"Over our dead bodies!" Najib Khatib shouted in Arabic as I stepped out of our car in Ghajar, a picturesque village cut in two by the boundary between the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and Lebanon. "Nobody tells us anything!" he said, his arms flailing in the air like a referee signaling a dramatic touchdown.
Khatib, Ghajar's spokesperson, can be forgiven for the awkward greeting. Israel, which administers the village with its approximately 2,000 residents as a military area, doesn't normally let foreigners in. I've arrived -- with an escort of a group of Israeli analysts and U.N. officers as well as a squad of IDF soldiers -- to discuss an issue weighing heavily on Khatib's mind: Ghajar's nightmare of boundaries and territorial ambiguity. Khatib's anger stems from the introduction of a U.N. plan to resolve the mess by placing the northern neighborhood of Ghajar under Lebanese, not Syrian, sovereignty. For Ghajar residents, whose loyalties rest strongly with their Syrian cousins, there is little satisfaction in trading Israel's Star of David for Lebanon's cedar flag.
Israel occupied Ghajar in July 1967, a month after it captured the Golan Heights from Syria. Unlike most of the Golan's Druze communities, Ghajar residents accepted Israeli citizenship when the Knesset voted to annex the Golan in 1981, but continued to insist their village was rightfully a part of Syria.
When Israel withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2000, U.N. cartographers -- who were unable to enter Ghajar due to tensions between Israeli forces and Hezbollah -- drew the temporary demarcation between the states, called the "Blue Line," through the village. After the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew south of the Blue Line, they left the boundary in the village unbarricaded so as not to affect daily life. Instead, they constructed a security fence south of the village with a gate for residents to cross into Israeli-controlled areas of the Golan Heights. For a time, life in Ghajar was good: Free to re-establish some degree of normalcy after the long-running guerrilla war between Hezbollah and Israel in South Lebanon, many residents fixed up their homes and bought new cars.
Then, in the most audacious attack since the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah launched in November 2005 an unsuccessful raid into Ghajar to kidnap Israeli soldiers. For the Israelis, this confirmed that Ghajar was the weakest link in their defenses along the border with Lebanon.
Here's how Ghajar is split by Lebanon, Israel, and Syria.
By Andrew Tabler
When the "Party of God" successfully abducted three Israeli soldiers elsewhere along the Blue Line and sparked a war in July 2006, Israel occupied all of Ghajar, blew up a Hezbollah command post on the northeast corner of the village, and reinstituted the security fence some 500 meters north of the Blue Line, along the northern edge of the village. Israeli forces have remained in what is now referred to as the "northern neighborhood" of Ghajar ever since. Although this solves Israel's security concerns, it places Israel in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, the diplomatic agreement that ended the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, which calls for a withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon.
According to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) plan, Israel would hand the pocket of Ghajar between the Blue Line and the northern security fence to U.N. administration. Lebanon's liaison officer to UNIFIL would hoist Lebanon's flag over the "northern neighborhood," allowing Lebanon to claim sovereignty over the disputed territory until its ultimate disposition can be negotiated between Beirut and Damascus. But this essentially means an indefinite wait: With the Golan Heights still under Israeli control, Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations are still needed to negotiate the terms for the return of the Golan to Syria. As Syria and Israel are not on speaking terms, it could be some time before Ghajar even shares a border with Syrian territory.
Although the UNIFIL plan is relatively straightforward, most other things in Ghajar are not. Khatib and his fellow villagers in Ghajar are Alawites, the obscure offshoot of Shiite Islam that dominates Syria's Assad regime. Speaking with Khatib, I notice he has his Syrian brethren's stunning bluish-green speckled eyes -- but his Arabic accent is totally different. When I mention this fact, Khatib's motionless stare reveals another motivation behind the village's unstinting loyalty to Syria: fear. Any sign of ambivalence about Ghajar's ultimate ambition for reintegration into Syria would undoubtedly be punished if Syrian authorities eventually do assume control over the village.