Israel says Italy key in brokering Lebanon village pullout

Benjamin Netanyahu
© AFP/POOL/File Ronen Zvulun - Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu
© AFP/POOL/File Ronen Zvulun - Benjamin Netanyahu

JERUSALEM (AFP) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that Italian mediation had been key to Israel’s acceptance of a plan to withdraw its forces from a disputed village on the Lebanese border.

Netanyahu singled out the role of Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who was in Israel on a four-day visit to the region aimed at pushing forward the stalled Middle East peace process.

“We would not have managed to reach a solution on the problem without the involvement of Italy and you personally overseeing the issue,” Netanyahu’s office quoted the premier as telling Frattini in a meeting.

Israel’s cabinet last week accepted a plan to withdraw Israeli soldiers from the northern part of the village of Ghajar and to hand over control to United Nations peacekeepers.

If the plan goes ahead, the troops, who have been in Ghajar since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, would redeploy south of the “blue line” unofficial frontier between Israel and Lebanon.

Following the pullback decision, responsibility for the sector will be handed to UNIFIL (the UN Interim Force in Lebanon), whose troops will redeploy around the village’s northern perimeter but not inside it.

Italy plays a leading role in UNIFIL, with the largest contingent of ground troops.

The UN ruled that north Ghajar lies in Lebanon and the rest lies in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, but Israel took over the Lebanese side too during its devastating 2006 war with Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

The village, with 2,200 residents, lies on the borders of Lebanon, Syria and the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognised by the international community.

Frattini, who arrived on Monday, met with Netanyahu and opposition leader Tzipi Livni. He was expected to meet Palestinian leaders, including president Mahmud Abbas, in the West Bank on Tuesday before travelling to the Gaza Strip.