BSHARRI, Lebanon: A group of men violently stopped security forces Tuesday in the northern village of Bsharri from demolishing a concrete runway constructed for the wedding of a former lawmaker’s son near the ancient cedar forests.
The protesters, supporters of former MP Gebran Tawk, a figure close to the March 8 alliance, blocked the road in front of Internal Security Forces by using large rocks and piles of sand and hurling stones at the police, which included members of an elite unit.
In response, the ISF fired tear gas to disperse the protesters, prompting the latter to burn several tires in front of the Sayydet al-Nour Church and a restaurant in the town.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel quickly contacted Tawk in order to calm the situation and reopen the road for the security agencies. The ISF had obtained a judicial order to begin work on demolishing the runway, according to a security source.
The concrete runway was constructed earlier this year as a venue for the wedding of Tawk’s son, Walim, and is located beside the old forest which is a UNESCO world heritage site.
The forest located near Bsharri is known as the Cedars of God and is one of the rare sites where the Cedrus libani still grows.
According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, the forest is one of the last traces of the original forests of cedars, “one of the most valued construction materials in the antique world.” These ancient trees are “cited 103 times in the Bible,” UNESCO says.
UNESCO has already recommended that illegal construction on the eastern side of the forest be removed given that the buildings are in an area subject to reforestation.
The Environment Ministry had tasked a committee headed by Bsharri’s mayor to study the damage to the forest as a result of the construction work to build the runway. The committee recommended the runway be demolished as soon as possible.
Bsharri MP Strida Geagea, Tawk’s niece, said that just like “the majority of people in Bsharri,” she supported the ISF mission.
“We want our area to be a model for state authority and law,” Geagea said. “We take into consideration the importance of preserving environment and its historical landmarks.”
Geagea called on Tawk to allow ISF personnel to carry out their mission in removing the runaway.
But the head of Tawk’s office, Hanna Basbous, warned that the supporters would remain on the ground until the security forces reconsidered their decision to remove the runway.
“The security forces failed in their attempt to reopen the road and we informed them that that we will not withdraw until they take back their decision,” he told The Daily Star.
In an apparent U-turn later Tuesday, Tawk called on Bsharri residents to withdraw from the streets and let the issue be resolved in a legal manner.
“We are all under the law and we highlight the necessity of removing all violations in Bsharri before destroying the runway,” Tawk said.
“This runway was built for a social occasion and on private property, it does not harm the environment.”
Tawk said that all residents of Bsharri wanted to keep the runway, describing the attempt to remove it as a “militia practice.”
“We do not want problems, but I hold Bsharri MPs responsible for what happened today,” he said.