Israel approves pullout from Lebanon border village

Israeli soldier on patrol in Ghajar (file image) The village of Ghajar falls partly in Lebanon and partly in the occupied Golan Heights

Israel's cabinet has approved the withdrawal of its troops from the northern half of a village deemed by the UN to be inside Lebanon.

Ghajar is split by the UN blue line, the de-facto border between Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Details of the plan will be worked out with UN peacekeepers in the next month, the prime minister's office says.

Pulling out of the village will fulfil Israel's obligations to the UN, but will cut the village in two.

Divided loyalties

Analysis

With tensions high along the border with Lebanon, it may look a strange time for Israel to be withdrawing from an albeit small piece of occupied land.

Constantly warning about the threat from Hezbollah, for example, Israeli intelligence sources say the Iranian-backed Shia group now has four times as many rockets in southern Lebanon than it had during the 2006 war.

Although the exact details aren't clear, Israel certainly doesn't expect that when it leaves northern Ghajar, the hole will be immediately plugged by hostile forces. That's where UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon will have to play some role.

About 2,000 people live in Ghajar, a picturesque hillside village which is partly in Lebanon and party in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Israel captured Ghajar, along with the Golan Heights, from Syria in the 1967 Six Day war.

A later UN demarcation of Lebanese territory took in northern Ghajar, leaving the southern part under Israeli control. Even when Israel's military occupation of southern Lebanon ended in 2000, its troops remained in Ghajar, citing security concerns.

Families are spread out on either side of the UN blue line, and the school and municipal buildings are in the Israeli area, says the BBC's Wyre Davies from the border town.

Most of the villagers still consider themselves Syrian, although many have taken Israeli citizenship during the long years of occupation. The majority are opposed to being under Lebanese control.

Following Wednesday's vote by Israel's security cabinet, control of northern Ghajar will be handed over to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), whose mandate is to keep peace in the tense border region.

At a glance: Ghajar village

  • Located along the disputed borders of Syria, Israel and Lebanon
  • Captured by Israel from Syria in 1967
  • Gradually expands into territory now deemed Lebanese, leaving one half in Lebanon and the other under Israeli occupation
  • Home to 2,000 people who mostly consider themselves Syrian, but have Israeli citizenship
  • Residents mainly belong to the minority Alawite sect of Shia Islam

Israeli sources have told the BBC that a final deal will likely see Unifil troops stationed along the village's northern edge, while Israeli soldiers will deploy along its south. Residents will be able to move freely inside the village, they said.

The details of the plan will be worked out by Israel's foreign ministry and the Unifil commander, Gen Alberto Asarta, over the coming weeks. Israel's security cabinet will then approve the final agreement, the sources said.

Israel and Lebanon are still technically at war and earlier this year, just a few miles from Ghajar, Israeli and Lebanese soldiers were killed in a gun battle.

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