Israeli Pullout From Lebanese Village On Hold

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JERUSALEM (AP) - The political turmoil in Lebanon has delayed Israeli plans to pull out of the northern part of a village straddling the countries' border, an Israeli official said Monday.

Israeli Cabinet ministers agreed in November to withdraw troops from northern Ghajar and to relinquish control to U.N. peacekeeping forces in Lebanon. At the time Israel said the pullout would be worked out within a month.

On Monday, an Israeli official said Israel continues to discuss withdrawal plans with the U.N. forces. But because the previous government in Lebanon was toppled and a new government is not yet fully formed, U.N. forces are not able to relay information between the two sides, he said.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is diplomatically sensitive.

A spokesman for U.N. forces in Lebanon said Israel has not notified U.N. forces of any change in its plan to withdraw.

"Our consultations with the parties continue," said spokesman Andrea Tenenti. "We have not been notified by Israel of any changes. Our position is that Israel has decided to withdraw."

Ghajar, home to 2,200 people, 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, U.N. surveyors split Ghajar between Lebanon and the Israeli-controlled Golan, but Israel recaptured the northern half during its war with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas in 2006.

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

Villagers are members of Islam's Alawite sect, whose followers include many members of Syria's ruling elite. Virtually all residents have taken Israeli citizenship, further complicating the village's future.

Israeli officials have said no one will lose their citizenship after the withdrawal and residents in the northern half will still have access to Israel.

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Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut contributed to this report.
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