Dispatch

Solomon's Baby in the Middle East

A trip to a village literally cut in two by war.

"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.

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.

 

Ghajar is also focused on keeping its Israeli presence because of more immediate interests. Designation as a Syrian village in the Golan Heights means Ghajar's residents can continue to benefit from the services that accompany Israeli citizenship while still allowing for the possibility that the Golan, and the residents of Ghajar, will someday be returned to the Syrian fold.

Meanwhile, Israelis remain skeptical of their neighbors in Ghajar. It is well known that, before 2006, Hezbollah moved narcotics through Ghajar into Israel. But what the Israelis in my convoy are reluctant to discuss are media reports that Israeli drug dealers -- mostly from Israel's Arab community -- paid Hezbollah with vital intelligence on Israeli military and civilian sites. This detail made Israelis suspicious that the funding for the new cars and home improvements in Ghajar was coming from Hezbollah.

The Israelis also have reason to feel queasy about the precedent set by their withdrawal. Although placing the disputed territory in UNIFIL trusteeship seems pragmatic, it has serious implications: For the first time, Israeli citizens will be placed under U.N. administration -- a precedent that could be applied in the West Bank and Golan Heights.

Making this even more complicated is that nobody seems to know where the border should be. The French, during their "mandate" over Lebanon and Syria in the period between the two world wars, didn't demarcate the Lebanese-Syrian border, leaving a territorial ambiguity that continues to this day. U.N. cartographers drew the Blue Line from a point northeast of Ghajar to a point on the bend on the Hasbani River just south of the Wazzani Springs, Ghajar's water source. Then, more recently, Israeli cartographer Asher Kaufman argued that the line should be drawn to a point somewhere north of the Wazzani Springs, meaning far less of Ghajar could lie in nominally Lebanese territory.

To prove the village's case, Khatib takes us on a tour. As our caravan of cars and trucks begins to move through the town, I notice that, just like in Alawite villages on the Syrian coast, Ghajar holds none of the standard signs of Islam in the Arab world -- mosques, madrassa, or veiled women. "We have crossed the line!" Khatib exclaims at one point, apparently at random. In the eyes of the international community, we are now in Lebanon.

Nearly jumping out of his car seat, Khatib shouted "There!" and pointed over my shoulder at what were clearly pre-1967 black basalt stone houses. He confirms what Lebanese in neighboring villages told me the previous week: Sheikh Muhammed, a local notable and Khatib's grandfather, built the structures in the mid-1950s and registered them in the Syrian Ministry of Interior. He holds this out as proof of Syrian sovereignty over the land prior to 1967. According to Khatib, the border should be 500 meters north of the current security fence.

 

The details of the UNIFIL plan to take control of the village are being hammered out in trilateral meetings between UNIFIL, Israel, and Lebanon -- the only point of contact between the two countries' governments since the end of the 2006 war. The proposed withdrawal has opened up a Pandora's box of potential legal questions: Can Israel supply a part of Lebanon with electricity? What happens if a villager in the north has a medical emergency and needs treatment in Israel? What legal rights do the northern residents have in Israeli courts?

The success of the Israeli withdrawal will depend greatly on the reaction of the Lebanese political elite. According to some Lebanese politicians, a return of Ghajar will show that diplomacy with Israel works, undermining Hezbollah's resistance narrative. But when Israel leaked that it was preparing to withdraw from Ghajar ahead of Lebanon's June 7, 2009, parliamentary election, in a bid to support the March 14 bloc led by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Hezbollah and its allies accused Israel of meddling in Lebanese domestic politics. Will Hariri, who now leads a government that includes Hezbollah, hail an Israeli withdrawal as a victory for "the resistance" or merely talk about "liberation"?

