You have to hand it to Khalil Abdullah, who must be the most optimistic businessman in Lebanon. He is currently putting the finishing touches on an extravagant Afro-Arabic style tourist resort on the bank of the Hasbani River, less than a mile upstream from the border with Israel.
This section of the Hasbani River cuts a narrow gorge through a grassy plain at the foot of the Shebaa Farms hills, flanked by dense oleander and eucalyptus trees. The Blue Line, the United Nations-demarcated boundary that corresponds to Lebanon’s southern border runs up the middle of the Hasbani at this point. If visitors to Abdullah’s resort swim to the far bank of the river, they will have entered Israeli-occupied Syria and risk being shot by Israeli troops. Indeed, when Abdullah began work on his project, Israeli troops would turn up on the cliff on the opposite bank and peer at him through binoculars.
Israel’s unease over Abdullah’s activities was probably due to concerns he was planning to pump water from the river. The Hasbani is one of three tributaries of the Jordan River that flows into the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest source of fresh water. Previous small-scale pumping schemes by the Lebanese government and local farmers have triggered uproars and even threats of war.
Furthermore, this section of the border is notoriously porous and a favorite location for cross-border smuggling, particularly narcotics. In 2007, two drug smugglers wearing Spanish United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) uniforms attempted to enter Israeli-occupied Syria near Abdullah’s resort by crawling through a storm drain. Unfortunately for them, Israeli troops had staked out one end and shot one of the two smugglers as he emerged.
The Alawite village of Ghajar, lying a mile north of Abdullah’s resort, has long been a conduit for cross-border smuggling. The Blue Line splits Ghajar so that the upper two-thirds fall inside Lebanon and the remainder in Israeli-occupied Syria. After Israel’s troop withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah set up a position in the northern part of the village from where they ran an intelligence operation inside Israel. Israeli troops occupied the area during the 2006 war and have remained there ever since to ensure Hezbollah cannot return.
In November, the Israeli government finally agreed to a UN-brokered compromise in which it will cease its military presence in northern Ghajar in exchange for UNIFIL and the Lebanese army maintaining a tight security cordon to prevent anyone from accessing the village from the northern side. There was an element of bloody-mindedness in Israel’s procrastination over Ghajar. The village is sealed off on the southern side anyway, with the only available access through a checkpoint manned by Israeli soldiers. Given the presence of the Lebanese army in the border district and UNIFIL’s cordon of fences, patrols and watchtowers, it is unlikely, if not impossible, for Hezbollah to return to the village as they did before 2006.
However, there was a legal complication in that the residents, although Syrian nationals, have held Israeli citizenship since 1981. That meant that Israeli citizens technically would be living on Lebanese territory.
What would happen if one of them fell sick and needed an ambulance to take them to hospital, or if repairs needed to be conducted on a house in northern Ghajar? Could an Israeli doctor or electrician cross the Blue Line into Lebanon? The UN, Israel and, grudgingly, it seems, Lebanon, have agreed on a sensible compromise to return the situation to pre-2006 so that the residents can lead normal lives. Ultimately, the curious case of Ghajar can only be fully resolved when the Israelis and Syrians strike a peace deal and Israel withdraws from Ghajar, the adjacent Shebaa Farms and the Golan Heights. However, Israel’s decision to finally adopt long-standing legislation mandating a national referendum to decide whether or not to end the occupation of Syrian territory and East Jerusalem has dimmed hopes of a resumption of peace talks and increased chances of war.
But the ever-optimistic Abdullah has an answer for that. A later phase of his project will see the construction of a 60-room hotel on the cliffs overlooking the Hasbani gorge and his resort: “Maybe they can hold future peace talks there. After all, it will be at the junction of the Lebanon, Syrian and Israeli borders.”
NICHOLAS BLANDFORD is the Beirut-based
correspondent for The Christian Science
Monitor and The Times of London