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Israel appears set to withdraw from Lebanese border town Ghajar, easing tensions

Under a United Nations plan, Israel will reportedly remove its troops from the town of Ghajar on the Lebanese border – and thus remove a bone of contention with Hezbollah.

By Correspondent / November 12, 2010

An Israeli soldier stands guard in the village of Ghajar on the border with Lebanon, in northern Israel, Nov. 7. Intensive United Nations-led diplomacy appears to have encouraged Israel to withdraw its troops from the town of Ghajar.

Ariel Schalit/AP

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Wazzani, Lebanon

Intensive United Nations-led diplomacy appears to have encouraged Israel to withdraw its troops from part of a village that lies inside Lebanese territory but has remained under Israeli occupation since 2006.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon this week that he will convene a meeting of his inner security cabinet to approve a pullout from the divided village of Ghajar.

If the withdrawal occurs in the coming weeks, it will be one less bone of contention along a border that while presently calm has remained a potential flashpoint since the end of the month-long war in 2006 between Israel and Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah.

“We have been discussing with both parties the specifics of the withdrawal because of the specifics of the situation where the village is divided in two,” says Milos Strugar, the top political adviser in the UN peacekeeping force based in south Lebanon, known as UNIFIL. “UNIFIL within its mandate is there and ready to provide all the support required by all the parties.”

The significance of Ghajar

At first glance, it can be difficult to understand why so much fuss has surrounded Ghajar, a village of some 2,000 residents, all of whom are Alawites, an obscure offshoot of the Shiite sect. There is no permanent Israeli troop presence in the northern sector of the village – soldiers patrol it each day before returning to the southern, Israeli-controlled, side. The residents want to remain under Israeli authority and there has been no fighting in the area for 4-1/2 years.

Yet there are few border issues in the Middle East as tangled as that of Ghajar. The village owes its complicated status to the indifference of the French mandatory authorities in the 1920s that never clearly delineated the border between the new state of Lebanon and Syria. Successive Lebanese governments also ignored this remote rural pocket of southeast Lebanon, essentially turning the unmarked, unfenced, and poorly policed border into a smugglers' corridor.

Israeli troops overran Ghajar, then a small farming community, when it seized and occupied the adjacent Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The residents considered themselves Syrian nationals but accepted Israeli citizenship in 1981 when Israel formally annexed the territories occupied in 1967. Over the years, Ghajar grew wealthier and expanded in size.

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