Ghajar: Israel's Syrian-Alawite village half in Lebanon

Robert Swift

9 min read
A water fountain depicting St George slaying a dragon, in the center of Ghajar, northern Israel, February 25, 2022.
Robert Swift/i24NEWSA water fountain depicting St George slaying a dragon, in the center of Ghajar, northern Israel, February 25, 2022.

Israel's political map is notoriously complicated. Few places exemplify that more than this Alawite community

The intriguing village of Ghajar sits in the foothills of Mount Hermon, sandwiched in no-mans’ land between the Lebanese and the Israeli border lines.

Amid the contradictions of one of the world’s most notoriously complicated political riddles – Israel’s relationship with its neighbors and minorities – this Arab enclave stands out from the crowd. 

A village with a theoretical border running through the middle of it, and an actual Israeli military fence running around it. At times claimed by Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, and at other moments cut off from all. A community to which only recently were outsiders permitted to visit.

In much of the Hebrew press the village’s name is synonymous with smuggling, and rumors of connections to Hezbollah. But that did not dissuade a group of Jewish Israelis from recently visiting the community to see it for themselves, brought north by more positive rumors about the location's delicious food. 

Robert Swift/i24NEWS
Robert Swift/i24NEWSShanklish, a traditional form of Syrian cheese rolled in zaatar, that is a part of Ghajar's unique cuisine, February 25, 2022.

Ghajar landed in its strange position following the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel captured the neighboring Golan Heights to the east. Jamal Khattib, the local sports teacher and the tour’s chaperone around the village, recounted his community’s unusual history.

As Khattib tells the events – which occurred during his childhood – leaders from Ghajar approached both Israeli and Lebanese authorities following the 67’ conflict, neither of whom wanted to take responsibility for the community. Residents spent the next six months confined to their village, sustained only by their last harvest, until Israel relented, granting the villagers the right to come and go. 

In 1981 when Israel passed a law formally annexing the Golan Heights, it offered residents the right to citizenship. An offer declined by most of the Golan’s Syrian Druze community but taken up by the residents of Ghajar. 

“In my heart, I am Syrian… but I am Israeli with all the rights that you enjoy,” the local guide told his guests. 

Ghajar’s position confused the Israeli visitors, who peppered Khattib with questions. He answered good naturedly, comfortably slipping into the role of schoolteacher. 

Residents do not join Israel’s military, but some opt for other forms of national service. Many people from the village study, often choosing medicine, law, or architecture, in Israel or at universities in Syria. Residents do not pass freely into Lebanon, the UN is present to observe that this does not happen.

While Khattib lectured his visitors in the heart of the village, a patrol of three Israeli soldiers strolled passed, their presence unremarked. Taking shelter from the rain under an awning, they smoked and paid more attention to their phones than to the nearby frontier.

As Google maps shows it, Ghajar is half in Israel, half in Lebanon. The Blue Line, marking the border, cuts roughly east to west through the village. But you would never know that from being in the place yourself. There’s no visible trace of a border and Israeli soldiers clearly pass to the north of the line.

Google Maps/screenshot/Robert Swift
Google Maps/screenshot/Robert SwiftA print screen of Google Maps showing the Israeli-Lebanese border, with the village of Ghajar straddling it, February 25, 2022.

Dividing Ghajar from its nearest Lebanese neighbor, the village of Aarab El Louaizeh to the west, a shallow valley runs with a thin river – the Hasbani – at its bottom. Years ago, the residents of Ghajar used to supplement their diet with fish from the stream, but no more. 

A white tower marked with “UN” sits sentinel on the valley floor: noticeably separating the two villages, rather than standing on the actual border line. At the time of i24NEWS’ visit, two United Nations armored personnel carriers were parked in the Lebanese village – peacekeepers observing the status quo.

While geography can explain some of Ghajar’s peculiarities, demographics is required to understand the whole picture. The villagers hale from the Alawite community, an ethnoreligious group that mixes many of the tenants of Islam and Christianity. Best known as being the ruling elite of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, most Alawites live along the Syrian coastal strip. 

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Robert Swift/i24NEWSAn image depicting Ali ibn Abi Talib, a figure revered by the Alawites and Shiite Muslims, alongside symbols of Judaism, in a restaurant in Ghajar, February 25 2022.

Being dislocated from their brethren far to the north, Ghajar’s residents have developed a culture and tradition all their own. And this is most noticeable in the community’s unique cuisine.

Unlike many of the other Arabic speaking communities in the area that eat lots of meat, Ghajar’s Alawites tend to consume a diet dominated by wheat, vegetables, and dairy, Ohad Roth, the tour’s organizer, told i24NEWS. A former banker who left the 9-to-5 grind for a life of podcasts and craft beer, Roth recently began bringing groups of Israelis into Ghajar to sample its food.

And he was keen to show off the elements which separate the village’s flavors from those of other kitchens in the area. Most notably in the resident’s use of bulger and variety of cheeses - including Syrian specialties that the Israelis had never tasted before. 

“There is a very nice saying in Arabic, that says ‘when rice arrived on the scene, bulgur hanged itself,’” Roth said, describing the cracked grains of wheat that are a staple in Ghajar’s cooking. 

In neighboring Druze or Bedouin communities, a housewife would never serve her guests bulgur; but in Israel’s only Alawite community the humble grain makes up many of the celebratory meals served at weddings, Roth said. 

But if once Ghajar’s residents ate a humble fare of bulgur and little meat, that appears to be less true today with the community wearing an air of modest affluence. The buildings are colorful and well built, lining neat streets that are probably cleaner than most others in Israel. Water fountains mark each of the village’s roundabouts, and its little central park is beautifully kept, sitting next to a decorated bomb shelter that you might mistake for a small cinema. 

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Robert Swift/i24NEWSThe decorated communal bomb shelter, next to a sports pitch, in the village of Ghajar, February 25, 2022.

In part this manicured look stems from the highly educated nature of the people living in Ghajar, with a disproportionate number of doctors and other university graduates living among its 2,500 residents.

But another key factor is the extraordinary level of self-rule that the village enjoys. The streets are quiet and clean, and there is little to no crime because the community polices itself, Khattib said. Vehicles driving round the community keep to a low speed, and quad bikes and buggies – popular in other rural communities in Israel – are completely banned. 

The village by a quirk of history has taken the idea of a gated community to a new level, with an army checkpoint controlling who can enter, and a fence running around its whole circumference. Its isolation, once holding the village back has become a strength. 

Still, this doesn’t mean that Ghajar intends to remain cut off forever, and there was a noticeable community group-effort around the tourist’s visit to the village. 

Fate however had other plans, and the villager's push to attract tourism was cut short as the Israeli military announced entry to the village would be paused for outsiders. 

Hopefully, only as a temporary measure this time round. 

For a longer examination of Ghajar's history, and how it ended up in it's unusual legal status, read this explanation from 2020.

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