Saturday, May 9, 2009

Ghajar: A Border Runs Through It

Talks to accelerate the Israeli withdrawal from the town of Ghajar through which the Israeli Lebanese border runs continue.

Israeli defense officials have stated that Israel has no territorial claims to Ghajar and that discussions with the UN were ongoing on how to withdraw from the village without compromising security. The UN is eager to see the Israeli withdrawal take place and Netanyahu pledges that his cabinet will discuss proposals for a withdrawal plan this week. The US and the EU are also eager to see Israel withdraw from the northern (Lebanese) side of the village. They have been making the point that such a withdrawal would be helpful to Lebanese Prime Minister Saniora as he contends in an upcoming Lebanese election.

The plan for withdrawal, as it currently stands would see one line of defense inside the northern half of the village to be manned by the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon UNIFIL. The Lebanese army would have a liaison officer stationed in the north while a UNIFIL liaison would be present in the south. In addition, a second UNIFIL force would be stationed outside the northern portion of the village and would inspect all vehicles entering the area. All village residents would maintain their Israeli citizenship, Israeli law would apply to the whole village and Israel would continue to supply essential services to the village.

On first blush, this small village on the border is of little consequence and not much more than a footnote in the Lebanese Israeli conflict. On closer inspection--especially when considering the withdrawal plan--it seems like a very interesting case to observe and raises many interesting questions.

A first interesting point is mentioned in the very first article linked to above. Mentioned as though it were a routine occurrence is the line: "Senior army officers from Lebanon, Israel and the United Nations will meet in two weeks to coordinate the withdrawal." What is interesting here is that Israel and Lebanon, two countries that are officially at war with one another are actually meeting to coordinate this potential withdrawal with the presence of UN officials. Such meetings may be more routine than one may imagine, but, it is significant that these two enemies are meeting to discuss anything. Perhaps such meetings between the militaries of two states that really, have no good reason to be fighting one another, could lead to a further deepening of relationships.

A second interesting point is that in the limited information available on Ghajar withdrawal, there are no explicit mentions in the media, not even in the Lebanese paper the Daily Star (which reports its story from "occupied Jerusalem," a bit of a misnomer because the Knesset and seat of the Israeli government is based in west Jerusalem which was part of Israel since 1948...but, digression) that the northern part of Ghajar will actually once more become sovereign Lebanese territory.

Instead, Ghajar, it appears, will become some sort of strange no-man's land where the security will be provided by the UN, the people will be Israelis, Israel will provide for them and the only difference will be, no IDF in the northern part of the border. Really, not much else is changing. For example, if the residents, Israeli citizens are to remain subject to Israeli law then one would imagine that they will continue to pay taxes to the Israeli government. So the question is, what is everyone gaining from this withdrawal?

Israel may have less of a defense burden and be able to redeploy its soldiers, but the security concern does not vanish, it's merely taken over by UNIFIL, who Israel views with wariness at best. Lebanon succeeds in having Israelis off their territory, but gets very little in return, except for some potential political capital. The UN has an increased security burden, but they come out looking like the good guys, having successfully resolved one of several sticking points in the Israeli Lebanese bilateral "relationship." The US and EU can demonstrate how "even-handed" they were in applying pressure to Israel and achieving results for the Lebanese.

What about the residents of Ghajar, what do they get? Well, they are all Israeli citizens, but they'll be living in Lebanon, sort of. Will they be able to travel freely in either country? Lebanon does not allow Israeli citizens into the country, will these people be forced to surrender their citizenship if they wanted to, for example, vacation in Tripoli or Beirut? Will they be treated the same way by Israeli officials if they wish to leave Ghajar for some other part of Israel? If a state has a responsibility to its citizens, is Israel living up to this responsibility by renouncing its sovereignty over areas where its citizens live?

The answers to these questions remain unknown. The point is, nobody seems to have asked the residents of Ghajar what they want. They will continue to receive services from Israel, but maybe they want the IDF to stay in the town. Or maybe not, maybe they want the Lebanese army or even Hizbollah to give into the village. Whatever they want, they do not seem to have too much say in the matter as their fates are being decided by powers and influenced by pressures well beyond their reach.

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