Israel, Syria, Lebanon: Three countries, two citizenships and a Blue Line

Against all odds, residents of Ghajar are Israeli citizens with Israeli passports and full rights; they speak Hebrew excellently, in addition to their mother tongue Arabic.

 NORTH GHAJAR, in Lebanese territory, on the left, surrounded by a border fence, and the Lebanese village Wazzani to the right, with a Lebanese military road between them. (photo credit: Leor Bareli)
NORTH GHAJAR, in Lebanese territory, on the left, surrounded by a border fence, and the Lebanese village Wazzani to the right, with a Lebanese military road between them.
(photo credit: Leor Bareli)

At the northern cusp of the Golan Heights, there is a village called Ghajar. Three things make Ghajar a significantly interesting place:

It is geographically half in Lebanon, half in Israel.

It is the only Alawite village in Israel.

Its residents all identify with Syria.

The military roadblock at Ghajar’s entrance, said local resident and tour guide Hussein, is a national security precaution due to the village’s sensitive status and border with Lebanon. No Israeli citizen/non-Ghajar resident may enter without receiving explicit military coordination and an official invitation from a resident in advance.

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 (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 (credit: BEN RATHAUSER)

Against all odds, residents of Ghajar are Israeli citizens with Israeli passports and full rights; they speak Hebrew excellently, in addition to their mother tongue Arabic.

The legitimate territory of Ghajar was defined and recorded during Ottoman rule in the Levant which, said Hussein, includes another 11,500 dunam of land at the village entrance. “Although there was no actual fence dividing between territories, we always knew where the borders were,” he said.

The lines dividing Syria, Lebanon and Palestine (albeit invisible lines, but geographical facts on the map) were initially drawn by the British and French powers at the end of World War I. As a result of the 1967 Six Day War, Israel won control over the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights; with it, Ghajar.

The Ghajar residents blame the European powers for carelessly dividing the Arab map between them, improperly foreseeing political problems that would come as a result of their actions. Hussein says that prior to 1967, Ghajar residents held Syrian citizenship. So how did Lebanon get involved in this small village?

While it would be much simpler to wholly blame Britain and France, history, as always, is an inexplicable mess of accounts and tumultuous events.

Two millennia ago, before the declaration and establishment of any of the modern countries or republics in the Middle East, the Levant consisted of the United Israelite Kingdom that disintegrated into the competing monarchies of Israel and Judah in mid 9th-century BCE; Phoenician states and coastal traders in modern Lebanon; non-unified kingdoms of Aram-Damascus and Assyria in modern Syria; and the Moab and Ammon monarchies in what is now Jordan.

The Levant would spiral in a series of hostile takeovers, rebellions and competing powers, becoming players on a chessboard of the great empires of the world that came steamrolling through the Middle East, centuries before any of the modern countries were established.

In Mesopotamia, first came the Assyrian Empire; then the rise of the Babylonians; the First Persian Empire headed by Cyrus the Great; Alexander the Great of the Macedonian Empire; the Greek Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Kingdom; the Byzantine Roman Empire. With the rise of Islam, the region then became a conflict zone between reigning Muslim dynasties vying for power and Byzantines attempting to recapture their territory; then the Crusaders; the Mongols; the Egyptian Mamluks; the Ottoman Empire in 1516; European mandates and colonization; and finally, independence.

Under Seleucid rule of the region, the term Coele-Syria, “all of Syria,” was used to describe the area of the country between the Tigris and the Mediterranean, referring to Syria and east Phoenicia (Lebanon), effectively grouping the two together. Thereafter, Judea was renamed Syria Palaestina by the Romans after the official destruction of the Jewish Kingdom and Second Temple in the year 70 CE.

The Muslim forces that conquered the Levant in the aftermath introduced a new religion to the current inhabitants of Coele-Syria and Syria Palaestina, a demographic majority of pagan Greco-Syriac and Syriac Christian communities, and divide the territory into four districts: Damascus, Homs, Palestine and Jordan.

