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Israeli Border Village at Center of Controversy - 2001-12-19

The border between Israel and Lebanon has been relatively quiet since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon a year-and-a-half ago. But Israel says recent movements by the Hezbollah group on the Lebanese side of the border village El Ghajar have raised security concerns there. It has also created a controversy over the future location of the village.

The village of El Ghajar is perched on the lush green hills of northern Israel on land seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

But the village also straddles - and is divided by - the "Blue Line" that delineates the Israeli withdrawal from its self-declared security zone inside southern Lebanon.

Timor Guksel of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon says nobody bothered to enforce the border because the isolated village did not pose a security threat to anybody until recently. "The Hezbollah organization came and put up a couple of positions on the Lebanese side of the border of the village and they say well, this is Lebanon, we can do what we want," he said. "We're not entering the village so we are not violating the status quo but we are putting up our positions on the Lebanese side of the line."

The pro-Iranian guerrilla group fought against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, attacking its soldiers there and lobbing grenades and mortars at Israeli towns just across the border.

Israel now says Hezbollah militants are trying to slip across the border through El Ghajar to carry out terrorist attacks.

El Ghajar's 1,700 residents worry that Israel will use the security issue as an excuse to fence them off inside Lebanon, which would cut off access to their land inside Israel.

Adel Shemali is angry with the United Nations for splitting the village in two and leaving many families on opposite sides of the Blue Line. The 44-year-old junior high school teacher says El Ghajar will fight any Israeli decision to isolate it in Lebanon.

We suffered in 1967, he says, when Israel occupied this land of Syria and planted land mines on some of our farmland, he said. And we suffered again during their problems with Lebanon because the village is just on the border of Lebanon, Syria and Israel. If Israel puts up an internal border fence on its side of the village, he argues, Israel will keep our land forever.

Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay says reports of a border change are Hezbollah propaganda. But he says Israel does have security concerns there. "The U.N. Blue Line cut the village in half but all these people are citizens of Israel and therefore we will find with them a solution to provide them an adequate way of living, not with a fence cutting the village in half," he said. "But again there is a severe security problem there and Hezbollah are trying to infiltrate terrorists into the northern part of Israel through the village."

For now, the village is a closed military zone.

Soldiers check residents' identification when they go in or out of El Ghajar. Non-residents are barred from entering.

That means a lot of business and deliveries these days are made outside the village gate.

One windswept sunny afternoon a villager was seen lifting a calf out of a pick-up truck to carry it past Israeli soldiers to a waiting car on the other side of the barricade, another cow sauntering along behind her.

Construction worker Hashem says he now has to make almost daily trips to the nearby Israeli town of Qiryat Shmona to buy food and medicines for his family. The military closure means Israelis no longer can enter the village to run the health center or supermarket.

El Ghajar residents say they are fed up with the situation and do not trust Israel's intentions.

Schoolteacher Shemali insists his fate should only be decided when Syria and Israel negotiate the return of the Golan Heights to Syria. Syria is my homeland, not Lebanon, he says. I don't want to be a refugee in Lebanon.

Israeli spokesman Vatikay agrees that El Ghajar's future depends on Israel's dealings with Syria not Lebanon. But, he says Israel is talking with El Ghajar officials about how to address its present-day security concerns. No final decision, he says, has been made yet.