Israel approves pullout from Lebanon border village

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

By (AFP)

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Published: Thu 18 Nov 2010, 8:44 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:15 AM

“The ministerial committee on security decided today to accept the principle of a proposal by the United Nations and UNIFIL to withdraw IDF (Israel Defence Force) forces from the northern part of the village,” cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser said in a statement.

The move will see Israel pulling its troops out of the northern part of Ghajar village and redeploying south of the UN “blue line” demarcating the border, he said.

No date was mentioned but Washington welcomed the announcement and urged all sides to move ahead quickly.

“The United States encourages Israel and the UN to complete the technical details necessary to implement this proposal rapidly and thereby protect the rights of the affected civilians,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.

The peacekeeping force UNIFIL ruled that north Ghajar lies in Lebanon and the rest lies in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, but Israel took over the Lebanese side too during its devastating 2006 war with Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Following the pullback decision, responsibility for the sector will be handed to UNIFIL (the UN Interim Force in Lebanon), whose troops will redeploy around the village’s northern perimeter but not inside it, officials said.

A UNIFIL spokesman confirmed that the head of the Israeli foreign ministry had personally informed force commander Major General Alberto Asarta Cuevas of the security cabinet’s decision.

“We are awaiting formal notification in order to get more details. It is also important to have a date for the IDF withdrawal from the area,” Neeraj Singh told AFP in Beirut.

Details of the withdrawal are to be hammered out by the foreign ministry and UNIFIL, and will need further security cabinet approval before being implemented.

UNIFIL has been pressing Israel to withdraw from north Ghajar in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

“In taking these steps, Israel demonstrates its continued commitment to UN Security Council Resolution 1701,” the cabinet secretary said.

The village, which has around 2,200 residents, lies on the borders of Lebanon, Syria and the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognised by the international community.

Most of the residents took Israeli citizenship after the annexation, and now hold dual Israeli and Syrian citizenship. The vast majority are against repartitioning the village, which would leave 1,700 people in the north and 500 on the Israeli side.

Practically speaking, the withdrawal will have little demonstrable effect on the ground, with residents unlikely to see their village physically divided, foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.

“It means there will be no IDF troops or any police or other Israeli security forces in the northern part of the village as UNIFIL has declared that area to be under Lebanese security,” he told AFP.

Residents would still have no access to Lebanon, and the main change would be that those living in the north would have to go south to access Israeli-provided services.

An AFP correspondent on the Lebanese side of the border said the cabinet decision was not well received, with angry villagers calling through loudhailers for protests against the move.

Israel’s plans to withdraw from the village were first confirmed in New York last week at talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

A statement from Netanyahu’s office said the idea of a troop withdrawal from north Ghajar was first raised by UNIFIL in June 2008.

At the time, Israel was reluctant to hand over control because of concerns it would give Hezbollah access to the village.

Between 2000 and 2006, no forces were deployed in north Ghajar, although UNIFIL troops were loosely deployed around the perimeter, Palmor said.

“It became an opening for Hezbollah which they exploited and used to attack various Israeli positions in the area, as well as for drug traffic,” he said.

“This time, they will exert tight control around the border.”

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