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Feature, Haaretz, December 2, 2005


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The village
By Gideon Levy

There's no other place like it in the world: This Syrian village that was conquered by Israel is home to some 2,000 Israeli citizens, sits on land that was partly annexed to Israel and belongs partly to Lebanon. Last week, when Hezbollah motorcycles cruised the village streets, shooting in every direction and aiming to kidnap a soldier from the Israel Defense Forces outpost in the center of the village, yet another glimpse of the weird reality that is life in Ghajar was revealed.

On that same day, 350 elementary school pupils in the village, which is located in the northwest Golan Heights on the banks of the Hatzbani River, were trapped for about seven hours in their school's small shelter. Meanwhile, their panicked parents were stuck at home. The youngsters did not return to school until this past Sunday, six days after the incident.

Since then, the lives of the residents of this divided village have again been filled with fear. They don't leave their houses at night and are also very cautious during the day. Between them and Hezbollah, there is no fence: The border here is just an imaginary line that passes through the center of the village, right by the school exit. The 1923 Blue Line (border demarcation) is really just a white line painted down the middle of the black pavement here, with Hezbollah positions very close by.

No Arab village in Israel looks as spruced-up as this one: The curbs defining the parking places are carefully painted; the school, the council building, the health maintenance organization clinic and the Mifal Hapayis (National Lottery) dental health center all gleam from a distance. But the two clinics are closed. Since the IDF's withdrawal from Lebanon, they have become part of that country's territory and entry by Israeli doctors is forbidden. The cars on the village streets are all Israeli - and not just because they bear yellow license plates. There is a preponderance of silver-painted Jeeps and Mercedes a la Ramat Aviv Gimmel.

Nonetheless, a cloud of bitterness has descended upon Ghajar since the IDF withdrawal. Why haven't Eli Yatzpan and Yigal Shilon come to entertain the frightened children after last Monday's incident, villagers asked there this week. After all, they went to neighboring Kiryat Shmona after Katyusha rocket strikes there. Why hasn't the Education Ministry's district supervisor picked up the phone? And why hasn't his ministry sent psychologists to help the children? These are questions that you won't hear in Israel's other occupied territories or in our "Arab sector," either.

Living between a rock (Lebanon) and a hard place (Syria), with the State of Israel as a bonus, no one picks their words as carefully as Ghajar's residents. Meandering through their village is like roaming the halls of the UN: Everyone seems to have received advanced training in diplomacy. They don't want their picture taken, they don't want their names used; indeed, they had really rather not talk at all. Still, we managed to speak with several residents this week. And they talked not only about the drugs that are apparently passing through this village-without-boundaries, but also about their daily lives and the services the State of Israel is not giving them - Alawites with Israeli passports, some of whom live in Lebanon, but earn their living in Kiryat Shmona or Haifa.

You could call it "occupation-lite," maybe the "litest" version offered by the Israeli occupation enterprise, and it comes with the perks of a passport and freedom of movement. All of the residents with whom we spoke said that all they want is peace and security, they don't care under which flag or which sovereignty. On the IDF outpost in the middle of the village, which was damaged in the Hezbollah attack last week, someone has scrawled in Hebrew: "Sovereignty 1" - as if to dispel the great confusion in which the people here have been living ever since what they refer to as that awful day in May, 2000, when Israel retreated from Lebanon and left this village with an imaginary border in the middle, vulnerable on all sides.

Since then, pupils at the attractive school building have been using two separate exits: Children from the southern part leave in the direction of Israel and those from the northern part exit to Lebanon. Both groups are studious and ambitious. Even amid this impossible situation, the place has produced four or five Israeli doctors. All the residents we talked with spoke fluent Hebrew. At the local council, a photograph of former minister Eli Yishai hangs on the wall.

You mustn't turn right, only left. The Border Police officer at the entry checkpoint into the village is pleasant and friendly in a way that no soldier would be at a West Bank checkpoint. They hold on to our documents and we pledge to leave by 10 P.M. and not to turn right off the main street, lest we infiltrate an enemy state. It was the same in besieged Sarajevo: At the hotel where the journalists stayed, it was forbidden to take the staircase on the right, you could only use the left, because of the Serbs. But here, we discovered at the end of the day that we had mistakenly parked the car in Lebanon: There weren't any available spots in Israel. Next to the checkpoint, a group of soldiers was going through a drill, dropping to the mud and getting up again. "Write that we're friends of Corporal David Markowitz," they said, referring to the no-longer-anonymous IDF soldier who killed four Hezbollah fighters during the shootout last week. (Hezbollah took one body with them and left behind the other three, which were subsequently returned to Lebanon by Israel).

