(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel is suspending discussions of a possible withdrawal from the Lebanese side of a divided border town until after the neighboring country's elections next month, concerned that Iranian-backed Hizbullah could gain more political power and take control of the area, an official said Wednesday.
Israel has held the Lebanese half of Ghajar since recapturing it in its 2006 war with Hizbullah, concerned that if it gives it back it will give the Shiite militant group another foothold on the border.
The official said Israel wants guarantees the Lebanese government will control Ghajar's northern section after a withdrawal. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the government's recent discussions of a possible pullback have not been made public.
Ghajar sits on a border area where the boundaries between Syria, Israel and Lebanon are in dispute. The entire village of some 2,000 people was captured by Israel from Syria in 1967. In 2000, after Israel withdrew its forces from south Lebanon, UN surveyors put the border in the middle of the village, leaving Israel in control of the southern half.
Israel reoccupied the northern part in 2006 and has remained there after leaving other occupied areas, citing security concerns. Following the war, Israel pledged to withdraw from the northern part of Ghajar but gave no timeline for doing so.
The official said Israel will wait to make a decision on handing it back until after Lebanon's June 7 election, which Hizbullah is contesting. The Shiite group already has veto power over all Lebanese government decisions under an agreement reached last year after its forces flexed their muscle and overran Beirut.
The official said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, along with his defense minister and military chief, decided to put the matter on hold this week. An Israeli government spokesman would not confirm the decision.
The timing of talks about a withdrawal fueled speculation that Israel was trying to help Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's pro-Western parliamentary majority in an election where Hizbullah-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.