Israel Approves Unilateral Pullout From Lebanon Border Town

Security cabinet votes in favor of withdrawal from northern half of Ghajar, which straddles the Lebanese border.

Barak Ravid
The Associated Press
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Israel's security cabinet on Wednesday approved the withdrawal of Israel Defense Forces troops from the northern half of Ghajar, a divided town that straddles the Lebanese border, four years after it took the area in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

Israel captured the village, which also borders Syria, in the 1967 Six-Day War. It pulled out of the northern part of Ghajar when it withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, but returned during the war against Hezbollah six years later.

Israeli soldiers patrol in the village of Ghajar between northern Israel and Lebanon, Nov. 10, 2010Credit: AP

In Wednesday's vote, the security cabinet gave the Foreign Ministry 30 days to coordinate a withdrawal date with UNIFIL, the United Nations force deployed across southern Lebanon.

Despite efforts by the United Nations to secure Lebanese cooperation, the unilateral pullout will take place without any coordination with Lebanon, still technically at war with Israel.

After a date is agreed, the cabinet will vote again to give final approval for the redeployment of Israeli troops.

The 2,200 Ghajar residents are members of Islam's Alawite sect, whose followers include many members of Syria's ruling elite. More than 1,500 residents live in the northern half. Most of the villagers say they want the village to remain united, regardless of who controls it. Virtually all residents have taken Israeli citizenship, further complicating the village's future.

Najib Khatib, a village spokesman, accused the Israeli government of ignoring the wishes of the local residents.

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

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said residents should have nothing to fear. He said Israel has no intention of dividing the village, and said 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.

According to a plan proposed by UNIFIL commander General Alberto Asarta Cuevas, the IDF will withdraw completely from the northern, Lebanese half of the town to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which was passed following the 2006 war.

Under the scheme, neither Israel nor Lebanon will control security in northern Ghajar, with UNIFIL working to control access to the town from the Lebanese side.

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, UNIFIL had recently suggested some ideas and modalities for consideration by the parties.

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 preventing an agreement.

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

Efforts to implement other aspects of Resolution 1701, which called for the disarming of Hezbollah militants and the prevention of arms smuggling to Lebanon from Syria, have achieved only mixed results.