Lebanon: Israel to Withdraw from a Divided Border Town

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Dror Artzi / Getty Images

A soldier stands guard in the disputed village of Ghajar, on the northern border of Israel with Lebanon and Syria's Golan Heights, on Nov. 17, 2010. Israel's security cabinet backed plans to withdraw troops from the northern part of Ghajar and hand over control to a U.N. peacekeeping force

Ghajar, with its blaze of whitewashed and pastel-colored buildings nestled on a plain of sun-bleached grass speckled with black-basalt boulders, may not look like much, but it's one of the most complex territorial conundrums in the Middle East. The town straddles the Israel-Lebanon border, but its residents are at once nationals of Syria and citizens of Israel.

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, the Israeli government formally agreed to a U.N. proposal to withdraw its troops from the northern half of the village, which lies inside Lebanon. The troops have patrolled northern Ghajar since the end of the 2006 war with Lebanon's militant Shi'ite Hizballah.

Israel was obliged to withdraw from northern Ghajar under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which helped end the 2006 war. But the Israelis had been unwilling to pull back until they were assured that adequate security arrangements were in place to prevent a return of Hizballah influence in the neighborhood and to ensure the well-being of the Israeli citizens who will continue living there.

The town's residents, however, fear that either Israel or the 13,300-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, will physically split the village by running a fence along the Blue Line, the U.N.-delineated boundary corresponding to Lebanon's southern border.

"We demand that the village remains whole and that the debate on it be part of a peace agreement with Syria," said Najib Khatib, Ghajar's spokesman, who led a protest on Wednesday against the Israeli government's decision. Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who was in Ghajar on Wednesday on a fact-finding trip, said no one was keeping the residents informed as to their fate.

"The Israeli government ... is not officially giving any of the residents details of the withdrawal because they themselves are not sure what the final arrangement with UNIFIL will be," Tabler said.

In Lebanon, Israel's announcement has been greeted with some suspicion. Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker and an ally of Hizballah, said that despite the promised troop pullout, "we will continue to say that the resistance [Hizballah] is still a national need in the face of Israeli aggression."

Ghajar owes its peculiar status to the failure of the French mandatory authorities to properly demarcate a border when they turned Lebanon and Syria into separate nation-states in the 1920s. For decades, the border was open, and the area around Ghajar, where the frontiers of Lebanon, Syria and British-ruled Palestine met, was a smugglers' paradise. In the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Ghajar was seized by Israeli troops along with the adjacent Syrian territory of the Golan Heights. In 1981, the Ghajar residents, all of them Alawites — an obscure offshoot of Shi'ite Islam whose number include Syria's ruling elite — accepted Israeli citizenship after Israel declared its annexation of some of the territories occupied in 1967. In subsequent years, Ghajar prospered and expanded northward across the unfenced border, into Lebanese territory.

In 2000, when Israel withdrew from an occupied border strip in south Lebanon, the U.N. discovered that the border ran through Ghajar, leaving the upper two-thirds inside Lebanon and the rest in Israeli-occupied Syria. In 2001, it was possible to access the northern half of the village from Lebanon. Visitors could relish the bizarre experience of standing on Lebanese soil chatting with Syrian nationals who claim Israeli citizenship, while being eyed by suspicious Israeli troops standing a few yards away.

That arrangement ended when Hizballah militants set up a position in an old bomb shelter on the edge of northern Ghajar and banned curious Lebanese from entering. Ghajar then became a major conduit for Hizballah's intelligence penetration of Israel through the co-opting of cross-border narcotics-smuggling networks. Hashish, cocaine and heroin were dispatched into Israel, often via Ghajar, in exchange for cash for the Lebanese dealers and intelligence information for Hizballah. An Israeli army officer at the time described Ghajar as "Israel's soft underbelly." UNIFIL, then a much smaller force of only 2,000 peacekeepers, could not interfere in the illicit cross-border drugs-for-intel operation because Hizballah's activities had the blessing of the Lebanese government. When Israel and Hizballah went to war in 2006, Israeli troops moved into northern Ghajar and have stayed there ever since.

Today UNIFIL and the Lebanese army have imposed a much tighter security cordon around northern Ghajar, consisting of fences, checkpoints, watchtowers and regular patrols to prevent access from Lebanon into Ghajar. The tightened security regime around northern Ghajar was key to Israel's decision to pull its troops out.

"The essence of the proposal is that the [pre-2006] 'live and let live' arrangement that permits the residents of northern Ghajar to move freely back and forth across the Blue Line and continue to receive municipal services by way of [Israel] will be restored in full," says a senior Western diplomat familiar with the deal.

The focus on Ghajar and the new security regime around its northern perimeter may deter Hizballah from resurrecting its intelligence networks in the village, but the Shi'ite group's clandestine activities in Lebanon's southern border district will certainly continue. In July, the Israeli military took the unusual step of releasing video footage, maps, 3-D animated graphics and aerial photographs of what it said were Hizballah arms depots in the town of Khiam, which sits on a hill overlooking Ghajar. The Israelis said Khiam was just one of 100 villages in the border district that Hizballah has secretly transformed into "military bases."