Thursday 22 June 2000

Villagers stand together against being divided

U.N. border for Golan Heights splits houses

By Matthew Kalman

USA TODAY, June 22, 2000

GHAJAR, Golan Heights -- Mapmakers from the United Nations, backed by the Lebanese government, insist that Mohammed Khatib's kitchen should be in Lebanon, but his living room and half his bedrooms should be across the border in the Golan Heights.

For the past two weeks, since U.N. officials tried to mark the frontier straight through the middle of three houses and up the main street, Ghajar has been on strike. The residents have kept a round-the-clock vigil at the village gate. They're armed with clubs and burning tires, ready to repel the mapmakers with force if necessary.

''We will not allow them to divide our village,'' says Hassan Fatali, 29, an English teacher at the village school. ''We will protect the village with our blood and our bodies. We will not allow them to divide one family into two.''

Residents says the tiny village has been around for more than 400 years, long before the British and French invented a country called Lebanon in 1923 and drew the international border on a map that now divides Ghajar.

If the U.N. prevails, the village school will be under Israeli control, but the clinic will be in Lebanon. Kasser Salman, a 30-year-old town worker, will be on the Israeli side, but his younger sisters, Najd and Majd, and his nieces and nephews, will be in Lebanon.

''We want to stay all united in one village, with one destiny,'' Salman says. ''They want to put two-thirds of the houses in Lebanon and cut them off from their land. What can a farmer do with a house and no land? If they do it, we'll just keep breaking down the fence. It's an impossible situation, and we'll never allow it.''

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 1,700 villagers say the Hazbani River, 50 yards north, is the natural border and also the source of their water.

To add to the confusion, Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967. The residents of Ghajar insist they are proud Syrians. Some of them, such as Amar Khahamouz, even fought for the Syrians and still have army papers issued in nearby Kuneitra. But when Israel seized the area, villagers all took Israeli citizenship and have been living quietly since. They tend their cows and sheep, study in Israeli universities and work in nearby Israeli towns and kibbutzim.

''In 1967, when our people tried to cross the Hazbani River, they were beaten back by the Lebanese army,'' Fatali said. ''Israel thought Ghajar was Lebanese, but Lebanon wouldn't accept us. They said we were Syrians, which we are.''

''We have nothing against our Lebanese brothers, but we are a Syrian village occupied by Israel, and all our property is registered in Syria,'' village council leader Salman Khatib says.

On Wednesday, Khatib presented a protest letter to U.N. Undersecretary-General Kieran Prendergast. Addressed to SecretaryGeneral Kofi Annan, the letter says, ''We are ready to die, sir, and you and the international community will be responsible for that.''

Annan said Wednesday in Jerusalem that his cartographers' ''blue line'' was based on ''historic material, both here in Israel and in Paris and in London,'' but the villagers were unimpressed.

''The United Nations should be uniting people, not dividing them,'' says Adel Shanadi, 42, a Hebrew teacher at the village school. ''In Berlin, they destroyed the wall. Here they want to build one. We have become the victims of the United Nations. As far as we are concerned, they have become the Dividing Nations.''

Lebanese leaders have insisted that Israel withdraw from a number of small Lebanese enclaves still controlled by Israel since its dramatic pullout last month after 22 years of occupation. They have threatened not to deploy any of their troops in the area until the Ghajar dispute has been settled.

The villagers say they don't mind where they end up, as long as they are united, together with their land. Israel is unlikely to cede control of this area to Lebanon.

On Wednesday, birds of prey with golden-tipped wings could be seen through the barbed-wire border fence, circling above the ravine outside the village. The residents of Ghajar, once renowned throughout the Ottoman Empire for their talents as soothsayers, were trying not to see them as an omen of diplomatic bone picking to come.