Social Issues

Ghajar, a town of Syrians caught between Lebanon, Israel, reopens

By Pablo Duer

Ghajar (Israel), Oct 28 (EFE).- The nearly 3,000 residents of a town on the border between Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights identify themselves as Syrian but hold Israeli citizenship.

Ghajar was practically closed off for 22 years until last month, when it opened its doors again.

This is their story.

Jamal and Mamduj Khatib are father and son. Jamal, a 64-year-old professor, was born in Ghajar and feels primarily Syrian. Mamduj, on the other hand, who is 26, was also born in the town, speaks perfect Hebrew, and studied Engineering at Haifa, feels primarily Israeli.

They sit side-by-side in an improvised wooden couch under the shade of an olive tree, while they tell their story on how their family made Ghajar, Israel’s only Alawite Muslim village, their home.

In the middle of the 20th century, the newly independent Lebanon and Syria agreed on leaving the small town as part of Syria.

Later, when the Golan Heights region was captured by Israeli forces from Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967, the village was left out and was not occupied by Israel.

Some months later, the isolated and hunger-stricken residents, asked Israel to annex Ghajar to the occupied territories.

The annexation became official in 1981 and with it came the Israeli citizenship for its residents.

The following year, Israel invaded the southern part of Lebanon, which stayed under its rule until the year 2000. During this time, Ghajar expanded its border up north and entered Lebanese territory.

This is why the UN’s Blue Line — drawn after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and based on the borders from before the occupation — splits the town in two.

The division was not well-received by the residents and it led Israel to shut down the town and turn it into an off-limits military zone to prevent Hezbollah from entering and seizing control of it.

“Politics plays with us like a soccer ball,” Jamal told Efe.

The last episode in this intricate history came last month, when after 22 years of closure, Israel announced the lifting of all limits on movement into the village.

According to Jamal, on the first day of the opening, roughly 4,000 tourists arrived in town. The next day, there were 6,000, then 8,000 and on Saturday, they reached 10,000. Jamal said the visitors were not only from neighboring communities but from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Haifa and even from the settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Even Scandinavian tourists turned up.

In just a few days, the 2,8000 residents from Ghajar went from being like a big family, isolated from strangers, to a popular tourist destination. They even had to open souvenirs stores and food stalls for the unceasing demand of the new visitors.

Many residents do not understand Israel’s decision. Some attribute it to a new fence being built on the northern border of the town, which is also controlled by UN forces and has seen almost no violent incidents in the last 15 years.

But for most of them, the reason behind the opening is not as important as the continuity of tourism.

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