Ghajar: The flashpoint town between Lebanon, Syria, and Israel 
The Syrian-Lebanese town of Ghajar, occupied by Israel since 1967, is fixed at the center of a regional geopolitical confrontation.
By Firas Al-Shoufi
January 05 2023
Photo Credit: The Cradle

The story of the town of Ghajar is similar to the story of the Arab Levant region – divided along contentious border lines, then booby-trapped by planting the Israeli occupation state in its midst.

The town, today entirely occupied by Israel, is considered by Syria to be part of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, while Lebanon claims that part of it is Lebanese territory. It is one of the few meeting points on the Lebanese-Palestinian-Syrian borders.

Why is Ghajar important?

Surprisingly, this small and often-ignored town is subject to two separate UN Security Council resolutions: Res. 242 on the Syrian Golan, and Res. 1701 on southern Lebanon. So what is the importance of Ghajar, and why is this border town part of a major geopolitical struggle?

Whoever gains Ghajar on both sides of the border gains an upper hand in the stealthy military conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s resistance movement. This is a geographically elevated area, from which Israeli forces could advance in a future war against Lebanon – or from which Hezbollah can gain visual reconnaissance over vital parts of the occupied Galilee.

Among the thick fog hanging over the occupied village of Ghajar in southeastern Lebanon, the features of the slopes of the Syrian Golan and Mount Hermon appear behind the colorful houses dotting its landscape.

From afar, the town of Ain Qenya looms in the occupied Golan. It is one of five Syrian villages – alongside Ghajar – still inhabited, after tens of thousands were displaced from dozens of farms and villages to the outskirts of Damascus following Israel’s June 1967 occupation of the Golan Heights.

From the Lebanese side, in the village of Wazzani, the huge iron wall built by the Israeli army that surrounds Ghajar from the north is clearly visible. Israel has occupied the entire town intermittently for more than fifty years – and continuously since 2006.

The Israel army built an iron wall inside Lebanese territory to physically separate Ghajar from Lebanon.

Violating Lebanon’s sovereignty

In recent months, the occupation army built, without fanfare, a barbed wire fence along with a semi-circular technical fence around the north of the town in Lebanese territory, which perpetuates the annexation of Ghajar to Israel – in a new violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty and UN Security Council Resolutions 425 and 1701.

From the bank of the Hasbani River opposite the Ghajar, it is possible to observe, through camera lenses, active movement in the town on a rainy Sunday morning. Tourists transported in large buses from  Jewish settlements in occupied Palestine enter the restaurants that overlook the western side of the river in Lebanon, before continuing their way south to the Galilee.

“Prior to the recent Israeli elections, the occupation army allowed tourists to enter the town, after many years of banning entry to outsiders following the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanese territory in May 2000, and after a series of events the town has witnessed since then,” says Ali Shuaib, field correspondent for Al-Manar TV, who monitors daily the Israeli movements on the border between Lebanon and occupied Palestine.

Commenting on the tourist activity in the town, Hassan Merhej, a resident of the town and a well-known social activist in the Golan, told The Cradle, “The uproar that arose around the town after entry was prohibited, in addition to its charming nature and its view of Lebanon, all push tourists to come. Everything forbidden is desired.”

A prisoner of Israel and geography

Merhej stresses that the town has suffered a lot in the past and still does due to the Israeli occupation and its geographical location. Ghajar, after all, is a living victim of the borders drawn between Lebanon and Syria under the French Mandate, just like many other villages and towns that fell victim to the foreign-imposed artificial borders.

“The northern part of the town, which is the largest and equal to about two-thirds of it, belongs to Lebanon according to the maps known as Bouleh-Newcombe (1923), as well as according to the Blue Line, while the southern part belongs to Syria,” confirms retired Brigadier General Antoine Murad, author of the book “Rights Between the Lines – The Southern Lebanese Border.”

Murad was a member of a technical team affiliated with the Lebanese army that worked on demarcating the “Blue Line” between Lebanon and Israel after the latter’s military withdrawal in 2000. Lebanon has expressed reservations over 13 of its border points.

“In the past, there weren’t many houses in the northern part of the town inside Lebanese territory,” Murad tells The Cradle. “Construction work expanded after the occupation of Ghajar with the Golan Heights in 1967, and increased after the Israeli occupation following the invasion of southern Lebanon in 1978.”

Not far from here, southwest of Ghajar, stands a red Israeli transmission tower called the “40th tower.” It practically constitutes the meeting point between the Syrian-Lebanese-Palestinian borders, according to the British-French influence-sharing agreements in the Levant, after the collapse of the Ottoman Sultanate.

