Lebanon accepts Ghajar proposal

A UN proposal is delivered to both the Israeli and Lebanese governments to end the Israeli occupation of Ghajar.

Spanish soldiers of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) clear a road which had been closed by Israeli forces in the town of Ghajar, southern Lebanon, January 18, 2007. REUTERS/Karmallah Daher (LEBANON)
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BEIRUT // A UN proposal delivered to both the Israeli and Lebanese governments to end the Israeli occupation of the divided town of Ghajar has been accepted by the Lebanese government and is currently awaiting final approval by the Israeli military, UN and Lebanese officials said yesterday. Both Lebanon and the United Nations have said Israel has unofficially endorsed the plan, which would finally implement an Israeli withdrawal from the last bit of land occupied during the July 2006 war. Ghajar has been a long-standing sore point for Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the UN since after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, when UN inspectors put the ceasefire line directly through the town. The southern half remained part of Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, whereas the northern side became part of Lebanon. And with most residents of Ghajar having accepted Israeli residency and citizenship in a 1981 agreement, the UN and Israel agreed not to fence the two halves of the village. However, few Lebanese have ever seen the town because Hizbollah tightly controlled access between 2000 and 2006 to prevent the Lebanese from freely mingling with Israeli citizens and military personnel.

Ghajar is perhaps the only town on earth where most residents can travel the world on either Lebanese or Israeli passports - most have been issued both - even if they can never actually travel more than about 800 metres into Lebanon. In a brief visit to Ghajar shortly after the 2006 war, it was possible for journalists to cross between the two countries - which share one of the world's most tense and impassable borders - and talk to local residents who described themselves as 'Israeli Arabs' and seemed mostly content with their Israeli citizenship. Prior to 2006, Ghajar was a key no-man's land for both Israel and Hizbollah, who used the openness of the area to run intelligence and military operations against one another. In one failed attempt in 2005, Hizbollah tried to kidnap members of an Israel patrol in Ghajar and several Arab Israelis have recently been arrested for spying on behalf of Hizbollah in Israel, usually using Ghajar as a point of contact with the group.

In the 2006 war, Israeli forces occupied the northern portion of the town and have so far refused to withdraw. The Lebanese government had demanded that Lebanese Army troops take over security of Ghajar as part of its post-2006 move into south Lebanon - the Lebanese Army had not deployed anywhere in the south for 30 years until after the 2006 ceasefire - but the Israelis demanded any troops be limited to UN forces. "This is a final agreement to end a blemish on the Unifil mission in post-2006," according to Timur Goskel, a former UN official, who spent more than two decades wrangling such deals between Lebanon and Israel. "The Israeli presence in North Ghajar always reinforced the belief by many Lebanese that the UN was in south Lebanon, not as peacekeepers, but to protect Israel's security," he said. "But if this happens, it will finally put Israel mostly into compliance with the ceasefire." A Lebanese official - who asked for anonymity due to the nature of the discussion - said the government hoped this step would lead to serious talks over the adjacent Shebaa Farms, a 20 sq km plot of disputed land that remains under Israeli occupation, and is claimed by Lebanon despite Israel's argument it is part of the occupied Golan Heights taken from Syria in the 1967 war. Israeli media reported yesterday the deal included an Israeli agreement to withdraw from Shebaa Farms as well as Ghajar in exchange for UN troops taking control of both areas, but these reports were quickly denied by both Lebanon and UN officials, who cited Israeli confusion over the precise names of Arab lands. The UN has a mandate to patrol Ghajar, but it would require a new Security Council resolution for UN troops to enter Shebaa, according to UN officials. But the Ghajar agreement comes as both Syria and Israel appear to be creeping towards direct talks over the status of the Golan Heights, whose return would be a key part of any peace deal in the region. Israel has always linked the status of Shebaa and Golan, while Hizbollah has claimed since 2000 that Shebaa is part of Lebanon occupied by Israel and uses this claim to justify its refusal to consider disarming. Israeli officials have openly mulled returning the tiny sliver of land, if only to remove one of Hizbollah's remaining excuses to conduct attacks on Israel. "The best way to hurt the resistance would be for Israel to leave Shebaa today," said one Lebanese official, who refused to be named criticising the group. "No one in Lebanon cares about Ghajar or Shebaa except Hizbollah. Ghajar, we know they will keep because its people have become Israeli citizens, but there's no reason to keep Shebaa and empower Hizbollah's claims Lebanon is occupied."

Abdo Hassan Hashim is the mayor of Shebaa, a town just outside the farms on the Lebanese and the occupied sliver of land should fall under his jurisdiction. He said the area has always been Lebanese, but was a famous way station for smuggling in the 1950s between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Due to its own weakness and the overall lawlessness in the area, Mr Hashim said Lebanon asked Syria to open a police station in the area to help provide security, which is why both Israel and, occasionally, Syria claim the land belongs to Damascus. "We have deeds from the land owners that proves it's owned by Lebanese landlords and shows that it is a Lebanese land from the beginning," Mr Hashim said. "I support the resistance as they were here protecting us." But conditions in the farms and outlaying areas are terrible because of the occupation and tensions, Mr Hashim said, so he is ready for any deal that would allow economic development. "If the UN will take over, like they are saying lately, we have no problem as long as they give us our land back," he said. "We want to be able to see it again, we want to cultivate, we want to work. Our youth is all outside the country because there is nothing for them to do here." mprothero@thenational.ae