Thursday, May 7, 2009

Israel discussing withdrawal from Lebanese village

May 7

Israel's deputy foreign minister indicated Thursday that his government is considering withdrawing from part of a contentious village under Israeli control though a U.N. border puts part of it in Lebanon.

A border drawn by the U.N. after Israel withdrew its army from southern Lebanon in 2000 split the village of Ghajar between Lebanon and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. In keeping with pledges made in 2000 and 2006, Israel has pulled its forces behind the border, except in Ghajar.

Lebanon has demanded that Israel pull out of the Lebanese part of Ghajar.

On Thursday, Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, met with Alain LeRoy, the U.N. official in charge of peacekeeping operations. The U.N. has a force in southern Lebanon.

Ayalon said they discussed the issue of Ghajar. "We are looking into all the issues involved and will announce the decision as soon as it is made," Ayalon said in a statement. A Security Cabinet discussion of the issue set for Wednesday was canceled without explanation.

On Wednesday the U.N. said Israeli officials discussed a U.N. withdrawal plan, and an Israeli defense official confirmed that Israel was looking for a way to pull out without endangering its security.

The 1,800 Ghajar villagers are Alawite Muslims, like the ruling sect in Syria. After Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war, they took Israeli citizenship, a rare move among the Arabs in the territory.

Ghajar residents built a new neighborhood north of the village after Israel took control. That is the part that lies across the boundary drawn by the U.N.

Residents say they oppose division of the village. They say they eventually want to return to Syrian control, though maps show that some of their land is clearly in Lebanon.

After a bloody 34-day war against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas in 2006, Israel agreed to pull its troops behind the border, but gave no time frame for withdrawing from the northern part of Ghajar.

Israel is concerned that turning over part of the village to Lebanon could facilitate Hezbollah attacks as well as arms and drug smuggling.

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