Israel on Wednesday approved the withdrawal of troops from the northern half of a divided village that straddles the border with Lebanon, a step that would end its four-year presence in the volatile area.
The pullout, expected to take place in the coming weeks, would resolve a key dispute between the neighboring countries that has simmered since Israel reoccupied northern Ghajar during the war with Lebanese Hezbollah militants in 2006.
Cabinet approves pullout “in principle”
In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the Security Cabinet, a decision-making group of senior government ministers, had approved the pullout “in principle.”
It said Israeli diplomats would work with the U.N. peacekeeping force that patrols the southern Lebanese border region, to make final arrangements.
Mr. Netanyahu presented the plan last week to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York.
Ghajar is a village of 2,200 people that lies in a strategic corner where the boundaries of Syria, Israel and Lebanon are in dispute. More than 1,500 residents live in the northern half.
Villagers seek unity
Its residents are members of Islam’s Alawite sect, whose followers include many members of Syria’s ruling elite. 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.
“No government body has spoken to us. They are playing with our emotions,” he told Israel’s Army Radio. “The uncertainty is killing us. Ten years we have been going through this. We are fighting for the village so that it won’t be divided. It has never belonged to Lebanon and the Lebanese know this.”
"Normal life of residents will continue"
Mr. Netanyahu’s office said “the normal life of the residents of Ghajar ... will continue to be maintained while the new arrangements are being put in place.” It did not elaborate.
Israel captured Ghajar from Syria in the 1967 war when it took the Golan Heights. After the Israeli military ended an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, U.N. surveyors split Ghajar between Lebanon and the Israeli-controlled Golan, but Israel recaptured the northern half in the 2006 war.
Under the truce that ended the war, Israel agreed to withdraw, but it wanted to secure an arrangement that would keep the Iranian-backed Hezbollah from entering the village.
The Lebanese army is not part of the pullout plan. Instead, it will rely on U.N. peacekeepers to maintain security along the northern border of the town.
Hezbollah fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel during the 34-day war in 2006. Despite a cease-fire restrictions on rearming, Israel believes the group has restocked its arsenal with more powerful weapons.
Hezbollah is the strongest armed force in Lebanon, and as a member of the government, wields heavy influence over official decision-making.