Putting the ball in the other guy’s court

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Ghajar, South Lebanon – Fear of opening a second front while violence spirals in the occupied West Bank and Gaza may have imposed constraints on Ariel Sharon’s right-dominated government when dealing with what it considers the `Hizbollah menace’ in southern Lebanon. Here Sharon seems to be going for “crisis management” rather than the continual escalation of rolling warfare as is the case in the Palestinian territories.

The current hot spot on the UN delineated “Blue Line” which (mostly) runs along the 1922-23 international border between Lebanon and Israel, is the Syrian Alawite village of Ghajar, population 1,800 plus or minus. When the mandatory powers Britain and France drew the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, Ghajar and its land fell in the Syrian Golan. But since these borders were porous and national distinctions were hazy, Ghajar expanded northwards into what was Lebanese territory. In 1967 Ghajar was occupied by Israel along with the rest of the Golan. The neighbouring Lebanese village Abbassieh was ethnically cleansed and destroyed by Israel. After Israel formally extended its legal system to the occupied Golan in 1981, the people of Ghajar fought for and received Israeli identity cards. As a result these villagers are citizens of both Syria and Israel.

When the UN drew the “Blue Line” after Israel’s rout from south Lebanon last May, Ghajar was split into two sectors. The northern two-thirds was given to Lebanon, the southern third remained under Israeli rule. Israel threatened to erect a security fence to seal off south Ghajar but was persuaded by the villagers and the UN to preserve the status quo on condition that Lebanon did not assert sovereignty over north Ghajar.

Ghajar preserved its precarious isolation until last month. Israel twitched nervously when Lebanese civilians and journalists entered Ghajar through a hole in the old Israeli fence. On August 11, a UN observation post was shifted to a new position 200 metres north of Ghajar, opening the 1.5 kilometre road to Abbassieh, which is in the process of being resettled (with each household being given a grant of $20,000 to help with rebuilding), and giving the Lebanese easy access to Ghajar. Hizbollah plainclothes men, who had roamed the locality ever since Israel’s forces withdrew, began to patrol north Ghajar. On the 15th, Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer called Hizbollah’s deployment “a gross violation of the status quo” which “Israel will not tolerate.” Israel fears Hizbollah will infiltrate the Galilee through Ghajar. On the 16th Israel proclaimed south Ghajar a “closed military area,” excluding all non-residents from the sector of the village it controls.

On the 17th, Israeli troops moved half a kilometre into north Ghajar, violating the “Blue Line” and crossing into Lebanese territory. They withdrew after warning villagers against cooperating with Hizbollah. On the 18th, the military closure was imposed and villagers found themselves living in an enclave like the Palestinian self-rule islets of territory in the West Bank. An Israeli-run clinic shut down and some services were withdrawn because non-residents were excluded from Ghajar. On the 18th Hizbollah’s southern commander, Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, led a protest by 200 Lebanese into north Ghajar and Hizbollah set up a permanent post at the northern gate.

I visited Ghajar in style, travelling by helicopter in the company of a senior Indian diplomat, UNIFIL’s commander, deputy commander and the colonel commanding the Indian battalion (Indbatt) which is in charge of the easternmost stretch of the “Blue Line.”

At the newly established Indian position we paused beneath a colourful canopy to be briefed by UNIFIL’s new commander, Major General Lalit Mohan Tewari of India. Ghajar’s white and cream blocks of flats gleamed in the bright sun beyond a wide band of charred earth, fired to clear plastic mines Israel planted and left behind. “Do you see those three vehicles?” General Tewari pointed to cars parked on the verge near the northern gate to Ghajar. “Those belong to Hizbollah. At first the Hizbollah men set up tents. Later they took over a former Israeli position,” he remarked.

UNIFIL is closely monitoring the situation. “The frequency of [UN] patrols has increased significantly,” General Tewari told The Jordan Times. “It’s a classic UN situation. The sort of situation the UN can resolve through negotiations. The kind of situation the UN handles best.” He is optimistic that the Ghajar issue will be resolved peacefully as have the issues of the Shebaa Farms, the Sheikh Abbad Hill and the Fatmah Gate, the previous flash points on the “Blue Line.”

For the time being, Ghajar is the point where Hizbollah is exerting pressure on Israel. “Both sides want to keep up a certain level of tension,” stated Timor Goksel, UNIFIL’s veteran spokesman, over lunch at UN headquarters at Ras Naqoura. But “Hizbollah has taken the initiative.” Israel, uneasy when Hizbollah has the advantage, has appealed to Washington and the UN to intervene with Lebanon and Syria, to curb Hizbollah’s activities in Ghajar. Ben-Eliezer even spoke to US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the threat to the peace posed by Hizbollah’s presence at Ghajar. During a visit to Washington Amos Yaron, the director of Israel’s defence ministry, told US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage: “We don’t have any intention to open a second front and we ask our American friends to send a message to [Syrian President] Bashar Assad that there is no intention from our side to escalate the situation.” In precisely the same way Israel claims that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat can “halt the violence” in the Palestinian territories, Yaron (and other Israeli politicians) insist that the Syrian leader is in a position to “control Hizbollah.”

Both are, of course, false claims intended to, as they say in diplomatic language, “put the ball in the other guy’s court.” A source close to Hizbollah observed with a smile: “We are in control of the situation, not Syria.” The movement has responded to Israel’s call for US intervention by reasserting its right to enter Ghajar. Hashem Saifeddine, head of Hizbollah’s executive council, stated flatly: “The [northern sector of] the town of Ghajar is Lebanese. And we as Lebanese and Hizbollah are entitled to tread on it.” He said that Israel has three alternatives: “Withdraw from the town, submit to the status quo imposed by the resistance, or turn the entire area into one of confrontation.” And he concluded, “our job as a resistance movement is not over yet.”

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, recently re-elected as Hizbollah’s secretary general, made this all too clear when he said that the time was coming for the Lebanese resistance to join the Palestinian Intifada. Without revealing how Hizbollah will enter the battle, he made it clear that the movement will do so at “the appropriate time” employing the appropriate strategy. For the present, Hizbollah is carefully calculating precisely how much pressure it can afford to exert on Israel, to Israel’s extreme discomfort.

Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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