Israel has no right to divide Ghajar

December 16, 2009 - 0:0

Ordinary Syrians are alarmed by reports from the Golan Heights that indicate Israel may divide the village of Ghajar, occupied since 1967 and home to approximately 2,000 of their compatriots. More than 1,000 villagers protested in the main square on Friday and signed a letter addressed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon objecting to the proposal.

Ghajar was occupied along with the rest of the Syrian Golan during the war of 1967. In May 2000, Israel withdrew from the northern part of the village when leaving South Lebanon, only to occupy it again during the war of July 2006. The UN demands that Israel restore the northern section to Lebanon in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1701. However, the residents of the village insist that nothing about Ghajar is Lebanese and say it should be returned, complete, to Syria, along with the rest of the Golan. One resident said that if Ghajar were ceded to Lebanon “we would be refugees”.
The entire ordeal surfaced after last week's meeting between Israeli and Lebanese military officials, under the mediation of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which discussed the future of the northern part of the village. That, in addition to reports in the Israeli press and a frank statement by Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, raised more than eyebrows in the Middle East, especially since the minister said that any withdrawal depended on the consent of the Lebanese government.
Dividing the village in two would split families in half. Some would find themselves in Lebanon, while others would remain in occupied territory none would be returned to Syria. As if such a provocation were not enough, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Friday that the Israeli Defense Forces were holding drills simulating “various combat scenarios against Syria and Hezbollah”. In May, the same newspaper published a story titled ‘Who needs Ghajar?' about the proposed withdrawal from the Israeli village.
This is not the first time the residents of Ghajar have faced a change of nationality. In 1932 they voted overwhelmingly in favor of Syrian citizenship. During the census of 1960, held during the years of the Syrian-Egyptian Union, the 620 residents of Ghajar were counted as part of Syria. When the UN drew the Blue Line in 2000, following the withdrawal of Israeli troops, the northern part of the village was ‘given' to Lebanon while the southern part remained under Israeli occupation.
Baseless reports
Recently, there have been reports that the village's location was inconsistent in several maps that appeared before 1967. According to these reports, Ghajar was often placed inside Syria, but sometimes in Lebanon and on other maps it was divided between the two countries. This is nonsense. While conducting numerous studies on Syria at both the Syrian Historical Museum and the French National Archives in Nantes, I have never seen a map indicating that Ghajar is half-Syrian or, worse, fully Lebanese.
The story of Ghajar is very similar to that of other disputed towns and villages that are dotted along the French-created Syrian-Lebanese border of 1923. Many of these disputed areas were in fact part of Syria until they were ceded to Lebanon by the French in the 1920s. In 1936, a Syrian delegation went to Paris to discuss independence from the French Mandate. However, French prime minister Leon Blum refused to discuss the future of the Syrian-Lebanese villages, threatening to call off the talks altogether if the Syrians raised the matter. Chair of the Syrian delegation, future president Hashim Al Atassi, calmly replied, “Let us call for a referendum, your excellency, and I guarantee that the residents of these villages will vote to join Syria rather than remaining part of Lebanon.”
Today, the residents of Ghajar feel the same way. What matters now, however, is the proposed Israeli withdrawal. Although Syria has not yet commented on the affair, it no doubt welcomes Israeli withdrawal from any and all of the occupied territories, something that it has been calling for since the start of the peace process in Madrid 20 years ago. As far as the Syrians are concerned, Israel should withdraw from both the north and the south of the village. Thereafter, the Syrian and Lebanese governments can quietly decide how to demarcate the border -- a lengthy and tedious process by all accounts. That part is nobody's business except for Damascus and Beirut. Ensuring that the Israelis leave Ghajar, however, is the responsibility of the international community.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.
(Source: Gulf News)