Ghajar, an Israeli village located on the Lebanese border emerging from (absolute) oblivion

GHAJAR, Israel (JTA) — About 40 tourists popped into Khateb Sweets on Sunday afternoon, bringing the joy—and recipes—to the once-quiet cafe in an equally peaceful village in the Golan Heights.

They left after tasting pastries and hot tea with ginger, anise, and cinnamon, crossing paths with an Israeli Jewish couple, then an Israeli Arab family, and finally three Canadians.

Many of the pedestrians who, since last fall, walk through this community of 2,900 souls, almost all Alawites (a branch of Islam) are conspicuous.

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Ghajar (pronounced RA-zhar) was indeed cut off from the rest of Israel for a very long time.

Residents can move about freely, but outsiders must get prior approval from the Israeli army, which considers the village to be in a military exclusion zone bordering Lebanon, the Galilee and the Golan Heights.

Tsahal’s lifting of the ban, without explanation, on September 8 immediately resulted in an influx of tourists happy to find Ghajar.

How fast is that change?

Ahmad Khateb, pastry chef and owner of the eponymous cafe, was working as a consultant that day at a hotel in the city of Safed, in the Galilee, when his employees called him to report an unusual number of foreign customers.

The next morning, Khateb left his mission in Safed to devote himself entirely to his coffee.

Passers-by take advantage of a food truck at the square in Ghajar on October 14, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

As many as 4,000 people will travel to Ghajar the day the city opens, he estimates, joining another 6,000 the next day, temporarily doubling the city’s population.

By the third day, Saturday, Ghajar had prepared a soccer field as a parking space.

“Totally unexpected, a blessing,” Khateb said of the opening of the village and increased sales. He is now planning to open a new point of sale.

For Israelis, Ghajar has the feel of the Forbidden City: they do travel a lot within their own country because otherwise they have to get on a plane to go somewhere else.

“Do you know why we came here? Because there are not many places [en Israël] which we didn’t know,” said Shmuel Browns, a Jerusalem tour guide who accompanied his brother and sister-in-law from Toronto, where he was born.

“We want to see for ourselves what is unique about this village. »

This village is indeed the only Alawite community in Israel, from the ethnic minority in Syria that gave birth to the country’s leaders over the past 52 years, namely the current dictator Bashar al-Assad and his late father. , Hafez.

Bilal Khatib who is an accountant and spokesperson for Ghajar explained that Alawites are generally secular people who respect other people and other religions. Ghajar has no mosque and people pray at home.

A customer in front of a shop in Ghajar, October 14, 2022. (Credit: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“This is our way of life,” added Khatib.

“What interests us is the people. We respect them like that. Our religion instructs us to be good people, to love our neighbors and to harbor hatred for no one, whether Druze, Jew, Christian or Circassian. »

But what baffles visitors the most is the origin of Ghajar, about which inaccurate information is widely circulated.

“Ghajar is part of Lebanon, right? the Israeli couple asked Khatib in the cafe.

No, he replied.

This is how a short history lesson that the locals always tell tourists begins, the story of this village that covers almost half a square kilometer. (The fields on the outskirts of Ghajar cover almost 13 square kilometers, which the village plans to expand.)

Israel captured the Golan Heights, including Ghajar, from Syria in the Six Day War in 1967 and formally annexed it in 1981.

When Israel ended hostilities with Lebanon in 2000, after 18 years of war, the United Nations formalized the IDF’s withdrawal and set the border between the two countries at Ghajar.

Israel then announced its intention to withdraw behind UN lines, which would divide the village into two halves, north and south. Citizens oppose it, preferring to remain under Israeli sovereignty rather than be divided. Finally, Israel did not erect a fence inside the village.

A man drives a golf cart at Ghajar on Sept. 7, 2022. (Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images)

“It’s really confusing,” said Jamal Khatib, a physical education teacher at the village’s only high school, about the history of the place.

Orna Mizrahi, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, agrees with this analysis.

As a member of the National Security Council, he had spoken about Ghajar to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in his last Cabinet meeting, hours later the stroke that reduced him and then won, in 2006.

