Israel Considering Handing Shabaa Farms to Lebanon
Israel is considering withdrawing from the disputed Shabaa Farms, Reuters said quoting Israel Radio on Thursday, hours after sappers dynamited an outpost opposite the strip of land.
The radio reported that Prime Minister Ehud Barak informed foreign leaders he was considering handing over the farms, occupied by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War but regarded by Lebanon as part of its sovereign territory.
Israeli troops ended a turbulent 22-year occupation of a 15 km (nine mile) wide strip of south Lebanon early on Wednesday after an overnight dash homewards under fire from Hizbollah guerrillas who had fought to oust them from Lebanon.
The United Nations ruled that Israel does not have to leave the farms, but Barak told French leaders “he plans to act in the near future to remove from Syrian President Hafez al-Assad any excuse to encourage Hizbollah terrorism from Lebanon against Israel,” the radio reported.
Barak warned Wednesday that any attack on its soldiers or civilians would be deemed an "act of war," saying he held Syria and Lebanon responsible for maintaining calm in south Lebanon, according to AFP.
"If someone is attacking Israel over its borders and shooting it is an act of war," Barak told a press conference broadcast nationwide more than 12 hours after Israel ended its traumatic 22-year occupation of Lebanon.
"No sovereign government will allow salvos of Katyushas landing in its civilian cities and Israel is no exception," he said. "We hold the Lebanese government and the Syrian government responsible for any violations of these quite obvious rules of... sovereignty."
Hizbollah fighters, many of them armed, moved to within meters (yards) of the Israeli border on Wednesday following the Jewish state's hasty pullout, leaving it without the protection of its buffer zone.
"Our only objective is to ensure safety along the border," Barak said. "We will change our rules of engagement, we will not open fire on objectives or targets on the other side of the border unless we are compelled to do so (in) self defense."
The situation in Lebanon has led Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy to abandon plans to attend a conference of his European and Mediterranean counterparts later this week, his spokeswoman Odelia Carmon Lazar said Wednesday.
Levy decided not to attend the informal meeting in Lisbon on Thursday and Friday "given the need to remain on the spot after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon," she said.
Israel will be represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Nawaf Massalha, she added.
The meeting will bring together the 15 EU countries and 12 from the Mediterranean rim.
A conference of Euro-Mediterranean parliamentary speakers in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria rejected Wednesday an Israeli motion to condemn Syria's presence in Lebanon and delegates also refused to present their "thanks" to Israel for its withdrawal.
A former army chief of staff who is also Israel's most decorated soldier, Barak ordered a swift pullout after its allied militia in south Lebanon crumbled in the face of the advancing Hizbollah.
He had originally pledged to withdraw by July, the first anniversary of his term in office, even after failing to make peace with Syria.
"As of now I am not optimistic," he said, but added: "The door is not fully closed, there is a narrow opening. There is a golden opportunity on the table (but) the need is for political will."
In the same context of the Syria-Israeli conflict, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recommended on Wednesday extending the UN observer force on the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights for six months to November 30.
The force of 1,053 troops is based in a strip of land running up to the border of southern Lebanon, which Israeli forces hurriedly vacated this week.
In a report to the UN Security Council, Annan said that "despite the present quiet in the Israeli-Syrian sector, the situation in the Middle East continues to be potentially dangerous."
He said he considered the continued presence of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) "to be essential" and asked the council to extend its mandate for six months after it expires on May 31.
One of the longest-standing UN peacekeeping operations, UNDOF was set up in May 1974 on the Golan Heights which Israel occupied during the 1967 six-day war and annexed in 1981 -- (Sevesral Sources)
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