- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

JERUSALEM — Despite decades of upheavals, residents of the Arab village of Ghajar on Israel’s northern border have never had to flee. Instead, the village itself became a refugee, finding itself successively in three different countries.

This week, residents learned that a fourth change of address was in store — under the United Nations.

Originally part of Lebanon, Ghajar was quietly transferred by Beirut to Syrian sovereignty, apparently in the early 1960s and for reasons that are not clear.

In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel captured the nearby Golan Heights from Syria, but it did not move on Ghajar, which it assumed was part of Lebanon.

The villagers, realizing that they were in no man’s land, cut off from Syria and no longer part of Lebanon, called on Israel to take responsibility and provide it with basic services. Israel agreed.

When Prime Minister Menahem Begin’s government in 1981 annexed the lands captured from Syria, the villagers became Israeli citizens, entitled to national insurance and other benefits.

However, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year occupation, an anomaly became apparent in Ghajar.

The village had grown considerably since 1967, and U.N. officials mapping the international border determined that the northern two-thirds of the village was inside Lebanese territory.

The southern part remained in the formerly Syrian territory annexed by Israel.

Israeli troops confined themselves to the southern part of the village, although Israel continued to provide services to the northern half and permitted any villager, including “northerners,” to enter Israel to work.

The village quickly became a flash point as Hezbollah took advantage of the amorphous situation in Ghajar to stage attacks.

In a raid last year, Hezbollah forces came through the undefended northern part of Ghajar and rushed an Israeli guard post in the southern part.

Four Hezbollah fighters were killed in the failed raid. In July, Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a raid that sparked a monthlong war.

When Israel withdrew again from the rest of southern Lebanon after the summer war, its troops remained in the northern half of Ghajar while the government tried to decide what to do.

Some Israeli officials advocated simply pulling out of the entire village and letting the Lebanese government take over, but this was ruled out for political and legal reasons.

It is widely assumed that in any peace settlement with Syria, the village — at least the annexed southern half — would be handed back to that country.

After Israeli liaison officers consulted with U.N. officials and with officers of the Lebanese army deployed in southern Lebanon, the Israeli Cabinet decided Sunday to withdraw its troops from the northern half of the village, which would come under the protection of the U.N. peacekeeping force.

Daily life will be little changed, and “northerners” will continue to enter Israel at will, but they will be waking under yet another flag — that of the United Nations.

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