BAALBEK, Lebanon: Residents of the Bekaa Valley city of Baalbek expressed confidence Wednesday that the weekend’s sectarian clashes would not be repeated despite acute political divergences over Syria. Residents also refused analogies between their city and Tripoli, the northern city that has borne the brunt of the violent fallout from the Syrian crisis.
“In light of the intermarriages and the deeply rooted ties between Sunnis and Shiites, the comparison between Baalbek and Tripoli does not stand,” Omar Solh, the deputy head of the city’s municipality, told The Daily Star.
Since the start of the conflict in Syria two and a half years ago, Tripoli’s Sunnis and Alawites have engaged in several rounds of fighting that claimed the lives of scores from both camps.
Solh maintained that Baalbek ought to be viewed as microcosm of Lebanon, adding that any conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in the city would be “highly alarming.”
“Members of the same family and neighbors cannot kill each other,” said Solh, a member of Baalbek’s prominent Sunni family. “If, God forbid, the situation here [in Baalbek] were to spin out of control, it would be safe to say that strife would engulf all of Lebanon.”
Gunbattles erupted Saturday morning between Hezbollah members and a group of men from the Sunni Shiyyah family. A personal dispute in Baalbek’s Al-Qalaa marketplace, one of the city’s main shopping districts, quickly evolved into full-fledged clashes that killed four people – two Sunnis and two Shiites.
In the few days that followed the unusual outbreak of violence, Hezbollah gradually handed to the Army checkpoints it had erected in Baalbek.
In the aftermath of the deadly August bombing in the Beirut suburb of Ruwaiss, Hezbollah had boosted security in its strongholds across the country drawing the ire of the party’s detractors who had accused the group of undermining state authority by imposing “self-security” measures. By Monday evening, Hezbollah had turned over dozens of checkpoints across the country to the police and Army.
But the deployment of security forces in Baalbek was not entirely satisfactory to the city’s Sunni officials and residents. Although the two communities trade accusations over who sparked the clashes, Sunni officials in Baalbek who spoke to The Daily Star urged Hezbollah to submit to the judiciary the footage the group allegedly confiscated from security cameras in the mostly Sunni Al-Qalaa marketplace.
“Immediately after the clashes, Hezbollah confiscated the footage from all the security cameras in Al-Qalaa,” said Hussein Solh, the Future Movement’s coordinator in northern Bekaa. “We urge Hezbollah to give the tapes to the judiciary in order to determine responsibility.”
Omar Solh from the Baalbek municipality warned that if the judiciary fails to arrest perpetrators, families of the victims will be forced to take the law into their own hands.
Baalbek’s Sunnis and Shiites are organized into clans, known in Arabic as “ashair,” known for their fierce loyalty which can also drag them into blood feuds that are renown to last years.
Baalbek’s Shiite mukhtar Hussein Othman, who was working on brokering a reconciliation deal between Hezbollah and the Shiyyah family just hours before the dispute deteriorated, said that vendettas would drag the city into a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat killings. “Nobody wants the proliferation of tragic scenarios.”
According to Othman, Baalbek’s top officials from the Sunni and Shiite communities were exerting “concentrated” efforts and contacts to calm their supporters.
“This time folkloric moves like reconciliation will not do,” said Omar Solh. “The people of Baalbek want perpetrators to be surrendered to authorities.”
According to a security official in the Bekaa Valley, dozens of armed men moved to Baalbek to support both sides of the conflict.
Gunmen from Baalbek’s Hay al-Sharawneh – a zone of outlaws inside the city – and the nearby village of Brital, and a gathering of about 40 Sunni youth headed to bustling Al-Qalaa to take part in the clashes, explained the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The problem is that no matter how organized and wise dominant parties can be, during clashes rogue members abound and they often are incontrollable,” added the official.
Umm Ali al-Affi, a Shiite resident of the mostly-Sunni Al-Qalaa neighborhood, said that within minutes of the clashes, a masked sniper took up position on the rooftop of her building and began shooting indiscriminately in all directions.
“He was firing at the Sunnis and the Shiites,” said Umm Ali. “It’s like he wanted the conflict to grow worse.”