King's Evangelical Divinity School

18 November 2010

Ghajar: A Microcosm of Middle East Territorial Disputes

Interesting story breaking across the Middle East concerning the Alawite village of Ghajar which straggles the Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian borders. Re-taken by Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War, in response to demands from the UN Israel has just announced plans to withdraw from the northern part of the village (regarded as Lebanese territory). The villagers, however, are outraged, saying they don't want to see Ghajar (pop. 2,200), divided by the UN. Indeed they want to remain under Israeli control and fear losing access to Israeli services. Indeed, after the 1967 Six Day War the villagers actually petitioned Israel to annex Ghajar, hoping one day to return to Syrian control but in the meantime keen to remain under Israeli control as a united village (the border runs right through the middle of the village). Most have accepted Israeli citizenship and do not want to see the northern part of the village ceded to Lebanon.

The problem is, far greater forces are at work here, such as Lebanon (including both Hizbollah and anti-Hizbollah political entities within that country), Israel, Syria, the US and UN. Each has its own vested interests in Ghajar, while each party is looking to put their own political spin on whatever happens. This is evident in the various angles taken by papers across the Middle East today since the Israeli cabinet's decision to withdraw unilaterally from Ghajar. Complicated, isn't it? But the complexities surrounding Ghajar pale into inignificance when compared with the Shebaa Farms, another disputed border tract of land which is part of the Golan Heights, claimed by Lebanon and occupied by Israel. Throw into the mix Lebanese domestic politics, Hizbollah's constant attempt to raise the issue to foment tension with Israel, Lebanon's subservient relations with Syria, Israel's own security interests, together with a lack of UN clarity about the status of the Shebaa Farms, and it gets rather messy, a complicated knot for which there is no Gordian solution..

My point? Consider how Israel's announcement about withdrawing from northern Ghajar has caused considerable consternation and complication, given the villagers want to remain under Israeli control. In short Ghajar is, in many ways, a miniscule example, or microcosm, of that headache which is Middle East territorial disputes and claims, while Shebaa is even more complicated. Yet these are tiny tracts of land in the grand scheme of things, paling into insignificance compared with, say, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and some of the larger settlements (such as Ma'ale Adumim, which straddles East Jerusalem and has a population of some 40,000). And this is before we even get into Jewish ancestral and religious claims to the land stretching back at least 3000 years, A Jewish majority presence in Jerusalem in the 19th century, Muslim claims to all the land for religious reasons, or the security fallout following Israel's Gaza pullout (resulting in some eight or nine thousand rockets being fired at Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza). In short, anyone who thinks the whole dispute over land in the region can be overcome easily is arguably somewhat naive. Just look at Ghajar, then multiply the complexities a thousand-fold.

If you want to explore the issue of Ghajar further, here are several useful resources:

Newspaper report appearing in today's Independent

Blog entry from a student who attended a Washington seminar on this very issue (be sure to visit the link detailing more about the academic cartographer she refers to)

Foreign Policy analysis (article)

Also do a search and see how the various English-language Arab newspapers are reporting this today

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