Ghajar, home of the Israeli Alawites

The Six Day War completely transformed the lives of the population of Ghajar

The main road in Ghajar that the Blue Line runs along. According to the international community, the territory to the right of the road is considered as part of Lebanon, and to the left as part of Israel (photo credit: BEN RATHAUSER)
The main road in Ghajar that the Blue Line runs along. According to the international community, the territory to the right of the road is considered as part of Lebanon, and to the left as part of Israel
(photo credit: BEN RATHAUSER)
The Six Day War completely transformed the lives of the population of Ghajar, an Alawite village located on the border of three nations: Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Before the war, Ghajar was under Syrian rule. Following the hostilities, however, the Alawite village was occupied by Israel.
On June 10, 1967, the final day of the six-day long war between Israel and the coalition of Arab armies, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) units entered Ghajar. But shortly thereafter, Israeli troops – convinced that the border town was a part of Lebanon – withdrew. During the four weeks following the initial Israeli invasion of and subsequent retreat from the border town, Ghajar’s notables petitioned Israeli authorities, urging them to incorporate the Alawite village into the Jewish state; Israeli officials complied. Thus, on July 10, 1967, Israel occupied the some 385 remaining inhabitants of Ghajar (approximately 300 of the village’s residents fled Ghajar for Syria amid the June incursion) – adding the border village to the occupation of the geographically adjoining Syrian Golan Heights, which was conquered during the war.
Given the Alawite connection between the population of Ghajar and the Assad family of Syria, the former’s request to be incorporated into Israel – an enemy of Syria – is curious (at the time Hafez al-Assad, just before his rise to the presidency, was the Syrian Minister of Defense under the de facto leader Salah al-Jadid, also an Alawite). This episode seems even more unusual when compared to the case of the Druze of the Golan Heights; in contrast to the residents of Ghajar, many Golan Druze refused to accept Israeli sovereignty in the aftermath of 1967. These peculiarities in mind, I traveled to Ghajar to better understand the factors that caused its residents to petition Israeli authorities for their inclusion in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights following the 1967 war.
On a sunny, chilly January day, I meet Naaim Khattib, a 27-year-old Ghajar native, at his law office in Kiryat Shmona. After conversing over a cup of coffee, the first of many that day, the two of us hop in Naaim’s convertible and embark on the twenty-minute drive to Ghajar. At the entrance to the small village is an Israeli border police checkpoint, where we are stopped. A closed military zone, the only non-residents allowed to enter Ghajar are those with prior invitation from a resident and security clearance from the army.
Having obtained both the day before, I’m permitted to pass, so long as I remain alongside my host throughout the duration of my visit. Once inside, I’m taken aback by the total silence of and breathtaking scenery surrounding the village – in stark contrast to its location on a volatile border. From a vantage point at the town’s edge, I spot Lebanese shepherds attending to their flock on the hilltop across from us, a mere few hundred meters away. In the valley between these neighboring hills, between us and them, is the Hasbani River. Surprised to see a river so full of fast-flowing water in the arid Middle East, I jokingly ask my host, in reference to a local phrase: “who said there’s no water in Israel?” He smiles, before explaining to me that they cannot go down to it: “one of the sides will think you’re crossing the border, and you’ll be shot.”
As we continue to gaze off into the deceptively pastoral landscape, a well-groomed middle-aged man approaches us, before embracing Naaim. My host introduces me to the fellow, his uncle, named Jamal Khattib. The sixty-one-year old graciously welcomes me to Ghajar, where he has lived his whole life since 1958 and works as a physical education teacher. As Jamal and I make small talk, Naaim leads us to the nearby madafe, or community center, where I am seated next to my two hosts and poured a cup of coffee. As I sip the hot beverage, we discuss the early history of Ghajar and its inhabitants. Previously known as Taranje, the town name was changed to Ghajar – which literally means “gypsy” in Arabic – when Kurds inhabited it around three hundred years ago. Most likely in the sixteenth century, amid Ottoman control of the Levant, Alawites arrived to the region.
While unsure exactly as to when, Jamal claims that his and Naaim’s family migrated from an area near Homs many generations ago.
The Alawites – whose religion emerged out of the Twelver, or Imami, branch of Shi’ite Islam – settled in and established three different villages in the area. These towns comprised the only Alawite centers in the region, located hundreds of kilometers away from the Ansariyya Mountains in northern Syria (the political and territorial capital of the Alawite sect). One of these villages is Ghajar, which the Alawites have inhabited ever since.
Jamal describes what the town means to him: “It is my life. I was born here. I will die here.”
Pre-1967 maps were inconsistent with regard to Ghajar’s location vis-à-vis national boundaries; sometimes the village was mapped within Syrian territory, in other instances as part of Lebanese soil, and occasionally as divided between both nations. This confusion doesn’t seem so surprising, given both the division of the village’s farmlands and its residents’ common profession as entrepreneurs who facilitated trade between both states. The villagers were so influenced by Ghajar’s location on the borders between three nations that, just prior to 1967, they along with Syrian officials nearly changed the town name to al-Muthalath, meaning “the triangle” in Arabic.
