Israel looks toward IDF pullout from Lebanon border village

Israel looks toward IDF pullout from Lebanon border village

Senior cabinet ministers, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, decided on Sunday to work toward a withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from the northern portion of the village of Ghajar on Israel's border with Lebanon, Haaretz reported.

The ministers of the cabinet's "forum of seven" are to recommend to the security cabinet to adopt the plan of UNIFIL commander Claudio Graziano to have UN troops take responsibility for the area, while Israel would continue to meet civilian needs and residents, who are Alawi Arabs, would retain their Israeli identity cards.

The international border between Israel and Lebanon runs through the middle of the village, and according to UN Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War, required Israel to cease all operations north of the border, with an emphasis on military operations.

The issue of Ghajar came up last week in talks between French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Israel has also been told by the United States and the United Nations that now that the Saad Hariri government has been established in Lebanon, Israel's withdrawal from Ghajar will help bring stability to the northern border and strengthen Hariri's moderate camp, as it can present an Israeli withdrawal as a first, speedy accomplishment.

Netanyahu reportedly wants to bring the matter to a vote in the security cabinet on Wednesday.

The pullout is supported by the Foreign Ministry, which feels that Israel will gain points with the international community.

The IDF has told Netanyahu and Barak that Unifil's plan will solve the conflict over the village and will not impair Israel's ability to provide security to area residents. Shortly after Netanyahu took office, the United States requested Israel withdraw from Ghajar to strengthen the moderates in Lebanon. Netanyahu was reportedly close to approving the move when Lebanon asked for a postponement until after elections.

A few months ago a number of officials, led by Lieberman, proposed placing the international border fence in the middle of the village, and that the residents north of the fence would be compensated and evacuated to the southern part of the village, which would remain in Israeli hands. However, after Lieberman visited the village and met with residents, he realized they were strongly opposed to such a move, and he decided to support the Unifil plan as a temporary solution.

According to Graziano's plan, presented a year ago, hundreds of Unifil troops will be deployed in and around the village, along with a liaison officer from the Lebanese Army. The 40 to 60 Unifil soldiers to be stationed in the village would respond in case of a criminal or terrorist incident and would also assist the inhabitants in civilian matters. The force, which would not exceed 12 to a shift, would be drawn from veterans of the region with experience dealing with local inhabitants.

Unifil's mandate in northern Ghajar would be the same as elsewhere in Lebanon: they would not be allowed to search homes, but only to prevent infractions of the cease-fire. It would not interfere in the enforcement of Israeli law, which would still prevail in the northern part of the village.

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