Splitting Ghajar 'like separating a head from a body'

Citizens protest proposed plan to split Alawite village.

ghajar AP 298 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
ghajar AP 298 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The only thing that separates the Israeli side and the Lebanese side of the usually quiet border village of Ghajar is the main road. There is no fence. There is no wall. There are no troops or other defining markers in the middle of the village. And the approximately 2,000 Arab-Israeli residents who live in this Alawite village say they wouldn't have it any other way. Hundreds of villagers, including children, took to the streets on Tuesday to protest an Israeli plan to transfer approximately 400 families from the Lebanese side to the Israeli side and close off the border between them. The security cabinet is expected to discuss Wednesday the plan, which is being considered following recent attacks on Ghajar and other northern towns. "We don't accept that they throw us out of our homes. We will stay in our homes even if we die here," said Khatib Bilal, accountant for the village's local council and the mayor's assistant who lives on the Lebanese or northern side. "Here I was born. Here I built my house. I raised my children. Here is the grave of my mother. It is not easy to take all your memories, all your dreams." Ghajar was taken from Syria during the Six Day War, and its residents later opted for Israeli citizenship. After Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, UN surveyors determined that two-thirds of the town was inside Lebanon. To get UN recognition of a complete withdrawal from Lebanon, Israel withdrew from two-thirds of the village, but did not close the fence running through the town to avoid completely disrupting life there. Since then, Ghajar has been one of the major flash points on the northern border. Villagers boast that they successfully prevented UN officials from building a fence to divide the city following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. "We are really Syrian people," said Bilal, from the village's only cafeteria on the main road. "We served in the Syrian army. When someone wants to marry, they get all their documents in Syria." While Bilal lives on the Israeli side of Ghajar, he has four sisters who live on the other side. He worries that if the village is separated, he will not see his family. He also worries that the whole village could be cut off from all of Israel - where he now comes and goes as he pleases - for security reasons. "Can you divide a body into two parts?" asked 24-year-old Basel Isa, a resident of the Israeli or southern side, when explaining why he participated in the protests. Ideally, the northern part of the village would be included as part of Israel, he said. He acknowledged, however, that Lebanon would probably not consider that a viable option. "We are all in this village as a family," said Dr. Shadi Salman, one of four doctors in the village. Salman, who lives on the southern side but works in a clinic two days a week on the northern side, added, "We want to be together forever." Salman studied in Syria and married a Syrian woman. He said he hoped that Ghajar would once again return to Syrian control in the future. Buildings on the Israeli side of town bear bullet holes and damage from missiles which were fired just weeks before, while no damage is immediately evident on buildings on the Lebanese side. Israeli soldiers are stationed at the entrance of the village. They sternly warn visitors that they cannot turn right from the main road or they will have entered Lebanon and could be at risk. Shama Rashash, a mother of seven children who lives on the Israeli side, said the current situation in Ghajar is "enough to make a baby cry." During the recent Hizbullah attacks and Israeli counterattacks, she said she was very frightened by the actions of both sides. But she hopes the conflict will not lead to any drastic actions. "If there is justice in the heavens, [Ghajar] will never be separated," she said. "It would be like separating a head from a body."