x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A decade after Israeli withdrawal, border villages remain in limbo

Residents of the far south-east corner of Lebanon are caught in a tussle between Israeli and Hizbollah forces.

The Lebanese government claims the disputed town of Chebaa, located just meters from the Israeli border, has 9,000 residents but the number appears closer to a few hundred.
The Lebanese government claims the disputed town of Chebaa, located just meters from the Israeli border, has 9,000 residents but the number appears closer to a few hundred.

CHEBAA // In the far south-east corner of Lebanon, a mishmash of borders, military checkpoints and United Nations peacekeeper observation posts work together to keep unwanted visitors away from this beautiful line of rocky hills where three countries' borders come together amid the region's tallest mountains.

Here are the villages that the Lebanese Shiite movement Hizbollah claims are the last spots of Lebanese territory still occupied by the Israeli military, a "fact" the group used to justify its refusal to disarm in the wake of the 2000 pullout by Israeli forces from the vast majority of South Lebanon. It is not an easy argument to follow. Prior to the 1967 occupation of much of the area by Israeli troops during their victory over Syria, Egypt and Jordan, these remote villages had been virtually ignored by all of the central governments in the area. Deprived of services, institutions and even law enforcement at the time, their history of neglect leaves open the question of which neighbourhood power should control these villages.

Adding to the problems was the failure of the local powers to properly demarcate the borders prior to the Israeli arrival and the refusal of Lebanon and Syria to determine their rightful home so long as Israel remains in control of Chebaa Farms, Ghajar and the Golan Heights as a whole. The Israeli government has announced plans to withdraw from the upper portions of the divided village of Ghajar in the coming months.

In the post-2000 withdrawal of Israeli forces, the United Nations made a spot determination that the northern half of the town fell within Lebanon, while the southern half would be legitimately under Israeli control. But the response by the village itself was mildly surprising: Not only have many villagers argued that they have no desire to give up their Israeli citizenship for life under Lebanon's control, but even if there was a withdrawal, most of the Allawite Muslim residents of the town consider themselves Syrian.

But among the governments of Lebanon, Syria and Israel, one thing has become clear: no one is asking the residents what they think. Even when not under Israeli occupation, Ghajar is completely cut off from the rest of Lebanon, with Hizbollah, the UN and Lebanese army tightly controlling access to the town. Hizbollah considers it a strategic asset where it can infiltrate men directly into an Israeli military zone and the group has mounted frequent attacks on Israeli personnel not only here but also in the 10 kilometre patch of disputed lands known as the Chebaa Farms.

Prior to the 2006 reoccupation of Ghajar, the village was completely inaccessible to the rest of Lebanon by a series of Hizbollah-controlled checkpoints and earthen berms designed to keep the residents - who could freely mix with Israeli residents - unable to enter the rest of Lebanon. Hizbollah officials call these policies a military necessity but it's obvious that to the Allawite residents of Ghajar and the Sunni residents of the town of Chebaa, Hizbollah's conditions on their movements and security constitute an occupation in itself.

Although the areas immediately adjacent to Ghajar remain completely cut off to visitors, with a patient series of requests, the Lebanese military might eventually grant access to the village of Chebaa, just a few hundred metres from Israel's positions in Chebaa Farms and on the frosted mountain tops of Golan. To reach it, visitors need approval from a military intelligence checkpoint along the Litani River just outside the town of Majayoun.

The areas along the border with Israel are far too important to the resistance to leave their access in the hands of the little-trusted Lebanese army, and are patrolled by members of the Islamic Resistance of Lebanon, as Hizbollah calls its military wing. If a "liberated" Chebaa is any example, then the residents of Ghajar have ample reason to worry that they will be switching one occupation for another. For after about an hour's drive from the checkpoint, surrounding traffic and obvious economic activity drops off as the road rises into the craggy mountains of Golan and leaves the lush orchards and green hills of southern Lebanon behind.

According to the only official information available on the village of Chebaa, there are 9,000 year round residents, with the population swelling to nearly 20,000 at the height of the cherry growing season, which appears to be the only notable economic activity in the area. Almost all the houses are empty and most look as if someone stopped building them abruptly sometime in the last eight years. In the centre of the town, the only people who can be seen on the streets are three young men in civilian clothes, boots and hand-held radios.

Their short beards, black ball caps and taciturn facial expressions signal that they are from the dreaded "security" section of Hizbollah - lookouts that report the comings and goings of all visitors, as well keep a close eye on the Israeli positions just a few hundred metres away. There are no shops open on a Saturday afternoon and no shoppers to visit them. Politically, the Sunni residents of Chebaa support Hizbollah's top rival, the Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri. His likeness, as well as that of his slain father, Rafik, are plastered all around the small town's mountainous streets and allies.

Finally, in one small butcher shop empty of meat, a couple of young men are sitting and smoking cigarettes. When asked if the town has an open coffee shop or restaurant for lunch, one young man stares suspiciously at his guest. "We don't serve coffee in our village," he said, a policy that if true makes Chebaa the only village in Lebanon that doesn't. "There is nothing here for anyone," he adds, before pointedly looking away and refusing to address the visitors again.

"The people of Chebaa are terrified," says Abu Mohammed, a Sunni originally from the village, now living in Beirut. "Hizbollah only liberated it from the Israelis so they could occupy it themselves for attacks on the Israelis still in Chebaa Farms," he adds. "And because they are Hariri supporters there, the level of distrust with the Shiite and the Sunni, the town feels like a prison." @Email:mprothero@thenational.ae