x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Israel votes on fate of Lebanon border village

Israel's inner Cabinet of decision makers were debating today whether to withdraw troops from the northern half of a divided village that straddles the border with Lebanon.

JERUSALEM // Israel's inner Cabinet of decision makers were debating today whether to withdraw troops from the northern half of a divided village that straddles the border with Lebanon.

The potential pullout could resolve a dispute between the neighboring countries that has simmered ever since Israel reoccupied northern Ghajar during the war with Lebanese Hizbollah militants in 2006.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, presented the plan earlier this month to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his Security Cabinet, a gathering of senior government ministers that was expected to approve the decision.

Ghajar is a village of 2,000 people that lies in a strategic corner where the boundaries of Syria, Israel and Lebanon are in dispute.

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 any Israeli troop withdrawal.

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."

Israel captured it from Syria in the 1967 war when it took the Golan Heights. After the Israeli military ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, UN 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 Hizbollah from entering the village.

The Israeli plan is expected to call on UN peacekeepers to maintain security along the northern border of Ghajar.

Hizbollah 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.

Hizbollah is the strongest armed force in Lebanon, and as a member of the government, wields heavy influence over official decision-making.