Israel is suspending discussion of a possible withdrawal from the Lebanese side of a divided border town, fearing Hizbullah will take control, an Israeli official said Wednesday. He said Israel will wait until after Lebanon's June 7 elections, which Hizbollah is contesting.
Israel fears Hizbollah could gain strength in the election and wants guarantees the Lebanese government will control Ghajar's northern section if Israel withdraws, the official said, explaining that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with his defense minister and military chief, decided to put the matter on hold this week.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because the government's recent discussions of a possible Ghajar pullback have not been made public. An Israeli government spokesman would not confirm the decision.
Ghajar sits on the Israel-Lebanon frontier in an area where the boundaries between Syria, Israel and Lebanon are in dispute. The village was captured by Israel from Syria in 1967. In 2000, after Israel withdrew from south Lebanon, UN surveyors put the Israel-Lebanon border in the middle of the village, leaving Israel in control of the southern half.
Following the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Israel maintained a military presence in the northern part of the town, citing security concerns.
A political maneuver?
In Beirut, a government official questioned whether Israel had really intended to withdraw from the town and described the issue as a "political maneuver that aims to spread division among Lebanese." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly to the media.
The timing of talks about a withdrawal fueled speculation that Israel's was trying to help Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's parliamentary majority in an election where Hizbollah-led factions are running strong.
The villagers say they do not want the town to be divided, and would like, for now, to remain under Israeli control. They hope the village will eventually be returned to Syria as part of a future peace deal. Ghajar's residents are members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam whose adherents include Syria's president and many members of its ruling elite.