Israeli Exit from Ghajar Spells Trouble for Lebanon, Experts Say

Israel's plan to pull its troops out of northern Ghajar, a disputed village on the flashpoint border with Lebanon, is likely to prove more of a headache than a political victory for Beirut, experts say.

"The people of Ghajar do not want to be part of Lebanon," said Timur Goksel, former senior adviser of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), of the village's 2,200 residents -- none of whom is Lebanese.

"They say they have nothing to do with Lebanon, historically, politically, socially," Goksel told Agence France Presse. "If they become Lebanese they are going to lose all their privileges as Israeli citizens."

Ghajar embodies the conundrum of Middle Eastern politics: originally Syrian territory, it was seized by Israel along with the adjacent Golan Heights during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The tiny village was then cut in half in 2000, when Israel ended its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon and withdrew south of the Blue Line, a U.N.-demarcated border which runs straight through Ghajar.

The Blue Line placed the southern sector of Ghajar under Israeli control and the north in the hands of Lebanon.

But in 2006, Israel sent its troops back into northern Ghajar during its summer war with Hizbullah, and access to the town from Lebanon has since been blocked.

After years of political wrangling, Israel's cabinet on November 17 approved a U.N. proposal to withdraw its troops from the divided village -- a move that residents strongly oppose.

Israeli officials have said responsibility for the sector will be transferred to UNIFIL, whose troops will redeploy around Ghajar's northern perimeter but not inside the village itself.

"The plan is basically to return to the pre-2006 status quo," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria and Lebanon expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Israel will only patrol south of the Blue Line and Israel's main security fence will run along the village's southern border," Tabler, who was recently in Ghajar, told AFP.

Most Ghajar residents are Syrian Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, who have acquired Israeli citizenship.

They reject the partitioning of their village, which would put 1,700 people in Lebanon and 500 in Israel and possibly leave family members unable to visit each other.

While Hizbullah is demanding that Israel hand over the northern part of Ghajar to the Lebanese army, with UNIFIL backing, experts say the Lebanese military is unlikely to be granted access.

"The (Israeli) security fence running along the northern edge of the village will remain," Tabler said. "The question being worked out now is who will patrol the northern neighborhood."

The Lebanese government has yet to react officially to Israel's proposed withdrawal, but Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, arguably the most powerful figure in the country, has rejected the plan.

"The Lebanese part of Ghajar must be returned to Lebanon and the Syrian part, with its residents, must be given to Lebanon until the Syrian-Lebanese border is demarcated," Nasrallah has said.

A UNIFIL spokesman contacted by AFP refused to disclose the content of talks with Israeli officials, but said the international force aimed to eventually ensure the return of Lebanese troops to northern Ghajar.

"We have been pushing for withdrawal of Israeli forces from northern Ghajar right since 2006," spokesman Neeraj Singh told AFP.

"It is an obligation that Israel must deliver on, in accordance with Resolution 1701" which ended the 2006 war and expanded UNIFIL's mandate, he added.

Experts say, however, that Israel's commitment to withdraw from northern Ghajar is unlikely to take place soon.

"It is not going to happen until there is a peace treaty between Syria and Israel, and then Lebanon and Israel, so everyone will cross that bridge when they come to it," Tabler said.(AFP)