Welcome to splitsville

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.

However Hezbollah militants erected a tent outside it and its militants eventually penetrated Ghajar and headed for the southern gate. They were ambushed and the Israelis renewed their patrols in northern Ghajar. Now a high fence separates the village from the rest of Lebanon, Hezbollah is no longer there, the United Nations’ Interim Force in Lebanon installed a row of floodlights and a white watch tower. Spanish peacekeepers man it.

But the landline phones in northern Ghajar are dead because Israeli technicians do not go there to fix them. The residents use cellular phones. Their car insurance is not valid there and when a person dies his body has to be taken to Ghajar’s entrance so that an Israeli official can sign a death certificate authorizing his burial. “They don’t even let us die in peace,” Ghajar’s spokesman Najib el-Khattib complained.

And Israel finds itself, again, pressured to complete its withdrawal, a move expected to bolster the moderates in Beirut and weaken Hezbollah which keeps arming itself to continue fighting. U.S., French and Italian officials have raised the issue with the Israeli government and Beirut’s Daily Star recently quoted the U.N.’s Special Coordinator to Lebanon Michael Williams as having said his organization would “redouble” its efforts to get the Israelis out.

Israeli officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the U.N. suggested that UNIFIL move into northern Ghajar, assume responsibility for security there, that the Israeli army would be in the southern sector and that residents could move from side to side.

A senior Israelis official noted, however, that Ghajar’s residents are “first and foremost Israeli citizens” so the government is seeking arrangements that would guarantee their security, that “the lifestyle will stay as it was,” and so far no agreement has been reached.

The residents fear Ghajar would be divided. El-Khattib noted the village’s school, mosque and cemetery are in the southern side. “We cannot have a situation where UNIFIL will be in the middle of the village with checkpoints … . We’re not going to allow it. It’s like cutting your body in half.” He said they would welcome transferring the entire village with all its lands to Lebanon, so that it would then be returned to Syria, but an Israeli official said this is not on the agenda.

Ahmed the grocer, speaking in fluent Hebrew, wanted to maintain his ties with Israel. “I am an Arab and Lebanon is an Arab country,” he said, but returning the area to Lebanon would be like “bringing me back to being a child and I would have to grow up all over again … . I don’t know the rules … . They’ll take advantage of the fact I am not familiar with things … . Sure it bothers me.”

In his store, stocked with Israeli-made products, he added: “The best thing for me is to stay in the country I was born in, the country in which I grew up, that I know and understand … . Imagine yourself being a refugee in your own home, on your own land.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify a reference to Ghajar.