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Israel pulls out of border village

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The village of Ghajar on the border of Lebanon and Israel (AP)

Israel has agreed to pull its troops out of the northern half of a village which straddles the border with Lebanon, defusing a long-standing political dispute but frightening villagers who do not want their community divided.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said senior government ministers had approved the withdrawal from northern Ghajar “in principle”.

Within the next few weeks, Israeli diplomats are to work out a detailed agreement with the UN peacekeeping force which patrols the border zone in southern Lebanon.

The centrepiece of that deal would be a plan to keep Lebanese Hezbollah militants, who warred with Israel in 2006, out of the village. Israel took control of northern Ghajar during that war.

A statement from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office welcomed the Israeli decision in principle and said “the United Nations intends to continue to work closely with all parties in the coming period in a process to resolve the permanent status of Ghajar”.

Israeli officials said the village would not be divided after the withdrawal, but that did not allay residents’ fears of being left stranded in Lebanon, if not by Israel then by the UN peacekeepers.

“People are scared it will separate children from their families and brothers from brothers and from our land,” said Najib Khatib, a village spokesman. “How can they come today and divide a small village like this? We hope that this decision won’t be carried out.”

The village of Ghajar, flanked by rolling green plains, is virtually inaccessible to all but its residents. Only military roads lead to the village of concrete, boxy homes. Israeli soldiers man a checkpoint at the village entrance and search all vehicles. The village is home to 2,200 people and lies in a strategic corner where the boundaries of Syria, Israel and Lebanon are in dispute. More than 1,500 residents live in the northern half.

Israel captured all of Ghajar from Syria in 1967 when it took the Golan Heights. After the Israeli military ended an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, UN surveyors split Ghajar between Lebanon and the Israeli-controlled Golan, but Israel reoccupied the northern half four years ago.

Under the truce which ended the fighting, Israel agreed to withdraw, but it wanted to clinch an arrangement that would keep the Iranian-backed Hezbollah from entering the village.

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