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Welcome to splitsville

The UN resolved a border dispute between Lebanon and Israel but left one village divided ... literally.

An aerial photo of the village of Ghajar taken in 2004 showing the U.N. line (in blue). The Hebrew word beside the arrow says: checkpoint. (Courtesy Israeli army mapping unit)

JERUSALEM — Mohsen Ahmed’s village grocery store, in the village of Ghajar, is on a quiet street with no sidewalk. His big display window is bare but the store and his apartment above it underscore a situation that has kept United Nations, Israeli, Lebanese and other diplomats busy over years.

An international boundary line cuts right through Ahmed’s store and so the Coca-Cola boxes, toys and his counter are in Lebanon but the juices, biscuits and corn oil are in an area Israel occupied from Syria in 1967 and effectively annexed. Upstairs, the master bedroom is in Israel, but if he wakes up in a cold night to see whether his children are warmly covered, he enters Lebanon.

A narrow road flanked by minefields leads to Ahmed’s isolated village of Ghajar (pronounced ra-jar) that is a closed military zone, soldiers guard the entrance to it, a police dog checks the cars that leave and visitors need a special military permit to enter it.

Some 2,200 people live in Ghajar. The village was established several hundred years ago by Alawites, a Syrian minority sect to which that country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, belongs. Ghajar’s residents are Syrian citizens, some of their children study in Syria and the local council’s secretary, Hussein Khatib, said they used to send their tomatoes, eggplants and beans to the market in Damascus.

When the Israeli army approached Ghajar during the 1967 war, half the residents fled to neighboring Lebanon whose authorities brought buses and trucks and sent them right on to Damascus. “They didn’t want us to stay on their land for even one day,” Khatib said.

Those who stayed in Ghajar accepted Israeli citizenship. “We are a small village, far from the rest of the world," Khatib said. "We realized that in order to live in dignity, protect our homes, areas and land we should accept Israeli identity cards.”

The Israelis, who occupied southern Lebanon in 1978, did not stop Ghajar’s villagers from building their new homes across the unmarked boundary line. Nor did the villagers pay much heed to border issues. They maintain that their fields that cover 3,125 acres are on both sides of the line and that some of their old houses were built in northern Ghajar with Syrian permits indicating that Syria, too, did not consider that area part of Lebanon.

Reality hit in 2000 when Israel finally moved to abide by a United Nations Security Council resolution that called for their withdrawal from Lebanon. It asked the United Nations to set the line to which it must pull back. That proved to be a problem because Syria and Lebanon never resolved their border differences. The surveyors therefore settled on a map that delineates the area in which the Golan-based U.N. Disengagement Observation Force operates. The line, which took into account Lebanese, Syrian, Israeli, French, and U.S. maps, runs through Ghajar.

Rather than split the village, a gentlemen’s agreement provided that the Israeli army withdraw from the Lebanese side and that no one take over.