Despite recent speculation to the contrary, it appears that the Israelis intend to indefinitely remain on Lebanese soil in the northern section of Ghajar, the village bisected by the United Nations-delineated Blue Line.
The continued Israeli troop presence in northern Ghajar is a lingering legacy of the July 2006 war and has become a source of frustration for Lebanese, Israelis, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon(UNIFIL) and Alawite residents of the village.
Still, the monthly UNIFIL-hosted tripartite meetings, attended by Lebanese and Israeli military delegations, have raised hopes of reviving the long defunct military commission that monitored the 1949 Armistice Agreement. A renewed monitoring group, under UN auspices, may even generate sufficient confidence for Israel to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms, the last significant territorial dispute between Lebanon and Israel.
The curious fate of Ghajar is a consequence of the historically murky sovereignty of the tri-border area — the junction of the Lebanese, Syrian and Israeli frontiers.
Ghajar, populated by Syrian Alawites, was occupied by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The invading Israelis actually stopped just short of the village, as, according to their maps, Ghajar lay in Lebanon. A delegation from Ghajar traveled to Marjayoun and asked the local authorities to formally incorporate the village into Lebanon. The Lebanese rejected the request and after some hesitation the Israelis moved into Ghajar.
In 2000, the UN delineated the Blue Line which corresponded to the international border — behind which Israel was required to withdraw its forces from south Lebanon. UN cartographers discovered that over the years Ghajar had spread northward, actually crossing the then unmarked border onto Lebanese soil. The Blue Line split the village so that the northern two-thirds fell inside Lebanon while the southern third remained in Israeli-occupied Syria.
For a short period in the summer of 2000, it was possible to have some unusually close encounters with Israelis in Ghajar, as journalists from both sides stumbled around the village not realizing exactly where the path of the Blue Line lay. On one occasion, an Israeli television crew encountered a team from Lebanon’s LBC win the northern — Lebanese — two-thirds of the village. The Israelis asked the LBC team what they were doing inside Israel. We informed the Israelis that they were in fact standing on Lebanese soil. The two camera crews filmed each other filming each other as a convoy of shaven-headed Israeli security men drove past, glaring at us from behind their sunglasses.
After Hezbollah launched its campaign to liberate the Shebaa Farms in October 2000, the northern part of Ghajar was placed off-limits. But the village continued to be a conduit for Hezbollah’s intelligence penetration of northern Israel. Drugs were smuggled into Israel via Ghajar in exchange for cash for the Lebanese dealers and intelligence information for Hezbollah. The Israeli army described Ghajar as “Israel’s soft underbelly,” and struggled to find a way to secure the loophole along the border.
During the 2006 war, Israeli troops moved into the Lebanese part of the village, and there they have remained.
After the August 14 ceasefire, UNIFIL helped arrange a now monthly tripartite meeting of Lebanese and Israeli army officers at a UNIFIL position at Ras Naqoura on the border to discuss issues related to the implementation of UN Resolution 1701.
The tripartite group has been unable to resolve the Ghajar issue, despite indications in early May that the Israelis were preparing to vacate the northern end of the village. Israeli officials have hinted that they will review their stance on Ghajar after the Lebanese parliamentary elections, suggesting that there will be no withdrawal if the Hezbollah-led opposition wins.
Still, the tripartite meetings have achieved some minor successes, such as an agreement to mark the Blue Line with blue painted barrels in several locations to prevent accidental boundary violations. Alain Le Roy, the UN under-secretary general for peacekeeping who attended the May meeting, described the forum as an “indispensable instrument” to address security and military issues related to Resolution 1701.
The tripartite sessions have spurred some in Washington to mull the possibility of formalizing the meetings by reestablishing the Israel-Lebanon Mixed Armistice Commission (ILMAC), which monitored the 1949 Armistice Agreement. ILMAC, grouping Lebanese and Israeli army officers, met regularly from 1949 until Israel abrogated the armistice agreements with its Arab neighbors in 1967.
A renewal of the Lebanon-Israel armistice agreement itself is probably unachievable for the time being — in Lebanon, Hezbollah would oppose a revived armistice, and in Israel it would required a change of law. But a resuscitated ILMAC could help further stabilize the Blue Line, serving as a forum for airing grievances and resolving disputes. In time, if ILMAC was shown to be a capable instrument, it could encourage the Israelis to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms and be replaced by, perhaps, a combined Lebanese army and UNIFIL force.
Whether the ILMAC idea bears fruit or not largely depends on June’s election results. UN sources said they expect greater restrictions to be imposed upon UNIFIL’s freedom of operations if the opposition wins. In that event, the continuation of the tripartite meetings may be threatened and ILMAC’s resurrection will be place on the backburner.
Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London.