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Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Israel Withdrawal Plan Stirs Lebanese Village

AOL NEWS, Wednesday, November 17th

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

JERUSALEM (Nov. 17) -- Residents of Ghajar, a tiny village straddling the Lebanon's border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, were once renowned throughout the Ottoman Empire for their talents as soothsayers.

But they failed to predict today's decision by Israel's Security Cabinet to withdraw from the northern part of the village, home to some 1,500 of its 2,100 residents, and hand control over to United Nations forces.

The decision to withdraw to the "blue line" delineated by U.N. mapmakers after Israel's pullout from southern Lebanon in 2000 has been telegraphed by Israeli leaders for weeks, but it still caught skeptics by surprise.

Israel withdrawal plan stirs Ghajar, the disputed village on the border of Isael and Lebanon
Dror Artzi, JINIPIX / AFP / Getty Images
Israeli forces stand guard in the disputed village of Ghajar, which sits on Lebanon's border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel's Security Cabinet has backed plans to withdraw troops from the northern part of Ghajar and hand over control to a U.N. peacekeeping force.

Only last Sunday, the Lebanese daily Ad-Diyar cited "well-informed diplomatic sources" who said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "resorts to maneuvering on the issue of withdrawing from Ghajar every time he wants to attract more U.S. military and financial aid." They "did not expect such a move to take place in the near future."

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, called for a full return of all forces to the international border, but Israel held out. Under nominal U.N. security control, the village, with access to both Lebanon and Israel, had become a gateway for all manner of shady dealings, from espionage and drug running to terrorism. The Israeli government finally buckled today to U.N., Lebanese and American pressure and decided to return to the U.N.-mandated international border.

The timing of the move and the final deployment of forces in and around Ghajar will be negotiated between Israel and the U.N.

Israel Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AOL News the village would not be divided.

"There will be no checkpoints inside the village, no barrier, no fence, no checkpoints, no roadblock," Palmor said. "That's the problem from the security point of view. That's something we need to solve with UNIFIL [U.N. Forces in Lebanon]. It is deployed on the northern border of the village, and it will need to adopt very tight security measures not to make this a very porous border the way it was between 2000 and 2006."

Villagers told AOL News they were dismayed by the decision, despite Israeli assurances that "both the security of Israel's citizens and the normal life of the residents of Ghajar, which remains undivided, will continue to be maintained while the new arrangements are being put in place."

Ghajar is perched on a rocky promontory that plunges into a ravine where the fresh waters of the El Wizani spring bubble into the Jordan River to the south. Its residents say the Hasbani River, 50 yards to the north, is the natural border and also the source of their water.

Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since the Six Day War in 1967. Residents of Ghajar insist they are proud Syrians from the tiny Alawite sect of President Bashar Assad's ruling circle. Some even fought for the Syrians and still have army papers issued in nearby Kuneitra. But when Israel seized the area, villagers took Israeli citizenship and have been living quietly ever since. They tend their cows and sheep in land now controlled by Israel, study in Israeli universities and work in nearby Israeli towns and kibbutzim.

"In 1967, when our people tried to cross the Hasbani River, they were beaten back by the Lebanese army,'' Hassan Fatali, a 39-year-old English teacher, told AOL News. "Israel thought Ghajar was Lebanese, but Lebanon wouldn't accept us. They said we were Syrians, which we are."

The village used to be on the south side, but it expanded in the 1950s when residents began building new homes on agricultural land to the north, Fatali said.

"It was before 1967, when this was Syria. We have documents for the buildings from 1957. The border was further north. The documents are signed by officials from Kuneitra, the Syrian region that we belong to," he said.

"We are a small village, and we live as a family. We marry each other within the village. We are all related. There are many people who live on this side and have sons on the other side. In Berlin, the wall was destroyed. Now they are going to build a wall in this small village that will divide families. It's a shame," he said.

Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, told AOL News he discerned two reasons for the Israeli decision: to boost the Lebanese government, which faces a major threat from Hezbollah, and to assuage Washington.

"The village in itself is unimportant," Khashan said. "The Israelis have been adamant when it comes to settlement construction in the West Bank, and they embarrassed President Obama. This is designed to show the Obama administration that the Israelis are not recalcitrant, that they may be tough on one issue yet they can be accommodating of American interests on other issues."

Khashan added, "This will not have a tangible effect on the balance of power domestically. Hezbollah was quick to respond, saying that Israel's decision to pull out from Ghajar village is important but the Israelis need to follow it up by other withdrawals, and also they are demanding that Israel discontinues its flights over Lebanese airspace. These are demands that the Israelis are unlikely to act upon. So in this regard it will have no impact on internal Lebanese politics."

Khashan said he had some sympathy for the villagers. "To tell you the truth, I think under Israeli control they receive better benefits than they would be getting under Lebanese control. I heard protests from the people of the northern Ghajar village. They don't want to be returned to Lebanon," he said.

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