Residents who pay taxes to Israel have not yet received compensation for damages caused to their homes in the Second Lebanon War.
Lebanese-Israeli bordertown of Ghajar – Photo Ben Hartman
Attorney Kamal Hattib – who represents residents of the village in a lawsuit against the Israel Tax Authority – said that around 85 houses in the village suffered damage during the war from both Israeli tank and artillery shockwaves and from Hezbollah rockets that landed within the village. He added that a tank collided into another home, one near the entrance to the village.
According to Hattib, Ghajar residents submitted claims to the Tax Authority in the war’s aftermath. The agency replied that because the area is a closed military zone within the international borders of Lebanon, all those living in the northern half of the village would be denied compensation.
To this day, the villagers remain bereft of compensation. But following the lawsuit, the state reopened the villagers’ claims for compensation. On two occasions in the past month, a Tax Authority contractor has toured Ghajar in order to assess damages, Hattib said. He believes that the government is working towards a solution to enable their compensation.
“What we are saying is that we are citizens of the State of Israel and pay taxes. So if they say it’s Lebanese land, then who do we ask for compensation from? Should we turn to the Lebanese government when we pay taxes and arnona [municipal property tax] to Israel?”
In this fraught and complicated country, there are few places more perplexing than Ghajar. A Syrian Alawite village in the Golan Heights of around 2,500 residents, Ghajar straddles the border of Lebanon and Israel with residents living on both sides. There is no fence inside the village to mark the international border and with a fence controlled by the IDF north of the village, all of Ghajar is under de facto Israeli control.
The village of sprawling pastel houses sits in one of the most beautiful corners of the country, atop a green hilltop that rolls down to the swiftrunning Hatzbani River. The river marks the traditional border between the two enemy states, and a main route for smugglers moving contraband south from Lebanon into Israel by way of Ghajar.
Israel first took control of the territory during the Six Day War, when it was part of Syria. Unlike the Syrian Druse of the Golan Heights, the residents of Ghajar gradually accepted Israeli citizenship over the years under Israeli governance.
The conflict reheated in 2000 when the IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon to the Blue Line – which crisscrosses the village. The UN demarcated most of the village as within the borders of Lebanon.
The town remained divided until the Second Lebanon War, when the IDF took control of the northern half of the village as part of their campaign against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. While the international border still runs through the center of town, a fence built by Israel north of the town and patrolled by the IDF has created a de facto border placing the entire town under Israeli administration.
Before the Second Lebanon War and the construction of the fence, Hezbollah stationed militants outside the town. In 2005, the Shi’ite militia launched a rocket attack and infiltrated Ghajar in an attempt to kidnap an Israeli soldier, before being repelled by the IDF.
The boundary between Lebanon and Israel remains unmarked in the village, and a fence no longer separates the two halves of the town. On the main street, you can park your car in Lebanon and step across to Israel, with no sign indicating a border crossing between the warring states.
During the visit last month, a young, apparently mentally disturbed man began gagging himself in the middle of the street, hitting the pavement and straddling the border between Lebanon and Israel.
Because of its location, history of border incidents and reputation as a smuggling hotspot, Ghajar is not easy to visit. The Jerusalem Post submitted a travel request to the IDF in March 2011 – only to receive approval in mid-April – to visit with a European cameraman on a single afternoon later that week between 3 p.m. to 5 p.m..
The streets of the village were deserted in the afternoon, with only a few schoolchildren strolling the area. Sealed off from the outside world, Ghajar no longer hosts many guests, and residents responded with curious glances and a clear reluctance to speak on the record.
While Syrian Independence celebrations were held earlier that day in the Druse villages of the Golan Heights, Ghajar reported no Syrian flags or posters of fellow Alawite Syrian President Bashar Assad in sight.
Nonetheless, Syria wasn’t too far from people’s minds, said Talib, a 23-year-old resident who spoke on the condition of withholding his identity.
“I’m not worried about Assad falling, it won’t happen,” said Talib, adding that most people in the village feel this way, though “they don’t just watch Syrian news, they watch news from around the world so they know the other side of the story too.”
Wearing a chef’s uniform, he sat in the town kiosk before leaving for a catering job in nearby Kiryat Shmona.
Talib pointed to the sparsely- stocked shelves of the kiosk and spoke of how the village lives in a partial state of siege because of the checkpoint, and that everything that enters must gain army approval, which he labeled a slow and cumbersome process.
The lack of outsider access has also meant the closure of the local restaurants that used to service busloads of tourists visiting before the Second Lebanon War. Nowadays, there is little if any local industry, and almost all of the residents who don’t work for the local council labor in nearby kibbutzim, moshavim or earn a living in agriculture.
“Up here there’s nothing, for us, Kiryat Shmona is the big city,” Talib said.
He added that most Israelis he meets don’t really understand what life is like in Ghajar, saying “when I tell people I’m from Kafr Ghajar, they ask me if I go to Lebanon all the time, like I live in a different country and I can just go back and forth to Beirut whenever I want.”
Further on the Lebanese side of the village, a middle-aged man sat in the front lawn of a sprawling white house drinking coffee with his son. When asked about Syrian Independence Day, the man, a 45-year-old father of five who asked to be called only “Hattib,” the surname of around half of the village residents, said “we live in Israel, not Syria, and we’re loyal to the country we live in. When it’s Syria again, we’ll celebrate Syrian Independence Day.”
Still, Hattib said he and others are following the events in Syria, with a worrisome eye towards the fate of relatives still in Syria, who may suffer if regime change comes to Syria and the public demands retribution from the ruling Alawite sect.
“All of us have family in Syria so it worries us greatly. Assad is Alawite and if he falls, we know the Alawite will suffer. We want things to remain quiet and for Assad to stay in power.”
He called efforts to return the northern half of the village to Lebanon as a humanitarian issue rather than a political one, saying that if the village is someday split in half he would be separated from his four sisters and one brother living in the southern half.
Hattib said he sees himself as a loyal Israeli citizen, suffering from a “blockade” of sorts due to the IDF’s control of access to the village and the difficult of receiving services from the state.
He laughed and told the story of driving his refrigerator to a repairman’s car outside the village and running an extension cord to the IDF checkpoint to turn on the refrigerator while the repairman checked it on the side of the road. He said the situation is even more absurd when it comes to car insurance, saying that residents who crash or experience a fender-bender in the southern half of the village are able to receive compensation from insurance companies. Those from the north are told the accident happened on Lebanese territory and thus, is not covered.
For Talib, living in two worlds as a Syrian Alawite on territory controlled by the IDF is a fact of life made mundane by routine.
“You get used to it from a very young age. People who grow up here now only know the situation like this. Syria knows it’s their village, Lebanon says the northern part is theirs and Israel claims the south. It’s already been occupied for 30 years, people are used to it.”