Divided Village On Israeli-Lebanon Border In Limbo

Wide: The village of Ghajar is divided into Israeli and Lebanese sectors. i i

The U.N. divided the village of Ghajar into Israeli and Lebanese sectors in 2000. But new research suggests that Ghajar — shown here May 3 — may in fact be Syrian. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
Wide: The village of Ghajar is divided into Israeli and Lebanese sectors.

The U.N. divided the village of Ghajar into Israeli and Lebanese sectors in 2000. But new research suggests that Ghajar — shown here May 3 — may in fact be Syrian.

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Since the Israel army withdrew from most of southern Lebanon after its 2006 war against Hezbollah, Lebanon and the international community have been waiting for Israeli forces to leave northern Ghajar, a border village divided into Israeli and Lebanese sectors by the United Nations in 2000.

But new research suggests that the entire village may actually be Syrian, a finding that could have an impact on future talks over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Ghajar is an Alawite village of about 2,000 residents in the much-disputed border region where Syria, Lebanon and Israel have conflicting claims. Alawites, a minority sect of Shiite Muslims, live mainly in Syria.

Two Ghajar residents display their Israeli identity documents in 2006. i i

In this file photo from 2006, two residents of Ghajar — Shama Nasser, an 87-year-old Arab woman (left) and her bedridden husband, Hassan Nasser, also 87 — display their Israeli identity documents. David Silverman/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption David Silverman/Getty Images
Two Ghajar residents display their Israeli identity documents in 2006.

In this file photo from 2006, two residents of Ghajar — Shama Nasser, an 87-year-old Arab woman (left) and her bedridden husband, Hassan Nasser, also 87 — display their Israeli identity documents.

David Silverman/Getty Images

In September 2006, as Israeli forces were pulling back from southern Lebanon, NPR made a rare visit to northern Ghajar. Nervous villagers — Arabs living in a nominally Lebanese area while driving cars with Israeli license plates — urged two reporters to flee before the occupying Israeli forces showed up.

Three years later, northern Ghajar is still occupied, though Israeli leaders are said to be discussing the timing of a pullout. But if new research to be published this fall in the Middle East Journal is correct, much of the world may have to adjust its thinking, and consider the possibility that Ghajar — all of it — is Syrian.

The latest research by Israeli-born scholar Asher Kaufman, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame who has researched the border area extensively, has unearthed documents from the early 1960s that raise serious questions about the modern political decision to divide the village between Lebanese and Israeli control.

As a result, Kaufman says, "In future negotiations between Israel and Syria over the fate of the Golan Heights, this village should be — in its entirety — included in these negotiations."

The entrance to the divided village of Ghajar on the Israeli-Lebanese border. i i

A truck drives past a military area at the entrance to Ghajar on May 3. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
The entrance to the divided village of Ghajar on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

A truck drives past a military area at the entrance to Ghajar on May 3.

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Imprecise Maps

Syria, Lebanon and what would become Israel were carved from land held by the Ottoman Empire until World War I. In 1967, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria and border lands from Lebanon in later fighting.

Before the early 1960s, maps of the area were notable for their inconsistency. Some maps would place Ghajar in the Syrian Golan Heights, others in Lebanon.

But Kaufman says the Alawite villagers of Ghajar considered themselves Syrian, and Lebanon seemed to lay no claim to Ghajar — until the early 1960s, when the area became part of the so-called water wars among Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel.

At the time, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon tried to sort out sovereignty issues in and around Ghajar and concluded, in a document found by Kaufman in U.S. archives, that Lebanese mapping efforts were "amateurish" and that the reality on the ground was that Ghajar was part of Syria.

In 1963, after the U.S. ambassador's comments, Kaufman says Lebanon's laissez-faire attitude toward Ghajar seemed to change.

'A New Reality'

"We have, for the first time, a Lebanese map that depicts this new reality, where the village of Ghajar all of a sudden is divided into two sections. So a new reality is now being produced," he says.

When Israel was attacked by Syria and other Arab states in June 1967, the Israeli army did not initially occupy Ghajar when it seized the Golan Heights, because the Israeli maps at the time showed Ghajar in Lebanon, which was not part of the war.

But by the end of July, Israel had also occupied Ghajar, and the new Israeli maps showed the same division of the village as the earlier Lebanese map. Since then, Kaufman says, virtually all maps of the region have adopted this division.

A barefoot girl stands outside her home in Ghajar, May 3, 2009. i i

A barefoot girl stands outside her home in Ghajar on May 3. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Image hide caption

itoggle caption Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Image
A barefoot girl stands outside her home in Ghajar, May 3, 2009.

A barefoot girl stands outside her home in Ghajar on May 3.

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Image

This bifurcated view of Ghajar gained further international credence in 2000, when the United Nations drew the "blue line," south of which Israeli troops were to withdraw. The line passed right through Ghajar, and there things remained until 2006, when Israel reoccupied both parts of the village.

The partition of Ghajar, Kaufman argues, is a historical mistake that should be corrected.

"Since 2000, the village has been divided. So there is a human tragedy for these villagers who are now simply divided between two sovereign states, and they live an impossible life," he says.

There are political implications as well. Analysts say there are many obstacles to a resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks over the Golan Heights — not least the fact that the border region around Ghajar and the much-disputed Shebaa Farms is so murky.

But should peace talks resume — and if Kaufman's findings are correct — the residents of Ghajar can at least hope that someday their village will be reunited.

Correction Sept. 30, 2009

We incorrectly stated that Israel had been attacked by Syria and other Arab states in the 1967 war. In fact, Israel attacked first after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled United Nations troops from the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.

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