GHAJAR, Israel (Reuters) - Israel said on Wednesday it would withdraw troops from a village straddling the Lebanese border, in a gesture to the United Nations that drew residents onto the streets protesting the division of their community.
The people of Ghajar, a prosperous hillside town of 2,300 who are members of Syria’s Alawite sect, say they want no “Berlin Wall” dividing the north from the south of their village and forcing them to chose between Lebanon or Israel.
They say they were not consulted on U.N. plans to resolve a situation that has long inflamed tensions between Israel, the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla group and neighboring Syria.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen when the Israelis pull back. We’re afraid the village will be cut in two, and in Ghajar we’re all one big family,” said local council head Ahmed Fatali.
Israel captured Ghajar, along with the Golan Heights which it abuts, from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. A later U.N. demarcation of Lebanese territory took in northern Ghajar, leaving the southern part under Israeli control. The villagers took Israeli citizenship in 1981, but see themselves as Syrians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet approved the pullout but set no date, saying it first needed to discuss security in the vacated area with UNIFIL.
A statement said Israel wanted to preserve “the security of the citizens of Israel and the fabric of life for residents of the village, which has remained one, indivisible unit.”
“We don’t want UNIFIL (the United Nations interim peacekeeping force in Lebanon) to patrol the northern part of the village. That will mean its division,” Fatali said.
Elders said the world has often ignored local wishes in these Middle East highlands, where pelicans and palm trees form a curious mix with cattle feedlots and piles of winter firewood.
Eighty-year-old Mohammed Habib, who was once a soldier in the Syrian army, recalled decades of troubles. “We will stay on our land until there will be peace between Syria and Israel and then we will see what will become of us,” he said.
Another man said his 100-year-old mother remembered when Turkish soldiers of the Ottoman empire were in charge, and a third said U.N. cartographers who bisected their village on paper used the imperialist Sykes-Picot map of 1916 in which France and Britain blithely chopped up the Middle East.
Outsiders need permission from the Israel Defense Forces to enter Gharaj, which lies close to Mount Hermon and the disputed triangle where Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet.
A chicane of concrete blocks and a checkpoint defended by blockhouses guards entry from the southern side, and UN outposts screen the north. Children stare at strangers.
But there are new SUVs in the driveways and the streets are tidy. Gharaj has farmers, teachers, factory workers, university-educated professionals all employed in Israel and speaking fluent Hebrew as well as Arabic.
“We don’t want to become refugees in the Lebanese side without our lands that were occupied in 1967, without our people our families,” said town spokesman Najib Khatib.
Israel evacuated the northern part of town in 2000 when it ended its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon, but re-took the area during its 2006 war with Hezbollah, saying the village offered a conduit for guerrilla attacks and drug smuggling.
Hezbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran, holds sway in southern Lebanon and has ministers in the Lebanese government. Resisting calls to disarm, it has cited Israel’s troops in Ghajar as continued occupation of Lebanese soil that must be fought.
U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams said in August, after a clash at another point along the 120 kilometer (75 mile) border, that an Israeli withdrawal from the northern part of Ghajar “would do a lot to help restore trust”.
While the northern part would be returned to Lebanese sovereignty, the plan does not envisage a return of Lebanese force, which Israel believes would mean Hezbollah control.
Editing by Ralph Boulton, Crispian Balmer