A Split Decision For Israel-Lebanon Border Town The tiny village of Ghajar is one of the smallest yet most complicated problems in the Middle East -- and it may be resolved in the coming months. Israel plans to withdraw its forces from part of the village, which straddles the current border between Israel and Lebanon.
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A Split Decision For Israel-Lebanon Border Town

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A Split Decision For Israel-Lebanon Border Town

A Split Decision For Israel-Lebanon Border Town

A Split Decision For Israel-Lebanon Border Town

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131252274/131263351" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In village of Ghajar on the Israeli-Lebanon border, a girl looks Thursday at an Israeli soldier as he takes his post. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a plan to withdraw from the northern half of the village. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images hide caption

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Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

In village of Ghajar on the Israeli-Lebanon border, a girl looks Thursday at an Israeli soldier as he takes his post. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a plan to withdraw from the northern half of the village.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The village of Ghajar, straddling the current border between Israel and Lebanon, is one of the smallest and yet most complicated problems in the Middle East -- and it may actually be resolved in the coming months.

The tiny village may be partitioned. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will ask his cabinet this month to ratify a U.N. plan that would see Israeli forces withdraw from part of the village.

The interests of bitter enemies converge in Ghajar: Israel, Lebanon and Syria all lay claim to this hamlet of 2,300 inhabitants.

It's encircled by a fence; to enter, visitors must have the Israeli army's permission.

Once inside the fence, the village feels like a tiny enclave of normality perched on what is one of the most volatile borders in the world. Half of the village is actually in Israel territory, the other half is in Lebanon.

But walk among the pastel houses and immaculate tree-lined streets, and there is nothing that indicates when you are crossing from one side to another.

Residents worry that that will change if the new plan is implemented.

Najib Khatib is the village's deputy mayor and spokesman. "No one cares about the opinion of the population. They deal with (us) like cattle," he says.

Complicated History

Israel took over Ghajar after the 1967 war when it seized the Golan Heights from Syria.

The residents of Ghajar are all Allawite Muslims like those who form the ruling class in Syria.

But after the war, all the villagers accepted Israeli passports. Over the years, the village slowly expanded northward.

That only became a real problem in 2000, when Israel decided to end its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

After the pullout, the United Nations drew the so-called blue line -- a temporary border that delineates what is Israeli-controlled territory and what is Lebanese.

Students in Ghajar walk home from school on Thursday. An Israeli pullout could resolve a key dispute between Israel and Lebanon. Ghajar's residents are members of Islam's Allawite sect, whose followers include many members of Syria's ruling elite. Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP hide caption

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Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

Students in Ghajar walk home from school on Thursday. An Israeli pullout could resolve a key dispute between Israel and Lebanon. Ghajar's residents are members of Islam's Allawite sect, whose followers include many members of Syria's ruling elite.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

The problem is that the line runs right through the center of Ghajar: Half the village ended up in a different country. Now, Syrians who are Israeli citizens are living in Lebanon.

No one in Ghajar seems happy about this.

Confusion, Anger Over Plan

At the Fattal family home, which is on the Lebanese side of Ghajar, the family says there is a lot of confusion about what is supposed to happen in the coming months. Most people in Ghajar think they are going to literally erect a wall in the middle of the village, cutting off one side from another.

Nabiha Fattal, the matriarch, is angry because they want to split the village into two parts. "The village will be divided," she says.

But according to Israeli officials, the current plan won't physically partition Ghajar.

Israel and the United Nations have agreed that the northern part of town will be handed over to Lebanon, but the move is more symbolic than anything else.

Residents won't have access to Lebanon, and Ghajar will still be fenced off.

Israel will continue to provide the northern part of the village with its services. The only thing that will change is that the Israel Defense Forces won't patrol the northern enclave.

Uncertainty For Villagers, Israel, Too

"It's the uncertainty that is the most unsettling for the people who live in Ghajar. Are you going to be a citizen of Israel? Are you going to be handed back to Syria? And if you are going to be Lebanese?" says Andrew Tabler, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Ghajar.

"You have to plan the rest of your life, you have to plan your children's lives," Tabler says of the villagers.

The withdrawal is also gamble for Israel. In 2005, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia tried and failed to kidnap Israeli soldiers in Ghajar. Israel doesn't want to leave a security vacuum that its enemies can exploit.

But as of now, it's not clear who will police northern Ghajar if the deal goes through. And Tabler worries this may cause more problems in the future.

"Who is authorized to go in when there is a problem? So that creates a no man's land and when you create no man's lands, twilight zones like that along a border, it becomes very dangerous because ... strong parties tend to run trucks through (such loopholes)," Tabler says.

For now, all residents can do is wait as powers far beyond their control negotiate their fate.