Israel cabinet approves pullout from Lebanon border village

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JERUSALEM: Israel’s security cabinet on Wednesday backed plans to withdraw troops from part of a disputed village on the Lebanese border and hand over control to a UN peacekeeping force, officials said.

"The ministerial committee on security decided today to accept the principles of a proposal by the United Nations and UNIFIL to withdraw IDF forces from the northern part of the village," cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser said in a statement.

The move will see Israel pulling out of the northern part of Ghajar village and redeploying its troops south of the UN "blue line" demarcating the border, he said, without mentioning a date.

Northern Ghajar is in Lebanon and the rest lies in the occupied Golan Heights, but Israel took over the Lebanese half during the 2006 war.

Following the decision, security control for northern Ghajar will be handed over to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), whose mandate is to keep peace in the border region.

Details of the withdrawal would be hammered out by the foreign ministry in coordination with the UNIFIL, the statement said, with the final arrangements to be signed off by the security cabinet before the move is carried out.

"Both the security of Israel’s citizens and the normal life of the residents of Ghajar, which remains undivided, will continue to be maintained while the new arrangements are being put in place," Hauser said.

UNIFIL has been pressing Israel to withdraw from northern Ghajar in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which ended a 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon’s Shia movement Hezbollah.

"In taking these steps, Israel demonstrates its continued commitment to UN Security Council Resolution 1701," Hauser added.

Israel’s plans to withdraw from the village were first made public last week when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks on the issue with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York.

Ghajar, a divided village which straddles the border between Lebanon and the occupied Golan Heights, looked set to be redivided on Wednesday after Israel voted to hand over the northern half to UN control.

The village, which is home to around 2,200 residents, is located on the north-western edge of the Golan Heights plateau, which Israel snatched from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war then annexed in 1981 in moves not recognized by the international community.

Northern Ghajar is in Lebanon and the rest lies in the Golan Heights, but Israel took over the Lebanese half during the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Located at the foot of Mount Hermon, Ghajar is perched on a cliff overlooking the precious Wazzani spring, a source of many bitter disputes between Israel and Lebanon.

Many residents of southern Ghajar are Alawites, members of an Islamic minority based in Syria, but they took Israeli nationality after the Golan annexation.

Although they consider themselves Syrian, most are against re-partitioning the village, which would leave 1,700 people in the Lebanese part and 500 on the Israeli side.

Until now, they have been able to travel freely to other parts of the occupied Heights and to Israel proper, but no outsiders other than Israeli soldiers are allowed into the village.

Since the Israeli takeover in 1967, Ghajar has grown and expanded northwards so that when Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 and the UN demarcated the border, the so-called "blue line" went straight through the village, leaving the northern half under Lebanese control.

Six years later, Israel retook the Lebanese part during its 34-day war with the Shia Hezbollah militia, and built a security fence around it to prevent guerrillas from entering the enclave, which is also reputedly a bastion of drug smugglers and spies.

Removing Israeli troops from the Lebanese half of the village is a requirement of UN Security Council resolution 1701 which brought an end to the 2006 war.

But the resolution also calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah and until now Israel has argued that a lack of progress on collecting the group’s weapons has made a withdrawal impossible.

Syria has always demanded the return of the Golan Heights in any peace deal with the Jewish state.

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