"Public services for tourists," reads a Hebrew sign inside Musa's restaurant, which before the withdrawal did a good business thanks to Israeli travelers, but doesn't sell much more than Krembos now, during recess periods at the school next door. Outside, a television reporter practices border crossing: He stands on the road and, in front of the camera, steps back and forth over the white line, passing from country to country. A group of young people gathers near a shawarma stand. One agrees to sit down and talk over a cup of coffee - anonymously, of course.

"Here every house is like a kibbutz. Everyone helps one another," he says. "At 5 P.M. I watch Channel 2, at 5:30 I see Al Jazeera, then Manar (the Hezbollah station) at 8:00, and Channel 1 at 9:00. We don't want to be third-class citizens in the state. For 45 years, a fireball has been out of control here and no one cared. But as soon as one of your parachutists landed, the whole world came running [an Israeli man mistakenly parachuted into Lebanon last week - G.L.]. When the children of Manara and Kiryat Shmona were in the shelters, they made sure to send them a psychologist. No one so much as glanced at our children. A Jewish child can go into shock, but an Arab child can't.

"Arik Sharon, he can keep raising cattle and the defense minister can go on striking poses. But when they kidnapped three soldiers here, [then prime minister Ehud] Barak gave [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah an ultimatum to return the bodies. It took three years. And when Nasrallah gave an ultimatum last week that Israel return the bodies, Israel returned them within a day. Those are just the facts on the ground. Therefore, I'm starting to think that Nasrallah is stronger than the State of Israel.

"I'm 33. I was born here and have lived most of my life here. There was a period when I lived in Kiryat Shmona and experienced the Katyushas and I see the difference in the way people relate to here and there. That's why I'm speaking so harshly. The state says we're citizens of Israel, so I want the same fence they have in Misgav Am. It can't be that anyone can just come in or out, as happened last week. The state provides protection to the settler in Itamar, even though it's the territories, and there are shelters in Ofra, but what does it give us? Bullshit.

"Would they have put a military outpost in Itamar? In Neveh Dekalim? Right in the middle of the place? Would they endanger the residents of Kiryat Shmona that way? Would they put one inside Manara? There is no country in the world that would leave its citizens abandoned, beyond the border, without giving them protection. This outpost endangers us more than it protects us. If it weren't here, they wouldn't try to bomb it. They want to guard us? They can go up, above us. They don't have to stand behind my back to watch over me. There isn't a single shelter ... built by the Defense Ministry. But when I was in Kiryat Shmona, I saw that every 100 meters there was a shelter, with emergency lighting and television for the children. I don't expect anything anymore from the state. I'm fed up."

Would you prefer to be a citizen of Syria?

"Listen, I'll tell you the truth. I was born here, but if fate says I'm going to be a Syrian citizen then I'll be a Syrian citizen. What's the problem? I could be an Australian citizen just as well. Do you care what citizenship you have? You care that you should live in peace and quiet. Citizenship isn't the roof over my head, I don't live inside my passport. What I care about is being a person who receives the same social services as everyone else. French citizenship, Afghani, Pakistani - the point is that there should be quiet.

"The kids went back to school today. Did they send them a psychologist? In Kiryat Shmona, I remember that Yatzpan used to come and that guy with the cigar who does imitations. What about here? Yigal Amir gets better treatment. But I do thank our kibbutz neighbors and the Mevo'ot Hermon local council. Especially Sde Eliezer, which put us up - 150 people, who were stuck outside on that night last week."

This Ghajar resident was in Haifa when Hezbollah entered his village. His wife called him in a panic. Their six-year-old daughter was at the school. She didn't return until evening, and he wasn't allowed to enter his village until the next morning.

"The next day, an officer asked me: `How come you didn't see them?' I said, `You've got to be kidding. You have a camera at Har Dov and you can see exactly how much I piss and you're asking me how come I didn't see them? It's an insulting question. My daughter couldn't fall asleep at night. Every hour is like a month in this fear. Every noise outside, maybe a cow or a cat, she says to me, `Daddy, there's shooting.' That's what you call being a victim of shock. You see that everything is quiet now. But in your head everything is crazy. You don't know when it will come to you. It's like being a soldier in the territories: You don't know when it will come. And there's not even an ambulance here.

"Human life here isn't even worth NIS 150,000 to the State of Israel. Omri Sharon wastes that much money in two nights and collects it in half a second as a donation, and we don't have an ambulance. I'd like to see a minister come here, some senior official, and live here for a month, in the north and the south, and then let's see what happens."

