Israel pullout stirs fear in Lebanon border hamlet

Israel agreed Wednesday to pull its troops from the northern half of a village that straddles the border with Lebanon, defusing a long-standing political dispute but frightening villagers who don't want their community divided.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said senior government ministers had approved the withdrawal from northern Ghajar "in principle." Within the next few weeks, Israeli diplomats are to work out a detailed agreement with the U.N. peacekeeping force that patrols the border zone in southern Lebanon.

The centerpiece of that deal would be a plan to keep Lebanese Hezbollah militants, who warred with Israel in 2006, out of the village. Israel took control of northern Ghajar during that war.

A statement from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office welcomed the Israeli decision in principle and said that "the United Nations intends to continue to work closely with all parties in the coming period in a process to resolve the permanent status of Ghajar."

Israeli officials said the village would not be divided after the withdrawal, but that did not allay residents' fears of being left stranded in Lebanon, if not by Israel then by the U.N. peacekeepers.

"People are scared it will separate children from their families and brothers from brothers and from our land," said Najib Khatib, a village spokesman. "How can they come today and divide a small village like this? We hope that this decision won't be carried out."

The village of Ghajar, flanked by rolling green plains, is virtually inaccessible to all but its residents. Only military roads lead to the village of concrete, boxy homes. Israeli soldiers man a checkpoint at the village entrance and search all vehicles.

The village is home to 2,200 people and lies in a strategic corner where the boundaries of Syria, Israel and Lebanon are in dispute. More than 1,500 residents live in the northern half.

Israel captured all of Ghajar from Syria in 1967 when it took the Golan Heights. After the Israeli military ended an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, U.N. surveyors split Ghajar between Lebanon and the Israeli-controlled Golan, but Israel reoccupied the northern half four years ago.

Under the truce that ended the fighting, Israel agreed to withdraw, but it wanted to clinch an arrangement that would keep the Iranian-backed Hezbollah from entering the village.

Villagers are members of Islam's Alawite sect, whose followers include many members of Syria's ruling elite. Virtually all residents have taken Israeli citizenship, further complicating the village's future.

Residents said they were upset that they had not been consulted by the government and learned of the decision through the media.

Several hundred villagers protested Israel's decision, claiming they were Syrian and so should not be made to live in Lebanon. They held English-language signs that read, "Our village and our land and our farms are Syrian." Some displayed old Syrian ID cards and documents from before 1967.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel had "no intention" of dividing the village and that residents would continue to have free movement throughout Ghajar and in and out of Israel, as they do now.

"We hope to maintain and preserve their daily lives without any changes," Palmor said.

Such assurances were of little comfort to 44-year-old Tawfik Khatib.

"I shouldn't have to need an ID card to pass through my own village to see my sister," he said. "We don't mind which side we end up on but we want the whole village and our land to be on the same side."

Palmor estimated it would take about a month to work out arrangements with UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, with the pullout taking place shortly after.

Palmor said Israel was confident UNIFIL could provide adequate security arrangements, despite Israeli concerns that the force has failed to contain Hezbollah.

Hezbollah fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel during the 34-day war in 2006. Israel believes the group has restocked its arsenal with more powerful weapons.

Hezbollah is the strongest armed force in Lebanon, and as a member of the government, wields heavy influence over official decision-making.

Palmor said there was no special significance to the timing of Wednesday's decision. He said it came after years of efforts to find a way to withdraw and was in response to calls from the international community to carry out cease-fire obligations.

UNIFIL spokesman Neeraj Singh said the force was still waiting for formal notification from the Israelis to get more details, including a proposed pullout date.

"This is a long-standing matter and our position is very clear that Israel is obliged to withdraw from northern Ghajar," he said. He said the peacekeepers have been "actively engaged" with Israel and Lebanon, and that to advance the withdrawal, the U.N. force had presented some ideas.

The Lebanese army is not part of the pullout plan. Instead, it will rely on U.N. peacekeepers to maintain security along the northern border of the village.

Israel had hoped to reach a three-way deal that would also include the Lebanese government. But Foreign Minster Avigdor Lieberman said recently that Hezbollah was blocking an agreement so the militant group could claim to have forced Israel to leave.

___

Aron Heller contributed to this report from Jerusalem.