Israel finally leaves tiny village straddling Middle East's political fault line

Ghajar's Syrian residents fear they will be permanently divided
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Israel's cabinet yesterday decided to withdraw its troops from the northern section of a village that regards itself as Syrian but has in recent years found itself straddling a UN-designated Israel-Lebanon borderline.

The decision has triggered protests from angry residents, fearful that the move will permanently divide their close-knit community.

The decision is the latest chapter in the complex history of Ghajar, a village of Allawite Muslim Syrians wedged between Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. It is intended to resolve a dispute that has exacerbated tensions between the two countries since Israel's war with Hizbollah militants four years ago.

Detailed negotiations will take place over the next few weeks on handing over responsibility for the security of northern Ghajar, overlooked by villages in Hizbollah's southern Lebanon stronghold, to peacekeepers in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil). By withdrawing to an area covering the southern part of the village only, Israel will be complying with a UN resolution that ended the 2006 war and required Israeli forces to pull back to south of a "blue line" between Israel and Lebanon.

As global forces once again threaten to impose change on this remote and ultra-sensitively located village of around 2,200 people, with its hinterland of fruit orchards and olive groves, scores of residents gathered outside the local council office as municipal official Ahmad Khatib declared: "A civilised Europe destroyed the Berlin wall. Now the UN is building the Berlin wall in Ghajar."

Yigal Palmor, Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman, insisted that there is "no intention" physically to divide the village, and that residents – most of whom have been Israeli citizens since the occupation of the Golan Heights in 1967 – have nothing to fear. "We hope to preserve their daily lives without any changes," he added.

But the assurances seem unlikely to satisfy residents, in the absence of direct guarantees or consultation. Mr Khatib, the council's deputy director, said, "We have only learned about this from the media. If the Israelis withdraw, the UN will come here and start building a wall after a week or two. We know that." Mr Khatib added: "The mosque, the cemetery, the school and, most important, 11,500 dunums [nearly 3,000 acres] of land, is in the south."

Muheeba Khatib, 40, who lives in the north of the village, said, she fears being cut off from her married daughter and two small grandchildren, from Israeli-provided health services, and from 400 apricot and olive trees long farmed by her family. The farmland is seven kilometres east of the village, but only accessible through its southern section. Mrs Khatib, dressed (like many of the women here) in a long skirt but no head covering, added: "We are Syrians, like my father and my grandfather before him. But as long as the village is kept together and not split, we have no problem if it is in Syria, Lebanon or Israel." In the 1930s, the residents of Ghajar overwhelmingly chose to be part of Syria and remained so until the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel occupied the Syrian Golan Heights. Although the village was not immediately occupied, the local mukhtars (village leaders) petitioned Israel to do so – partly as an assertion of their Syrian nationality and common identification with the rest of the Golan.

After Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2000, the notional "blue line" designated by the UN passed through the middle of the village. There was no physical division (though Mrs Katib claimed yesterday that villagers had prevented an attempt to erect a fence).

Then, in the 2006 war, Israeli troops moved into the northern section – where about two-thirds of the villagers live – and have since patrolled its fenced border with Lebanon. An Israeli officer who arrived in an armoured vehicle at the border told reporters yesterday: "As the person responsible for your security, I am asking you to go back. There is a danger here."

Israel has been under international as well as Lebanese pressure to withdraw from northern Ghajar, and the UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Lord Williams, said in August, after clashes at another part of the border, that such a withdrawal "would do a lot to help restore trust".

Lebanon's claim to the northern section, meanwhile, is partly underpinned by suggestions that the village did not start expanding northwards until after the Israeli occupation.

But Mr Khatib yesterday produced a Syrian stamped permit from 24 December 1958 allowing villagers to build on agricultural land in what is now the northern district. He said this disproved the Lebanese claim: "This is a lie... and now it is a lie of the UN, too."

Another northern Ghajar resident, Shehada Khatib, 26, said he had worked for five years in a bakery in the Israeli town of Kyriat Shimona: "I am worried about losing my job. I hope there will not be violence, but we are ready to sacrifice our souls to stop a wall. But if we can keep our land and get to work, then things would be OK."

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