MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Now to Southern Lebanon and the division called the Blue Line, that's the de facto border between Israel and Lebanon. After Israel's war in 2006, Israel forces withdrew from southern Lebanon, except for a portion of a village that straddles the Blue Line. Now, research suggests that neither Israel nor Lebanon owns the village, Syria does.
NPR's Peter Kenyon has the story.
PETER KENYON: Ghajar is an Alawite village in the much-disputed border region where Syria, Lebanon and Israel have conflicting claims. 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.
Professor ASHER KAUFMAN (History and Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame): And in future negotiations between Israel and Syria over the fate of the Golan Heights, this village should be included within these negotiations.
KENYON: The Israeli-born scholar Asher Kaufman, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, has researched the border area extensively. His latest research 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.
Before the early 1960s, maps of this area were notable for their inconsistency. One would place Ghajar in the Syrian Golan Heights, another in Lebanon. But on the ground, Kaufman says, the Alawite villagers considered themselves Syrian, and Lebanon seemed to lay no claim to Ghajar; until the early 1960s, when this area became part of the so-called water wars among Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel.
The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon tried to sort out sovereignty issues in and around Ghajar. And he concluded, in a document found by Kaufman at the 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, says Kaufman, after the U.S. ambassador's comments, Lebanon's laissez-faire attitude toward Ghajar seemed to change.
Prof. KAUFMAN: Because in 1963, 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.
KENYON: 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. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: 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.]
But by the end of July, Israel had also occupied Ghajar, and the brand-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.
This bifurcated view of Ghajar gained further international credence in 2000, when the United Nations drew the Blue Line, the line south of which Israeli troops were to withdraw. The line went 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.
Prof. KAUFMAN: 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.
KENYON: There are also political implications. 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.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.