil. Disputing the United Nations demarcation line, Khatib, the spokesman, claims that there were houses on the northern side before 1967, built with permits from the Syrian authorities. By now some two-thirds of the residents live in the northern part of the village. The school, the mosque, the cemetery and the village lands lie to the south.
         Between 2000 and 2006 northern Ghajar remained a kind of no man’s land. Then the Israeli army moved in, citing security concerns. Military officials said that Hezbollah was working inside the village and had used it as a base in a foiled attempt to abduct Israeli soldiers in 2005.
         Israel is negotiating with UNIFIL and says it is ready to see the peacekeeping forces replace its troops in northern Ghajar. But working out the details of the arrangement, Israeli officials say, will take time.
         Aside from security issues, the sides are trying to figure out the legal and practical logistics of how Israeli citizens can continue a semblance of a normal life while living in Lebanon.
         The residents, who say they have not been consulted, fear that a barrier and checkpoints will go up in the centre of the village, disrupting life and splitting up families. Most of the inhabitants belong to the same clan.
         Ultimately, the villagers say, they want to be returned to Syria as part of the Golan Heights under an eventual Israeli-Syrian peace deal.
         In the meantime they prefer to stay united under Israeli authority. But they are reluctant to say so explicitly. Such an admission could be construed as betrayal by the neighbours across the lines.

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