Reporting from Jerusalem — The Israeli government Wednesday approved the withdrawal of troops from the northern part of an Arab village in a long-disputed region along the border with Lebanon.
Israeli officials said the removal of troops from tiny Ghajar after four years of patrolling the area was approved "in principle" by the security Cabinet, a group of government ministers. The decision calls for Israel, which wants to keep Hezbollah militants out of Ghajar, to work out the details with the United Nations peacekeeping force already patrolling the border zone in southern Lebanon.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented the plan to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week in New York and government officials said the actual withdrawal was expected to happen after several more weeks of making arrangements.
For much of the last half-century, the status of Arab residents of Ghajar — which straddles Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and southern Lebanon — has been like a political football. The 2,200 villagers of the hamlet call themselves Syrians, but they carry Israeli citizenship and most live on land claimed by Lebanon.
The village passed from Syrian to Israeli control when Israel conquered the nearby Golan Heights in the Middle East War of 1967. Israel annexed the area in 1981. With Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon in the late 1970s and 1980s, Ghajar expanded heavily to the north, developing on water-rich land across the Lebanese border. But in 2000, Israeli troops left northern Ghajar — where most villagers had moved — as part of its withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
During the 2006 Lebanon war, Israel reoccupied northern Ghajar, which had been infiltrated by Hezbollah militants. Israel has maintained a troop presence there since, despite a U.N. resolution calling for it to leave.
Najib Khatib, a Ghajar leader and village spokesman, talked Wednesday with the Los Angeles Times about why residents are anxious about Israel's plan to leave its northern half.
If Ghajar residents were asked to choose, which country would they want to belong to: Syria, Israel or Lebanon?
No one is asking us. That's the point. When we are asked and our positions are respected, then we will answer this. But listen, the village was seized together with all its lands from Syria in 1967. And it will be returned to Syria completely intact only by way of peace negotiations.
Why do you oppose an Israeli withdrawal from the northern part of Ghajar? Doesn't this merely restore the situation to the way it was until 2006?
Let me make clear. We do not oppose an Israeli withdrawal. It is the division of the village we oppose. They say the "Blue Line" [the internationally agreed-upon border between Lebanon and Israel] runs through the village, effectively dividing it. Imagine the U.N. [guarding] that line. Every time I want to visit my parents, I will need permission from a U.N. soldier. Six hundred and fifty children will need the U.N.'s permission to go to school. Anytime I will want to pray at the mosque I will have to receive permission from a U.N. soldier. And if someone dies and has to be buried, we will need permission for that, too, because the cemetery is in the southern part.
We did not leave our homes in 1967 because we did not want to become refugees in another land. We stayed, ready to even die to preserve the village and its lands. Now, the plan is to return the northern part with 1,700 people. [That includes] part of our families, our parents, our children. This is like King Solomon's judgment.
Are there concerns about Lebanon, Hezbollah or any other groups entering the northern part of the village? Do you worry about retaliation against residents for accepting Israeli citizenship?
We are not afraid of anyone. We have done nothing wrong. We are simple people — good and modest folk. We want to live in peace and dignity.
Who currently provides services for Ghajar?
We live here in a remote corner — jailed, really. We have a border fence, checkpoints, inspection points at the entrance to the village. The phone system has collapsed. There are people with no internet. If something breaks, most chances are it will stay broken. Technicians don't enter the village. So if you need your refrigerator fixed, it has to be hauled to the guard post at the entrance to the village together with a 400-meter extension cord and fixed next to the soldiers' post.
The disputed part of Ghajar is the north. Why don't villagers relocate back to the southern part? Israel has even talked about compensating people to resettle in the south.
We are not settlers. We do not want to be compared to the settlers. We would rather die here than live as refugees someplace else. [Should we move] without our lands, without our brothers? This isn't possible. We don't object to becoming part of Lebanon or anyplace else, but we want it to apply to the entire village, all its people and lands.
According to some, the northern part of Ghajar was never really Syria. The village slowly expanded over the border into Lebanon in the '70s and '80s.
Absolutely wrong. I don't know where people come up with this. There are houses built there in the late 1950s with permits from the Syrian Interior Ministry. We have documents. We have no connection to Lebanon. Lebanon knows this too. There has never been such a thing as Ghajar in Lebanon. But the U.N. based [the Blue Line] on maps from 1923 and the Sykes-Picot agreement.
Why do you think this small village has become the center of such an international struggle? Does it have a particularly strategic location, or access to water?
It's the nice people. Anyone can see we're nice, civilized, good people. We harm no one. Everyone wants us.
Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.