Indeed, everything seems very tranquil in the village now. Girls play hopscotch, old men warm themselves in the sun, piles of kindling are being readied for winter. Up from the steep wadi rises a pipeline that was the focus of a previous dispute with Hezbollah, a few years ago, over diverting the waters of the Hatzbani. Before long, the area will be covered with snow. For a stranger, walking the streets is a tense business. Nothing separates us from the next kidnapping.

Najib Khatib, the local council spokesman, is another young and eloquent Israeli. His complaints have a more official ring to them, but are very similar: Most services are not received in the village, especially in the northern part. There is no Bezeq phone company service, no electric company, no refrigerator repair, no ambulance or firefighters - no one comes here. About a month and a half ago, there was a fire in the wadi and the residents had to form a bucket brigade to put it out.

"It's like the whole village has been tossed over the country's borders," says Khatib, whose biggest complaint is the feeling of uncertainty. What will happen here today? Will Israel leave? Will it stay forever? Will they go back to being Syrians? Lebanese? Will a fence be built that divides the village down the middle, as Israel has done in Abu Dis?

Try asking Khatib what citizenship he would prefer and his face reddens: "When they divided Ghajar, did anyone ask us? Did anyone come here and explain? You're asking me what I want? Does my opinion matter to anyone? So why are you asking me about Syrian citizenship?"

On the eve of the withdrawal from Lebanon, they appealed to the world, to the UN's Kofi Annan on down, not to have their village bisected by a border fence, and they got their wish: The barrier was not erected and the border remains an imaginary line. But what will happen after another two or three incidents like the one last week?

Khatib: "We don't know when they'll transfer us to Lebanon and close the gate behind us."

It's a theater of the absurd: They pay for mandatory car insurance in Israel, but there is no other insurance in the northern part of the village. Property taxes will only be used to compensate residents of the southern part who were injured in the Hezbollah attack, even though the damage in the northern part is more serious, and was largely inflicted by the IDF.

Israel confiscated the lands left behind when about half the residents fled in 1967, declared them "absentee properties," sold them in 1975 to 33 of the remaining families - and now it turns out that they are in Lebanese territory. Now the absentees want to return to the area that is in Lebanon. Who's going to stop them? And what about the people who bought and paid for their lands? The fields are hardly cultivated anymore because of the wild boars. The animals cannot be hunted because every bullet that is fired could ignite the whole sector, so the boars have taken over the fields and there is no agriculture.

When asked about drug traffic in his village, Khatib replies: "In the northern part there is no army and no police. Anyone can take the law into their own hands." Later he asks, referring of course to the withdrawal from Lebanon: "This calamity that fell on us - where did it come from?"

Zaki Salman, a teacher of geography and history, spent just about the whole week last week in his house next to the IDF outpost. Every morning he went to the school and returned a couple of hours later, because the pupils didn't come. His youngest son, Ismail, 16, is still clearly traumatized by that day. His father tortures himself: He sent the boy to buy cigarettes a few minutes before the attack occurred and he was caught in the middle of the shootout. The youth found a hiding place at a construction site on the outskirts of the village and stayed there for hours. Still, it should be noted that it was no coincidence that no Ghajar residents were injured: The Hezbollah fighters called out with loudspeakers to stay in their homes and were careful not to hurt them.

"It started at 2:55 P.M. I was preparing lessons for the next day," says Salman the teacher. "Suddenly I heard a boom. I thought it was the usual thing, but then I heard another one and the whole house shook. We saw black smoke coming up from the army post." He and others ran to the home of Zaki's nephew, on the other side of the street, further away from the fire, and took cover there in the little kitchen, talking to Zaki's trapped son on his cell phone and trying to calm him down.

We were in Salman's home in July 2001. That day his son Shadi, a physician, married Kautar, a pharmacist. Kautar was a Syrian bride then and we accompanied her from the border at Quneitra until we arrived at this house on the edge of Ghajar. The couple's eldest daughter is now two and a half. Kautar sees her parents once a year in Jordan. Kautar already speaks fluent Hebrew.

In his history and geography classes, Salman also teaches about the history of the village. "The students ask questions and curse the UN and [its envoy] Terje Roed-Larsen who made the agreement here, but those are questions for class, not for the newspaper."

At 2:30 in the morning, after the fighting abated, IDF soldiers entered Salman's house to conduct a search and asked all the people there to gather in one room. When they noticed the teacher's elderly father, they quickly apologized and left. "Sorry to disturb you," the commander said to Zaki.

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