Israel wants wall built to protect occupied Arab town on border with Lebanon

TEL AVIV (AP) — The Israeli Shin Bet security agency has recommended building a wall through an Arab community located along the Lebanese border to prevent attacks by Lebanese fighters, officials said Tuesday.
The construction of the barrier along the UN-recognised border would divide the Israeli-controlled town of Ghajar in half, requiring most of the 2,000 residents to move to the southern side, town residents said.

The town of Alawite Arabs — the Muslim sect Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs to — was captured from Syria along with the Golan Heights in the 1967 Mideast war and residents were granted Israeli citizenship. The border with Lebanon, redrawn by the United Nations after Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, runs right through the town.

Although residents of the farming community can move freely within its limits, the town is surrounded by mine fields, Israeli army checkpoints at its southern entrance and bases of the Hizbollah resistance group on its northern outskirts.

Ghajar has been the frequent target of Lebanese fighters, most recently last month when Israeli soldiers and militants exchanged heavy gunfire in the town.

According to the Shin Bet proposal, residents forced to move south of the wall would be compensated with property on the Israeli side. But most Ghajar residents oppose the idea, saying Israel must negotiate with the United Nations for the border to go around the town, not through it.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will decide on the matter in a meeting Wednesday with senior security officials, his office said. The Shin Bet will present Sharon with its position that only a barrier can prevent the attacks.

Israeli media reported that Sharon is leaning towards opposing the wall.

Israel’s military largely opposes the fence, viewing it as capitulation to resistance groups who will only intensify attacks, said Amos Malka, the former head of military intelligence.

“Cutting the village in half is not acceptable,” Malka told army radio. “A wall built there … will just draw fire and so the solution has to come with softer measures, not necessarily with physical barriers like a wall.”

Ghajar residents have threatened court action to stop the building of the barrier.

“We are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Najib Khatib, a member of Ghajar’s municipal council, told Israel Radio Tuesday. “We cannot just be up and moved.”

Placing the northern side of the town on the Lebanese side would entail moving the municipality and school, Khatib said.

The village is located in a strategically important place for Israel, tucked between three tributaries to the Jordan River, which serves as a major source for Israeli drinking water.

All but 200 residents of the village fled to Syria during fighting in 1967, when their farmland was captured by Israel. Starving, the residents returned to their land shortly after the war.

Residents have had over the years to suffer not only fighting but uncertainty over Israeli-Syrian peace talks in which Syria demanded the village be returned with all of the Golan Heights. The most recent talks, in 2000, broke down over the territorial dispute.

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