The land pitches low in the vicinity of the tower, and there are no Lebanese military sites in sight. But pay attention closely, and one can feel the invisible presence of Hezbollah and its men. “This area is sometimes exploited by Israeli soldiers to infiltrate and breach Lebanese territory,” says a Lebanese security official who asked to remain anonymous.

Part of Syria’s Golan

On 14 December, 1981, Ghajar was one of the villages included in Israel’s decision to annex the Golan Heights and impose an Israeli identity on its residents.

Says Merhaj: “Many of the residents left to the outskirts of Damascus after the occupation in 1967. Only about 350 people remained. They were given the choice between Israeli citizenship, and losing their agricultural lands and leaving them prey to a group of collaborators with the Israeli occupation led by Saad Haddad, an officer who defected from the Lebanese army during the Israeli occupation.

“Nationality,” he insists, “is just a card that was imposed on us. I am a Syrian Arab and I will remain so. All residents of Ghajar and the Golan are Syrians. The occupation will not be able to sever our ties with Syria.”

Historian Ahmed Al-Khatib, a resident of Ghajar and author of several books on the towns of the occupied Golan, told the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar last month that “the Blue Line has gnawed away at vast areas of the village’s Syrian land, estimated at 500,000 square meters, and annexed it to Lebanon.” This increased Ghajar’s Lebanese territory to approximately 1,100,000 square meters.”

The town, in its Syrian and Lebanese parts, remained under Israeli occupation until 2000. “It is true that the occupation army officially withdrew from the Lebanese part, but it remained under the supervision of the United Nations. The Lebanese army, which monitors it from a distance and objects to any advance of the occupation towards it, did not enter it,” explains Murad.

Journalist Shuaib adds: “The Israeli army is still present on the outskirts of the village and is deployed in hidden points. I have seen them many times while I was filming.”

After the July 2006 war and Israel’s reoccupation of part of southern Lebanon, Resolution 1701 was issued to stop hostilities. The Israeli army withdrew from the areas it occupied during the recent aggression, but that did not include Ghajar.

Rather, the Israelis established sites in the north of the town and built a technical fence around it, under the pretext of preventing the town from being used as a corridor for smuggling drugs and weapons from Lebanon, and alleging that Hezbollah might try again to kidnap Israeli soldiers to exchange them for Lebanese prisoners.

Ghajar after the July War (2006)

Since 2006, the occupation of the northern part has been subject to International Resolution 1701 and the southern part to International Resolution 242, which was issued after the 1967 war.

Many initiatives have been put forward to address the problem of Ghajar, which has a population of about 2,800. In 2000, former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud proposed that the entire town be placed under Lebanese sovereignty until Israel withdraws from the Golan, and that the Syrian parts would be returned to Syria.

Israel rejected the proposal. “On that day, the occupation also threatened the residents, warning that they would lose their lands if they accepted the Lebanese request,” Merhej says.

The United Nations also submitted, through UNIFIL Force Commander Claudio Graziano, a proposal for Israeli withdrawal in 2008, a second proposal in 2010, and a third in 2011, all of which included security arrangements for the withdrawal of the occupation army from the Lebanese part.

However, the three proposals did not receive an Israeli response, as Murad mentions in his book. Since then, the demand for an Israeli withdrawal from the town has become folklore in statements by the United Nations, UNIFIL and even the Lebanese government.

UNIFIL spokesman in Lebanon Andrea Tenenti says that “there is no new proposal from UNIFIL. The old proposals are very appropriate, and Israel’s continued occupation of Ghajar is a continuous violation of international resolutions and Lebanese sovereignty. Israel must withdraw immediately.”

In response to a question about what UNIFIL is doing to force Israel’s withdrawal, he answers that “UNIFIL has no powers other than to repeat its calls for Israel to withdraw. The rest is up to the Security Council.”

Murad and Shoaib and the Lebanese security source agree that the best solution to the town’s issue is a complete Israeli withdrawal from it and from the occupied Lebanese territories such as the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shuba Hills.

“They treat Ghajar as a colony. Israel is mocking two UN resolutions,” says the security source, “but the occupation will end sooner or later.”

While Merhej says, “Unfortunately, the Israeli withdrawal from the northern part only harms the people of the town. Dividing the town makes life difficult for the residents. The ideal solution is to withdraw from the Golan Heights, from Lebanon, and from all the occupied territories.”

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Cradle.
Firas Al-Shoufi
Firas Al-Shoufi
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