(photo credit: AP [file])
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told Alain Le Roy, the UN under secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, on Thursday that Israel was conducting a "policy review" regarding the Ghajar village that straddles the Lebanese-Israeli border, and would declare its policy on the matter when this process was completed. He gave no timeline.
"We are looking into all the issues involved and will announce the decision as soon as it is made," Ayalon said. Le Roy, according to a Foreign Ministry statement, said that a number of suggestions regarding Ghajar were discussed, but that the UN was awaiting an Israeli decision.
Israel has clarified over the last few months that it was willing to enter into negotiations with the UN over Ghajar to reach an agreement whereby Israel would pull back from the northern part of the town, and it would come under UNIFIL's control, but that services to the area's 1,500 residents would continue to be provided by Israel, and Israeli law would continue to apply there. Another 500-700 residents live in the southern part of the town, which falls on the Israeli side of the border.
UN, European and American officials have made clear to Jerusalem in recent weeks that a clear signal about an Israeli intention to leave Ghajar would help Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the Lebanese moderates in the upcoming Lebanese elections. Despite press reports to the contrary, however, there has not yet been a discussion on the matter in the Prime Minister's Office, or a decision to withdraw from the northern part of Ghajar prior to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's trip to Washington on May 17.
When the IDF pulled out of Lebanon in 2000, the UN determined that the border runs through the middle of the village. Following the Second Lebanon War, Israel kept a military presence in the northern part of Ghajar, and built a security fence around it. An Israeli withdrawal would be in line with Israeli commitments under UN Security Council resolution 1701 that put an end to the Second Lebanon War.
Ayalon said after meeting Le Roy that the main issue that was discussed was continued implementation of 1701. "We expect more decisive action to disarm Hizbullah and to prevent it from acquiring weapons," he said.
Ayalon said that he told Le Roy that Israel appreciated the work UNIFIL was doing in southern Lebanon, but that the continued smuggling of"upgraded weapons" to Hizbullah was very dangerous. According to Ayalon, Le Roy said he was aware that weapons that could change the strategic balance in the region, such as long range missiles, were being smuggled in.