ARSAL, Lebanon: In the lightning rod Bekaa Valley town of Arsal, provocative statements from politicians and media outlets are increasingly fostering an atmosphere of fear and anxiety.
Just two weeks ago, caretaker Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn said several of its residents were involved in recent attacks that targeted convoys of Hezbollah fighters and Shiite residents of the northern Bekaa Valley and Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Ghosn’s accusations have added to the existing concerns of Arsal residents.
Residents of the largely Sunni town are already facing rising tensions with their Shiite neighbors in the northern Bekaa Valley, while security measures imposed by the Lebanese Army and police in response to numerous acts of kidnapping and murder are paralyzing its economy.
The town also hosts around 35,000 Syrian refugees, who now outnumber the original population.
This presence translates into a strain on the availability of homes, food and medical services, while local officials are kept busy dealing with quarrels and other problems that periodically erupt. Recent unrest has even prompted the municipality to ban refugees from traveling around by motorcycle after 7 p.m.
Further, Arsal residents say media outlets are engaging in a defamation campaign against the town because of its support for the Syrian uprising and the refugees.
They dismiss claims that large numbers of fundamentalist fighters have gathered in the mountainous outskirts of Arsal, turning the area into a military base for rebel activity inside Syria.
Residents say the figures are exaggerated, and argue only around a dozen such individuals are involved. These people, they say, are well-known to the security forces because most of them were co-opted by Syrian intelligence before the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon in 2005.
These individuals, according to Arsal residents, used to work in smuggling and live with their families in the border areas of Masharih al-Qaa, and the Syrian border village of Flita, where a number of people from Arsal have lived for many years.
One of Arsal’s mukhtars, Mohammad Ali Hujeiri, described Ghosn’s remarks as “inaccurate.”
“The defense minister is a March 8 politician and is not neutral, and therefore his remarks are made in the framework of involving Arsal residents in a confrontation with the Lebanese Army,” Hujeiri said.
“Such a confrontation, however, will never happen, because there is not a single house in the village which doesn’t have one of his sons enrolled in the Army.”
He called on the Army command to fully assume its responsibilities in border areas, after having set up eight checkpoints around the town and on all the roads that the villagers take to reach mountainous areas.
“Arsal’s only crime is that it has welcomed all of these Syrian refugees,” he said, denying its residents were involved in the conflict next door.
“The proof is that none of the residents have died in Syria or during the two-month war in [the Syrian town of] Qusair, which can easily be accessed from Arsal,” Hujeiri said.
According to Mukhtar Hussein Fliti, incidents of kidnapping and other crimes were committed during the past few months by professional criminals and smugglers, whose likes can be found across the country.
“What the smuggling and kidnapping gangs are doing on the borders between the two countries serves only the interests of the Syrian regime and fulfills its goal of igniting civil strife in the region to punish the residents for their support for the Syrian uprising,” Fliti said.
He said the criminal element was part of a larger operation run by a Syrian national, Raed al-Jouri, “who pretends to oppose the Syrian regime while he plans and carries out acts that harm the Syrian opposition – and he keeps moving from one place to another whenever his true affiliation is discovered.”
Jouri claims to lead the rebel “Bab Amr Martyrs Battalion” but is criticized for his past as a smuggler, his connections to hard-line Islamist rebel factions, and his oppressive behavior during the uprising, such as in the town of Qusair.
Arsal figures say Jouri has no influence or support in Arsal, other than the dozen or so residents who are working with his faction.
A former mayor of Arsal, Basel Hujeiri, said residents were enraged by both the series of murders and kidnappings, as well as “unjust accusations made against the whole community.”
He said that the gangs were helping Hezbollah “tighten its grip” over Arsal, but without the party getting directly involved.
The gangs engage in acts that “provoke reactions from neighboring Shiite clans, which is causing more sectarian tension.”
“The major problem is that the Lebanese Army has been working since 2005 to strengthen the March 8 parties and weaken the March 14 parties, and this is proved by the security measures it has been implementing lately with the cooperation of Hezbollah’s security personnel,” the former Arsal mayor said.
A source close to Hezbollah suggested the situation would become worse amid the rising sectarian tension between Arsal and the surrounding villages. The source warned “any future kidnappings and crimes [targeting] any of the members of the clans and residents of these villages would generate harsh reactions, which Hezbollah would not be able to control.”
He noted that several Shiite clans possess heavy arms and rockets.
The Hezbollah source accused Arsal’s residents of “embracing the members of the kidnapping and the killing gangs which target Hezbollah and Shiite residents of the surrounding villages.” The source also accused the Future Movement of providing political cover for “takfiri groups” that attack Hezbollah and the Shiite residents of the region.
The source said the Syrian regime would probably soon begin a campaign to control Syrian border villages, starting with those facing Arsal: Nabi Sheet, Brital, Ham and Yaaraboun.
“This battle will target all the Syrian villages that provide a safe haven for the armed groups,” he said.
Future Movement coordinator Bakr Hujeiri concurred with the view that a new campaign was on the way and expressed fear for the fate of Arsal.
“With the intensified battles [now taking place in Syria], the regime will need to secure the Damascus-Homs highway, and Hezbollah will need to form a safe zone along the Syrian-Lebanese border in the regions under its control.
“This will be in order to prevent any aid or assistance reaching the Syrian opposition, and any facilitating of the movement of the anti-Syrian regime fighters,” Hujeiri added.
“Any escalation of the sectarian tensions in Arsal might lead to all-out sectarian clashes in Lebanon,” he said.
Hujeiri said that initiatives undertaken by the Future Movement and the town’s leading figures, aimed at calming the situation and repairing Arsal’s relations with its neighbors, have little chance of success at present, due to the climate of political division gripping the country as a whole.