On why the IDF recently decided to open up the city, Mizrahi pointed to the completion of the security barrier around Ghajar, as well as the lower threat level of cross-border attacks from Hezbollah, related to the maritime border agreement, finalized last year between Israel and Lebanon, which assumes that the Lebanese authorities are fighting against Hezbollah.

“The security situation is very different. The situation in Lebanon itself is very different,” he said.

The exact reason why the United Nations associates the city with Lebanon, even though the majority of the population belongs to the Syrian religious community, creates confusion among tourists who come to visit the place.

On a 1965 map of Syria printed by Bilal Khatib, Ghajar appears as an enclave located within Lebanon, except for the narrow strip connecting it with Syrian territory.

Bilal Khatib (not related to Jamal Khatib or Ahmad Khateb), who lives in the north, says he does not want to be separated from his sister, who lives south of the 2000 UN demarcation line.

This line, known as the Blue Line, “divides families,” he says. “Meanwhile, we have to stay together. »

In practice, this line exists only on the map and has no impact on the lives of the Ghajar residents who are completely under Israeli sovereignty.

The residents of Ghajar consider themselves Syrians of Israeli nationality. They make up a particularly vibrant population: according to Jamal Khatib, 400 residents have university degrees, which makes it a much better educated city, on average, than other Israeli Arab cities. He said there were 50 doctors, 30 lawyers, 27 dentists and two professors, most of whom went to work in Galilee.

READ: More and more Golan Druze are applying for Israeli citizenship

Until the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, residents of Ghajar legally crossed the border, in Qouneitra, to study at Syrian universities, he added.

An Israeli soldier secures a checkpoint at the entrance to Ghajar on September 7, 2022. (Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images)

“There is no profession that is not represented here,” he said.

Politically, Ghajar stands out for his support of predominantly Jewish parties. During the last election, Benny Gantz’s centrist party won 24% of the 555 votes cast there, Raam’s Arab party only got 14%. The remaining votes went to other Jewish parties, including the orthodox haredi Shas party.

Ghajar emphasizes quality of life.

Fountains, gardens and statues abound, the landscaping and building facades are colorful and there is no trash in sight. The homes are large and well-maintained, much the same as in upscale neighborhoods elsewhere in Israel.

Motorcycles and horns are prohibited. Tourists are not allowed between 8pm and 8am, said Jamal Khatib, adding that Ghajar has long banned hotels and bed and breakfasts, and has no plans to change its policy on the matter.

Some tourists throw trash on the ground and urinate on the street. Some even enter people’s homes without knocking, they regret it.

“A year ago, we would never have seen such a thing,” said his son, Ryad, who coordinates the Ghajar volunteers, especially managing traffic on peak tourist days.

Unlike other small towns in Israel, Ghajar has its own sanitation service. The cost is significant, but tourists may see Ghajar’s name on a garbage truck, giving the town a special status.

Tourists walk the streets of Ghajar, 14 October 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“We do it not for you, but for us,” said Jamal Khatib of the quality of life in the village.

“I’m glad people came, but they have to respect our rules and privacy. »

Ghajar is an example of respect and tolerance.

Signs and storefronts are written in Hebrew and Arabic. At the Parc de la Paix, there is a statue of the Virgin Mary, a statue of an open Koran, an Alawite-style sword and a menorah.

“You and I believe in one God,” said Jamal Khatib.

“Your actions show who you are. »

Moments later, we heard a donkey neighing from the back of the shop, while the gaze paused on hundreds of sheep and the call to prayer was heard from the mosque of Aarab el Louaizeh, a Lebanese village located a hundred meters away.

In the ravine below, soldiers from the United Nations and Lebanese troops were pouring out, each on their side.

UN troops boarded two vehicles and began patrolling the border, as they did twice a day.

Along the border road is the Hatzbani River, where Khatib fished as a boy.

On the edge of his estate, a fence, north of Ghajar, is nearing completion.

But these fences are not to separate people or demarcate borders: they are to keep wild boars, wolves and porcupines from coming into the village, explained Khatib, who received the notification on his phone.

“It tells me there’s a cow in the street,” he said. ” It’s night. Stay safe. »

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