'Israel Delays Plan to Quit Lebanon Border Town'

Source: Government wants talks to wait until after Lebanon's June election, fears Hezbollah will seize control.

Israel has suspended discussion of a possible withdrawal from the Lebanese side of a divided border town, fearing guerrilla group Hezbollah will control the territory, an Israeli official said on Wednesday.

Israel prefers to wait until after Lebanon's June 7 elections to resume the discussions, said the official. Jerusalem wants guarantees that the Lebanese government will control Ghajar's northern section if Israel withdraws, rather than leaving it to free reign of militants. Israel is also concerned Hezbollah could gain strength in the election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Askenazi decided this week to put the matter on hold, said the official.

Israel, which occupied the northern half of Ghajar following the Second Lebanon War in 2006, has pledged to withdraw from as part of a cease-fire that ended the fighting, but has never given a timeline.

Senior army officers from Lebanon, Israel and the United Nations were to meet on May 18 to coordinate the withdrawal. Representatives at the meeting were include Alan Le Roy, head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations; Major-General Claudio Graziono, commander of the UN peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) in Lebanon; officers from Israel Defense Forces Northern Command and their Lebanese counterparts.

It is unclear whether that meeting has now been postponed.

Ghajar is split by the international border between Lebanon and the Israeli-held Golan Heights, which was part of Syria before the Six-Day War. Its residents are Alawis, a Shiite sect of Islam to which the majority of Syria's ruling elite belong, who also have Israeli identity cards.

Since Israel's withdrawal from its self-proclaimed security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000, Jerusalem has been in talks with the UN to find a way to transfer its control over the northern part of the village back to Lebanon.