- Associated Press - Sunday, November 7, 2010

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel is ready to give the United Nations a plan to withdraw from the northern half of a divided village along the Lebanese border that it has occupied since 2006, officials said Sunday. The pullout could resolve a key dispute between the neighboring countries.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will formally present the plan on Monday during a meeting in New York with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Officials refused to release most details, including the timing and mechanics of the withdrawal, before Monday’s meeting.

Israel recaptured the northern half of the village of Ghajar during the 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. A U.N.-brokered cease-fire that ended the fighting called on Israel to withdraw, but the Jewish state so far has refused to do so because of concerns that Hezbollah could move back into the village.

Hezbollah, one of Israel’s bitterest enemies, fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel during the 34-day war. Despite the cease-fire’s restrictions on re-arming, Israel believes the Iranian-backed group has restocked its arsenal with even more powerful weapons.

Israeli officials said their proposal would involve a deal with UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force that monitors southern Lebanon. Few details were immediately available, but Israel clearly will seek assurances that Hezbollah militants won’t be able to gain a foothold in the village.

UNIFIL’s political director, Milos Strugar, said the peacekeeping force has been “actively engaged” with both sides in a bid to facilitate an Israeli withdrawal.

“In our effort to advance the process of withdrawal, UNIFIL has recently suggested some ideas and modalities for consideration by the parties,” he said, without elaborating.

Hezbollah is the strongest armed force in Lebanon and, as a member of the government, wields heavy influence over official decision making.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Hezbollah’s meddling has prevented an agreement that Israel has been seeking with the United Nations and Lebanon.

“We believe that we could have reached a three-way agreement a long time ago,” Mr. Lieberman said. “The ones that torpedoed this three-way agreement was Hezbollah.”

He did not elaborate but said that Israel had decided “not to wait for the Lebanese any more.”

Ghajar sits on a strategic corner where the boundaries between Syria, Israel and Lebanon are in dispute.

Israel captured the village of some 2,000 people from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. In 2000, after Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon, ending nearly two decades of occupation, U.N. surveyors put the border in the middle of the village, leaving Israel in control of the southern half.

Israel reoccupied the northern part in the 2006 war. After the fighting, Israel pledged to withdraw from that half but gave no time line.

Ghajar’s residents are members of Islam’s Alawite sect, whose followers include many members of Syria’s ruling elite. Most of the villagers say they want the village to remain united, regardless of who controls it. Virtually all residents have taken Israeli citizenship, further complicating any withdrawal.

Green, sweeping hills surround the tidy village, its paths neatly covered in paving stones and lined with planted trees. Although all traffic in and out of the village must go through an Israeli military checkpoint, residents appear prosperous, with well-kept, large white houses and late-model cars.

One resident, who gave only his first name, Bilal, for fear of reprisals, said he lives in northern Ghajar while his sisters live in the south. “How will we see each other?” he said. “They will tear apart families. Everybody in Ghajar is united against dividing the village.”

As he spoke, U.N. peacekeeping patrols and Lebanese government troops could be seen in the distance, just a few hundred yards away across the border.

Eyal Zisser, a Tel Aviv University expert on Lebanese affairs, said a withdrawal would be risky for Israel. Without an agreement with Lebanon, he said Hezbollah could lay claim to the area.

“That way, it would be less stable” than the present situation, he said.

Inside Lebanon, the Israeli withdrawal could set the stage for more tension between Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Western-backed political bloc and its Shi’ite Hezbollah rivals.

Hariri’s allies likely would use the pullout to argue that Hezbollah no longer needs its weapons and that disputed land can be regained with the help of the international community instead.

Hezbollah, which refuses to disarm, already is positioning itself to claim victory for any pullout.

“If the withdrawal happens, it (Israel) won’t be doing it for free but because of fear of the resistance and Lebanon’s strength through the resistance,” Hezbollah legislator Nawar Saheli told the Associated Press in Beirut.

Mr. Netanyahu plans to ask a group of Cabinet ministers to approve the withdrawal proposal after he returns from a U.S. trip late this week. It is not clear whether that means not all the details have been finalized.

Israeli officials have met several times with the U.N. peacekeeping force stationed in southern Lebanon to discuss a possible handover.

A senior Lebanese army officer refused to comment on the possible withdrawal before the Lebanese government is formally informed by the United Nations of a plan.

Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Ariel Schalit in Ghajar contributed to this report.

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