Israel Ready to Withdraw from ‘Lebanese’ Part of Disputed Shabaa Area
Israel said Thursday it was prepared to withdraw from parts of disputed farmlands claimed by Lebanon but denied it would hand over the entire area to Beirut's control.
Israeli radio reported that Prime Minister Ehud Barak had told French President Jacques Chirac he was willing to cede the area in order not to give Syria or the Lebanese Hizbollah movement a pretext to continue hostilities against Israel following Wednesday's pullout.
"There is no basis to reports that Israel intends to give up parts of the Shabaa farms which do not belong to Lebanon according to the UN maps," the defense ministry said in a statement.
"... Barak did indeed tell Chirac that only a small part of the Shabaa farm which is in Lebanese territory according to the UN maps is going to be evacuated," he statement added.
Beirut demands the Shabaa area, on the cusp between the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights and south Lebanon, as part of its territory, but Israel has previously said the whole area was seized from Syria during the 1967 Middle East War.
The army on Wednesday blew up a military position known as Astra near the Shabaa area after it came under artillery fire from Hizbollah on Sunday and Monday for the first time since 1967.
"Astra was bombed yesterday and the army intends to withdraw from one or two more small posts," the defense ministry statement said.
"If we will be asked (by the United Nations) to make some small border changes (in the Shabaa area) we will do so," army chief of staff General Shaul Mofaz said.
"There is a political dialogue going on with the United Nations and the issue expected to be resolved in the coming two days," he told Israeli radio.
Israel expects a UN team to arrive this week to fly over the disputed border area to ensure that Israel's withdrawal was in accordance with UN resolutions.
UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen is currently in Beirut on a mission, which includes determining if the Israeli military pullout of southern Lebanon is complete.
The Shabaa farms, named after a local hamlet, are located at an altitude of between 400 and 2,000 meters (1,300 and 6,500 feet) in a closed military zone known as Har Dov to the Israelis.
The Haaretz daily's military correspondent Amos Harel said Thursday the clearance of the Astra post, one of three on the Har Dov area on the western foothills of Mount Hermon, was to "avoid the possibility of it falling into the enemy's hands.
"The military establishment estimates that the outpost would remain a source of friction and fighting between (Israel) and Hizbollah, and that the guerrilla force might use Israel's presence in the area as an excuse to attack other sites behind the border."
"The pullout does not constitute a total withdrawal from the Hermon foothills and a senior government source said the withdrawal (of Astra) was coordinated with the United Nations," Haaretz said.
As well as the Astra post, Hizbollah on Monday shelled an Israeli early-warning station in the disputed region, as Israel faced the collapse of its allied South Lebanon Army militia which forced its hurried withdrawal from southern Lebanon on Tuesday and Wednesday -- OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP)
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