This cartographical headache aside, the residents of Ghajar always self-identified as Syrians. They were, and often continue to be, loyal to Damascus, their pre-1967 ruler. This national affiliation is linked (but not solely attributed) to their Alawite identity; the Asad family, the ruling power of Syria since 1970, is Alawite. As such, the villagers of Ghajar contributed to national efforts by, among other capacities, serving in the Syrian military. Jamal’s father was one of these soldiers. Furthermore, the residents of Ghajar were not the only ones who saw themselves as Syrians. Both Syrian and Lebanese authorities recognized this far-off community as Syrian. For this reason, Damascus stationed some of its soldiers in Ghajar.
Amid the fighting of the 1967 war, the Syrian military fled Ghajar (in contrast to this account presented by various journalists and scholars, Jamal insists that the Syrian army left Ghajar three months before the onset of the war). Jamal, who was nine years old then and whose family remained in Ghajar, recalls that life in the Alawite border village continued as normal during the war, as fighting did not take place there. Following the war, Ghajar’s dignitaries turned to the Israeli military to inquire whether their village was included in the territory newly occupied by the Jewish state.
The Israeli commanders, relying on the maps they had, told the Alawite villagers that Ghajar was a part of Lebanon. Thus, Ghajar’s local representatives traveled to Marj Ayun to request before Lebanese authorities their assistance for and annexation of the Alawite village. Considering the villagers’ longtime and continued insistence that they are not Lebanese, this appeal presumably points to the state of desperation that the population of Ghajar was in. As previously established, Lebanon considered this Alawite population to be Syrian. Furthermore, Beirut had no interest in annexing Ghajar since this move would likely prompt backlash from fellow Arab states, who would surely view an assumed Lebanese “land-grab” of a Syrian village as being in opposition to the Arab efforts against Israel. For these reasons, their petition was denied. Without Lebanese support, the residents of Ghajar needed a new national keeper. Thus, they turned to Israel; the Ghajar delegation requested to be occupied along with the adjacent Syrian Golan Heights by the Jewish state.
With the departure of the Syrians and the absence of a sovereign power that would fill their void, during and following the 1967 strife, the residents of Ghajar were left politically and economically abandoned. Jamal remembers that the border town’s residents lacked basic goods and suffered from severely restricted movement during this period; he tells me that Ghajar was “like an enclosed prison.” The Alawite villagers needed a national authority that would provide them with essential services, supplies, and employment.
This urgency became direr following the Ghajar delegation’s lack of success at Marj Ayun. Thus, the request of Ghajar’s representatives before Israel to occupy their town can be partly attributed to these villagers’ need for state intervention that could alleviate their day-to-day woes. Their petition proved fruitful to this end. Since 1967, Ghajar underwent rather significant economic development. By and large, the villagers successfully integrated into the Israeli job market.
Many of them work white-collar jobs: doctors, lawyers, professors, and dentists. Interestingly, Jamal mentions that the residents of Ghajar, since 1995, have the option to complete their higher education in Syria, and then return to work in the Jewish state; many doctors from Ghajar currently practicing in Israeli hospitals opted to study medicine in Syria. Furthermore, healthcare in Ghajar has since improved, contributing to the quadrupling of the town population.
Likewise, the village has thenceforth benefited from new and well-kept public facilities. Jamal notes this “great difference between the life we had before, and life after [1967].” The increased economic opportunities and social benefits for this Alawite community likely explain, at least partly, its collective acceptance of Israeli citizenship amid the Jewish state’s official annexation of the Golan Heights in 1981.
The dignitaries of Ghajar’s petition to Israeli authorities for their inclusion in the Golan Heights can be attributed to Lebanon’s refusal to annex the Alawite town and the villagers’ practical need to be part of a state. The events of the 1967 War left the residents of Ghajar without a sovereign that would care for them. Thus, they needed to find a new national guardian that would address their political and economic troubles. Lebanon declined this role. Accordingly, they turned to Israel.
The country to which Ghajar belongs remains a source of contention. In 2000, the United Nations demarcated the Blue Line, which essentially signifies the Israeli-Lebanese border, such that it divides the Alawite village: the northern sector is part of Lebanon, and the southern portion is de jure part of Syria but under the de facto rule of Israel (in practice, the entire village is currently under Israeli control). This boundary holds until today. The ongoing limbo that Ghajar and its residents find themselves in greatly aggravates Jamal, who feels that he “fell victim to the will of states.”
Nonetheless, the sixty-one-year-old insists that the Ghajar delegation’s request for Israeli annexation was the right decision, since it enabled the Alawite villagers to endure the difficult circumstances in the wake of the war. To Jamal, with the exception of Lebanon, who the national sovereign of Ghajar is and will be in the future is of little significance: “If Syria will return, welcome, I speak Arabic. If Israel, I speak Hebrew.” Instead, he emphasizes, the unity of Ghajar – whether as part of Syria or Israel - is of the utmost importance. If the integrity of the village is of primary concern, then why not accept such an arrangement under Lebanese rule, I ask. The Syrian-Israeli answers: “If I am in Lebanon, I’ll be a refugee. I don’t want to be a refugee.”