Washington hopes the withdrawal will also be a small step to help pull U.S. President Barack Obama's administration out of another twilight zone: the Middle East peace process. Diplomacy on Ghajar could provide momentum to the trilateral talks, leading to a resurrection of the Israel-Lebanon Mixed Armistice Commission (ILMAC) -- a body that was designed to monitor the cease-fire following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and last met in 1978 to deal with Israel's invasion of South Lebanon. Even Hezbollah's ally, Lebanese Gen. Michel Aoun, is in favor, with the caveat that the armistice be "temporary, maybe even for 10 years." A revived ILMAC could be a good venue to resolve the status of the remaining territorial disputes between Israel and Lebanon, which are used by Hezbollah to justify retaining its weapons.

After 30 minutes in Ghajar, the IDF soldiers signaled that our caravan had attracted far too much attention and it was time to go. Khatib's hands trembled as he shook mine. "Remember, over our dead bodies," he said. As we headed for the security gate, young children with light hair and eyes like Khatib's piled out of the village school, which rested where the Blue Line should be. When our car slowed to let them pass, their carefree smiles quickly melted into frowns. In this border hamlet where things are seldom as they seem, they seemed to know that the bodies Khatib offered up could very well be theirs.

Courtesy of Andrew J. Tabler

Dispatch

They're Wearing Green in Dubai

How the Iranian diaspora is gearing up for Feb. 11.

Dubai may be possibly the closest thing to being in Iran itself. In five days here I've met with nearly three dozen Iranians from different walks of life to try to get a better impression of what's happening inside the country.

Part of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is the city-state that until recently glittered as the Middle East's pre-eminent financial center and served as a mecca for European sunbirds desperate for a warm break from bleak northern winters. The economy has ground to a standstill, Dubai having proven no more resistant to the global recession than anyplace else. The sun still blazes, of course -- a toasty 80-plus degrees Fahrenheit most January afternoons. The Disney-style hotels, skyscrapers, and over-the-top shopping malls -- one of them boasts an indoor ski slope -- reminds one of Las Vegas. And no matter where you go, Dubai retains a strong, distinctly Iranian flavor.

Estimates put the size of the Iranian expat community at 400,000, nearly a third of a 1.3 million population. Iranians work everywhere in Dubai: in the financial sector and in the construction, transportation, and hospitality industries. Daily flights connect Tehran and Dubai (it's an hour and 40 minutes flying time), with 200 weekly flights between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, most of them to Dubai. According to Iran's Consulate, a million Iranians pass through Dubai each year. Some come for business. Regime members and well-heeled loyalists are said to maintain luxurious weekend homes here. Young people come to let their hair down, the women literally. Roughly 60 percent of Iran's population is under 30. Not surprisingly, Dubai's bling offers a seductive break from the dreary and increasingly repressive life afforded under the Islamic Republic.

What do the Iranians I've met think about current developments in their country? The first part of the answer is easy. Those I've met here loathe and despise the regime. I couldn't find an exception. A mother visiting from Isfahan and her daughter who now resides here recounted for me how the two quarreled last summer before the June 12 election. In the face of her daughter's objections, the mother had contemplated casting her vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but not because she favors the current Iranian president. On the contrary. Her reasoning was: Vote for the thug; the situation has to become worse before it can become better.

By all accounts, the regime has made two big mistakes. First, there was the fraud -- or at least the widespread presumption of mass fraud -- in June's election. The regime's steadfast refusal to deal with public concern quickly led to public outrage. I've heard, time and again here, that the regime's brazen lying is an "insult," an unforgivable "humiliation." Second, the viciousness with which the regime has cracked down on dissent has shocked people, including those who thought they could no longer be shocked.

The Iranians I've met include a retired high school teacher, a musician, an engineer, several business executives, journalists, students, a lawyer, a dissident cleric, representatives from the travel and entertainment industries, two activists in the opposition "green movement," a church pastor, and an architect. In virtually every conversation I've had, the given is that Iran is ruled by lunatics. That's the simple part.

