Israel to quit part of village on Lebanese border
JERUSALEM – Israel will present the U.N. with a plan to withdraw from the northern sector of a disputed village along the Lebanese border that it has occupied since its 2006 war with Hezbollah, an Israeli official said Sunday.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't present the proposal to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon until Monday. Details of the plan were not released, though Israel clearly would like assurances that Hezbollah militants won't be able to gain a foothold there from which to threaten cross-border attacks.
An Israeli withdrawal could also set the stage for more tension between Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Western-backed political bloc and its Hezbollah rivals, who have extended their political influence in Hariri's shaky coalition government and maintain the country's strongest military arsenal.
Hariri's allies would likely use the pullout to argue that Hezbollah no longer needs its weapons and that disputed land can be regained with the help of the international community instead. Hezbollah, which refuses to disarm, is already saying its military power would be to thank for any Israeli pullout.
Ghajar sits on a strategic corner where the boundaries between Syria, Israel and Lebanon are in dispute.
Israel captured the entire village of some 2,000 people from Syria in 1967.
In 2000, after Israel withdrew its forces from south Lebanon, U.N. surveyors put the border in the middle of the village, leaving Israel in control of the southern half.
Israel reoccupied the northern part in the 2006 war. After the fighting, Israel pledged to withdraw from that sector but gave no timeline for doing so.
Ghajar's residents are members of Islam's Alawite sect, whose followers include many members of Syria's ruling elite. Most of the villagers have said in the past that they want the village to remain united, regardless of who controls it.
Netanyahu plans to ask a group of Cabinet ministers to approve the withdrawal proposal after he returns from a U.S. trip late this week. It is not clear whether that means not all the details have been sewn up.
Israeli officials have met several times with the U.N. peacekeeping force stationed in southern Lebanon to discuss a possible handover.
A senior Lebanese army officer refused to comment on the possible withdrawal before the Lebanese government is formally informed by the U.N. of a plan.
Hezbollah on Sunday positioned itself to claim victory for any pullout.
"If the withdrawal happens, it (Israel) won't be doing it for free but because of fear of the resistance and Lebanon's strength through the resistance," Hezbollah legislator Nawar Saheli told The Associated Press in Beirut.
Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.