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Villagers on Israel-Lebanon Border Live in Limbo

  • Luis Ramirez

Israel and the United Nations are set to continue talks in the coming weeks on the fate of Ghajar, a village on the Lebanon-Israel border. The 2,000 residents of Ghajar are Alawites and identify culturally with Syria, which the village was a part of until Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. But a map drawn up by Israel and the U.N. in 2000 puts the border through the middle of the village, splitting it between Israel and Lebanon. Now, residents are protesting a handover to Lebanon. Many say they want to remain a part of Israel.

You could call the al-Ahmed family's grocery store a multi-national enterprise.

The soft drinks section is in Israel. Soap and cleaning supplies are in Lebanon.

"All these products are products from Israel," said Mohsen al-Ahmed.

Mohsen al-Ahmed, speaking perfect Hebrew, says his life is tied to Israel, and prospects of being handed over to Lebanon are frightening.

"It is true that I am an Arab and Lebanon is an Arab country," he said. "But handing my village over would be like having to grow up all over again, in a country that I do not know anything about. All we know is the security and economic situation there. I am concerned."

Even worse for residents is having their village split. When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, Israeli forces opted to leave Ghajar physically undivided and they put the Israeli border checkpoint on the northern entrance to the village.

But the national boundary, known as the Blue Line, runs through the middle of Ghajar, straight through al-Ahmed's store.

Retired Major General Giora Eiland was responsible for negotiating the arrangements, in 2000, for Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon.

"The line of withdrawal officially is not a border, because a border should be recognized by both sides and the Lebanese never agreed to negotiate with Israel about a line of a border," said Giora Eiland. "So this line, in a way it is a temporary line that was agreed between the United Nations and Israel simply because there was no other party on the other side."

The result is a life in limbo for the people of Ghajar. They are Israeli citizens but cannot access services on the northern, Lebanese side of town.

Village spokesman Najib Khatib says Israeli repairmen, for example, will go only as far as the checkpoint. So a broken refrigerator has to be hauled to the fence for repair. If someone dies, he says it is the same process for getting Israeli authorities to certify the death.

"They say, bring the body to the checkpoint," said Najib Khatib. "We say, let us live honorably and die honorably. Is a body like a broken appliance that you have to haul to the checkpoint? We are not even allowed to die with decorum."

To clear matters, Israel could take northern Ghajar from Lebanon, or hand the entire village to Lebanon. But Giora Eiland says no option is acceptable to all.

"Neither the U.N. nor the Lebanese agree that Israel could annex a certain area from Lebanon," he said. "So, we are left with a third option which is the division of the village."

For now, U.N. troops patrol the area between the Lebanese part of Ghajar and the rest of Lebanon.

It's a precarious status quo. But Mohsen al-Ahmed says the current arrangement is the best thing for him at this time. He wants to remain in Israel.

"The best thing for me is to stay in the country I was born in, the country I grew up in, that I know and understand, where I know how to live and manage," he said.

Through the centuries, Ghajar has changed hands many times. For its people today, the question is where the fence will end up next.

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