The other pieces of a rather complicated mosaic then start to fall into place. A young miniskirt-clad woman from Tehran tells me her grandmother, a deeply religious woman, fears for the end of the regime. As violent and corrupt as it is, she reasons, what comes after might not be Islamic, and that could be only worse. Parts of Iran remain religious, traditional, and conservative. How strong are these segments of Iranian society today? How would they respond to an attempt to transform Iranian theocracy to a Western-style democracy, if that is indeed what happens? It's not surprising that so many of the Iranians I've spoken to -- educated, professional, largely from urban centers -- concede they're concerned by the prospect of another bloody revolution or a post-clerical moment that could lead to civil war. As one young businessman told me, it's one thing to reject the regime, but no one wants Iran to look like Lebanon. Cooperation between moderate secularists and religious Iranians is important now and will be crucial once the current regime eventually expires.

Religion is surely still a powerful factor in Iranian politics and society. It's a force to reckon with. So is nationalism. It's closely related to the ambivalence many Iranians feel about the United States.

Another 20-something woman from the Iranian capital, contemptuous in her views of the regime, was equally agitated about a potentially more assertive U.S. policy. Dressed in fashionable jeans with long wavy hair and high heels, she wanted to know why the Americans always feel obliged to meddle. "This is a matter between the Iranian government and the Iranian people," she kept telling me, adding that if the United States attacked Iran, she would be proud to see her husband fight the invaders. She may sound like a cliché, but one cannot escape the feeling that she represents something real and important.

Likewise, a gentleman in his 40s, a professional from Shiraz who's no fan of the regime either, sees America as a menacing military-industrial complex, interested in arms sales and oil but certainly not democracy for Iran.

Others -- the clear majority I've spoken with, in fact -- have professed enthusiasm for the United States. Many have been to the States; some have plans to study or live there. Whenever it comes to the question of whether the United States should support Iran's democracy movement, though, even the pro-Americans tend to agree on two opposing propositions: first, that U.S. assistance would be problematic, if not outright counterproductive; second, that Iran's opposition won't make it without outside support, notably from the United States.

History has made its mark. The 1953 coup d'état engineered by Dwight Eisenhower's administration, which unseated an elected Iranian prime minister, and subsequent U.S. support for the shah created distrust that many Iranians have never been able to shake.

Today, it's hard to gauge precisely just how the mood inside the country is really evolving. It's true the men in power have the guns and money. The opposition movement still lacks a real leader. Everyone confirms there's a dreadful lack of coordination, tactics, and strategy. And the green movement has become a catchall for a variety of groups. Some are desperate for political freedom. Others are infuriated over the regime's mismanagement of the economy. Still others think the ruling clerics have betrayed the revolution's religious values. This movement's diversity is its challenge, its charm and potential strength.

Here in Dubai, there's no sign that the green movement is fading. At the airport, one of my first impressions was a family coming through the arrivals hall. The mother wore a bright green veil, the father a solid green T-shirt, their teenage son a green wristband. At a Persian restaurant in central Dubai, I listened to a female singer who donned a bright green dress. Our young Lebanese waiter volunteered: It's probably her "call for freedom." Iranians here gather on beaches to talk politics, sometimes lighting candles. The groups, often of 20 to 30 people, are invariably broken up by authorities or, even more troublingly, videotaped by Dubai's police and security services. Still, these Iranians persist.

Predicting political change, let alone revolutions, is tricky business. The United States got it spectacularly wrong in 1979. If you're looking for guideposts, the next big date to watch should be Feb. 11, the revolution's anniversary. Both sides are busy preparing. The opposition promises a strong show of support in the streets, while Ahmadinejad has vowed to strike a harsh blow against "global arrogance" (his term for the United States). Meanwhile, his government is adding even more flights to Dubai. The logic? Better to occupy the rabble-rousers with shopping across the gulf than to have them at home, crowding the streets with their slogans and shouts of discontent. Eastern European communists tried similar techniques, pushing troublemakers into Western Europe. It worked. For a while.

MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images