The people of the Alawite faith became well established in the Syriac region in the 12th century. Their belief system is kept as a protected secret until today, although it is known that they adhere to the teachings of Ali, the cousin of the Islamic prophet Mohamed, and are often referred to as a sect of Shia Islam, although they branched off from Shi’ites more than 1,000 years ago. Under the Ottoman Empire, they were a mistreated and persecuted minority, although predominant in Aleppo and Latakia.

For over 400 years, the Ottoman Turks controlled the Middle East, along with a great portion of the world. Greater Syria in the final period of Ottoman rule includes modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Cyprus, northern Arabia and parts of Turkey and Iraq. Until today, some Arab sources consider these as part of Bilad al-Shaam, Islamic Syria, referring to the lands of the Levant, known as Greater Syria and reminiscent of the Greek Coele-Syria.

Eventually, key regions began to declare independence – Greece in 1830, Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria in 1878 – until the empire disintegrates at the end of World War I. Its territories are partitioned, and France wins mandatory powers in Syria and Lebanon while Britain takes control of the territories in Transjordan, Mesopotamia and Palestine.

France splits its mandate into two different political entities of Greater Lebanon and then broke Syria down into several states and provinces. Many Syrians actually opposed this as they saw Lebanon as an important part of Greater Syria for centuries.

Relations between the two new states were often tense, and a precise border was never officially mandated besides for cartoon-like sketches on maps. Ghajar was somewhere along that imprecise, indecipherable border between Syria and Lebanon.

Hussein says that for centuries, Ghajar had been inhabited predominantly by Alawites. During French rule, the Alawi minority became a significant part of the Syrian Armed Forces, which would eventually lead to political dominance in Syria today.

After World War II, and after the further involvement of Britain in the Levant region after the French surrender to Axis Powers, the northern Levantine territories gained their independence: Lebanon in 1943 and Syria in 1946, only a few years before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

In 1956, said Hussein, Ghajar began expanding and building into the northern part of the village. On the Mandatory map, this overlaps into Lebanese territory; under Syrian control, there was no issue.

Fast forward to 1967, where Israel wins control over the Golan Heights from Syria as a result of the Six Day War. Ghajar remains no man’s land for two and a half months until the Alawite villagers petition to be a part of Israel, and not Lebanon, as they themselves are Syrian. Hussein explained that a total of 678 individuals made the decision to stay and Ghajar is accepted under Israeli rule.

After the First Lebanon War, when Israel began to withdraw and return south Lebanon land that was captured, north Ghajar was suddenly claimed by Lebanon. Hussein blamed this disparity on the need to keep up the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, primarily Hezbollah.

The inhumane nature of dividing a village into two led to a UN technicality associating northern Ghajar to Lebanon while the entirety of the village would remain under Israeli control.

At first, it was difficult for nearly anyone, including teachers and doctors, to obtain permission to enter the village. After Hezbollah seceded from the area, entrance became more lenient.

Hussein says the Ghajar residents are proud to be Israeli citizens although they identify strongly with their Syrian roots. The country respects them, their beliefs and their freedom. They choose not to serve in the Israeli army. Today, Hussein says proudly, there are more than three to four hundred academics in Ghajar.

So what belongs to Syria, or Lebanon, or Palestine, or Israel today? These are modern terminologies and usages of regions that are still being developed after millennia-long histories where states were not states and empires ruled over way too much land for their own good, and the lines between territories were blurred, changed, rearranged and renamed at the whims of the stronger forces, leaving gaps in current knowledge and power vacuums throughout history.

An example is ISIS, or Daish in Arabic, an acronym for “the Islamic state of Iraq and the Shaam.” While “Shaam” refers to Syria, this is in reference to Bilad al-Shaam, Islamic Syria, the historical massive province of the Levant conquered by Muslims in the seventh century.

Just as Germany has historically been a loose fluid polity of Germanic-speaking peoples that were brought together into one German Empire in 1871, so were the Arab-speaking peoples of the Levant. It would be naive and foolish to disregard two millennia of history when trying to understand the intricacies of the Blue Line dividing Ghajar today.

The writer is an independent blogger on Middle Eastern history and religion. She was born and raised in New York before making aliyah as a lone soldier in 2011.