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GHAJAR, Golan Heights (AP) — Israel on Wednesday approved the withdrawal of troops from the northern half of a village that straddles the border with Lebanon — a step that would end its four-year presence in the volatile area.
The pullout, expected to take place in the coming weeks, would resolve a key dispute between the two countries that has simmered since Israel reoccupied northern Ghajar during the war with Lebanese Hezbollah militants in 2006.
In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said the Security Cabinet, a decision-making group of senior government ministers, had approved the pullout "in principle." It said Israeli diplomats would work with the U.N. peacekeeping force that patrols the border zone in southern Lebanon to make final arrangements. Israel wants to be sure that Hezbollah — and its arsenal of rockets and other weapons — is kept out of the village.
Netanyahu presented the plan last week to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York.
Ghajar is a village of 2,200 people that 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.
Its 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 the village's future.
Tawfik Khatib, a 44-year-old resident, said he was upset because he feared an Israeli withdrawal would result in a division of the village and separate residents from their lands and from each other.
"I shouldn't have to need an ID card to pass through my own village to see my sister," he said. "We don't mind which side we end up on but we want the whole village and our land to be on the same side."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said residents should have nothing to fear. He said Israel has "no intention" of dividing the village and said residents would continue to have free movement throughout Ghajar and in and out of Israel, as they do now.
"We hope to maintain and preserve their daily lives without any changes," Palmor said.
He said he expected it to take about 30 days to work out arrangements with UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, and the redeployment would take place shortly afterward.
UNIFIL spokesman Neeraj Singh said the force was still waiting for formal notification from the Israelis to get more details, including a proposed pullout date.
"This is a long-standing matter and our position is very clear that Israel is obliged to withdraw from northern Ghajar," he said. He said the peacekeepers have been "actively engaged" with Israel and Lebanon, and that to advance the withdrawal, "UNIFIL had recently suggested some ideas and modalities for consideration by the parties."
Israel had hoped to reach a three-way deal that would also include the Lebanese government. But Foreign Minster Avigdor Lieberman said recently that Hezbollah — which is part of Lebanon's coalition government — was preventing an agreement.
Palmor said Israel was confident UNIFIL could provide adequate security arrangements, despite Israeli concerns that the force has failed to contain Hezbollah.
Israel captured Ghajar from Syria in the 1967 war when it took the Golan Heights. After the Israeli military ended an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, U.N. surveyors split Ghajar between Lebanon and the Israeli-controlled Golan, but Israel reoccupied the northern half in the 2006 war.
Under the truce that ended the war, Israel agreed to withdraw, but it wanted to secure an arrangement that would keep the Iranian-backed Hezbollah from entering the village.
The Lebanese army is not part of the pullout plan. Instead, it will rely on U.N. peacekeepers to maintain security along the northern border of the village.
Hezbollah fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel during the 34-day war in 2006. Israel believes the group has restocked its arsenal with more powerful weapons.
Hezbollah is the strongest armed force in Lebanon, and as a member of the government, wields heavy influence over official decision-making.