After filing a lawsuit seeking compensation for damage caused to their homes
during the Second Lebanon War, residents of the Alawite village of Ghajar report
limited progress, a lawyer representing the town said this week.
Kamal Hattib – who represents residents of the village in a lawsuit against the
Israel Tax Authority – said that around 85 houses in the village suffered damage
during the war from both Israeli tank and artillery shockwaves and from
Hezbollah rockets that landed within the village. He added that a tank
collided into another home, one near the entrance to the
According to Hattib, Ghajar residents submitted claims to the
Tax Authority in the war’s aftermath. The agency replied that because the area
is a closed military zone within the international borders of Lebanon, all those
living in the northern half of the village would be denied
To this day, the villagers remain bereft of
compensation. But following the lawsuit, the state reopened the
villagers’ claims for compensation. On two occasions in the past month, a
Tax Authority contractor has toured Ghajar in order to assess damages, Hattib
said. He believes that the government is working towards a solution to enable
“What we are saying is that we are citizens of the
State of Israel and pay taxes. So if they say it’s Lebanese land, then who do we
ask for compensation from? Should we turn to the Lebanese government when we pay
taxes and arnona [municipal property tax] to Israel?”
In this fraught and
complicated country, there are few places more perplexing than Ghajar. A Syrian
Alawite village in the Golan Heights of around 2,500 residents, Ghajar straddles
the border of Lebanon and Israel with residents living on both
sides. There is no fence inside the village to mark the international
border and with a fence controlled by the IDF north of the village, all of
Ghajar is under de facto Israeli control.
The village of sprawling pastel
houses sits in one of the most beautiful corners of the country, atop a green
hilltop that rolls down to the swiftrunning Hatzbani River. The river marks the
traditional border between the two enemy states, and a main route for smugglers
moving contraband south from Lebanon into Israel by way of Ghajar.
first took control of the territory during the Six Day War, when it was part of
Syria. Unlike the Syrian Druse of the Golan Heights, the residents of Ghajar
gradually accepted Israeli citizenship over the years under Israeli
The conflict reheated in 2000 when the IDF withdrew from
southern Lebanon to the Blue Line – which crisscrosses the village. The UN
demarcated most of the village as within the borders of Lebanon.
remained divided until the Second Lebanon War, when the IDF took control of the
northern half of the village as part of their campaign against Hezbollah in
southern Lebanon. While the international border still runs through the center
of town, a fence built by Israel north of the town and patrolled by the IDF has
created a de facto border placing the entire town under Israeli
Before the Second Lebanon War and the construction of the
fence, Hezbollah stationed militants outside the town. In 2005, the Shi’ite
militia launched a rocket attack and infiltrated Ghajar in an attempt to kidnap
an Israeli soldier, before being repelled by the IDF.
between Lebanon and Israel remains unmarked in the village, and a fence no
longer separates the two halves of the town. On the main street, you can park your
car in Lebanon and step across to Israel, with no sign indicating a border
crossing between the warring states.
During the visit last month, a
young, apparently mentally disturbed man began gagging himself in the middle of
the street, hitting the pavement and straddling the border between Lebanon and
Because of its location, history of border incidents and
reputation as a smuggling hotspot, Ghajar is not easy to visit. The Jerusalem
submitted a travel request to the IDF in March 2011 – only to receive
approval in mid-April – to visit with a photographer on a single afternoon
later that week between 3 p.m. to 5 p.m..
The streets of the village were
deserted in the afternoon, with only a few schoolchildren strolling the
area. Sealed off from the outside world, Ghajar no longer hosts many
guests, and residents responded with curious glances and a clear reluctance to
speak on the record.
While Syrian Independence celebrations were held
earlier that day in the Druse villages of the Golan Heights, Ghajar reported no
Syrian flags or posters of fellow Alawite Syrian President Bashar Assad in
Nonetheless, Syria wasn’t too far from people’s minds, said Talib,
a 23-year-old resident who spoke on the condition of withholding his
“I’m not worried about Assad falling, it won’t happen,” said
Talib, adding that most people in the village feel this way, though “they don’t
just watch Syrian news, they watch news from around the world so they know the
other side of the story too.”
Wearing a chef’s uniform, he sat in the
town kiosk before leaving for a catering job in nearby Kiryat
Talib pointed to the sparsely- stocked shelves of the kiosk and
spoke of how the village lives in a partial state of siege because of the
checkpoint, and that everything that enters must gain army approval, which he
labeled a slow and cumbersome process.
The lack of outsider access has
also meant the closure of the local restaurants that used to service busloads of
tourists visiting before the Second Lebanon War. Nowadays, there is little if
any local industry, and almost all of the residents who don’t work for the local
council labor in nearby kibbutzim, moshavim or earn a living in
“Up here there’s nothing, for us, Kiryat Shmona is the big
city,” Talib said.
He added that most Israelis he meets don’t really
understand what life is like in Ghajar, saying “when I tell people I’m from Kafr
Ghajar, they ask me if I go to Lebanon all the time, like I live in a different
country and I can just go back and forth to Beirut whenever I
Further on the Lebanese side of the village, a middle-aged man sat
in the front lawn of a sprawling white house drinking coffee with his son. When
asked about Syrian Independence Day, the man, a 45-year-old father of five who
asked to be called only “Hattib,” the surname of around half of the village
residents, said “we live in Israel, not Syria, and we’re loyal to the country we
live in. When it’s Syria again, we’ll celebrate Syrian Independence
Still, Hattib said he and others are following the events in Syria,
with a worrisome eye towards the fate of relatives still in Syria, who may
suffer if regime change comes to Syria and the public demands retribution from
the ruling Alawite sect.
“All of us have family in Syria so it worries us
greatly. Assad is Alawite and if he falls, we know the Alawite will
suffer. We want things to remain quiet and for Assad to stay in
He called efforts to return the northern half of the village to
Lebanon as a humanitarian issue rather than a political one, saying that if the
village is someday split in half he would be separated from his four sisters and
one brother living in the southern half.
Hattib said he sees himself as a
loyal Israeli citizen, suffering from a “blockade” of sorts due to the IDF’s
control of access to the village and the difficult of receiving services from
He laughed and told the story of driving his refrigerator to a
repairman’s car outside the village and running an extension cord to the IDF
checkpoint to turn on the refrigerator while the repairman checked it on the
side of the road. He said the situation is even more absurd when it comes to car
insurance, saying that residents who crash or experience a fender-bender in the
southern half of the village are able to receive compensation from insurance
companies. Those from the north are told the accident happened on
Lebanese territory and thus, is not covered.
For Talib, living in two
worlds as a Syrian Alawite on territory controlled by the IDF is a fact of life
made mundane by routine.
“You get used to it from a very young age.
People who grow up here now only know the situation like this. Syria knows it’s
their village, Lebanon says the northern part is theirs and Israel claims the
south. It’s already been occupied for 30 years, people are used to it.”
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