LABWEH, Lebanon: The boom of artillery is sporadic, the road to Arsal clear save for Lebanese Army reinforcements patrolling along a paved stretch surrounded by plum and fig orchards.
It is tranquil enough to contemplate a possible future, after the fighting raging nearby has subsided; when the Sunnis of Arsal, a hub of support for the Syrian opposition, now overtaken by militants, and their Shiite neighbors in Labweh will again live in peace.
“Every dead child or martyred woman is painful to us,” said Ramez Amhaz, the mayor of Labweh. “They are our people.”
Labweh has become a village-sized barracks for the Lebanese Army, as the Army battles militants based in Arsal.
Amhaz and other Labweh residents said they welcomed any fleeing Arsal residents, though there were few that stayed in this Bekaa Valley town on their way out.
Many fled either to nearby villages where they have relatives or friends, such as the Sunni/Christian village of Fakiha in the northeast of the Bekaa Valley, or to homes in other cities like Beirut and Sidon.
“We call on the families of Arsal that our homes are open to them,” Amhaz said.
He added however that militants were preventing civilians from leaving the town because they wished to use them as human shields.
Amhaz said the campaign against militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria and the Nusra Front, must be relentless.
“There is no retreat from ending this ISIS phenomenon that ruined Arsal and the entire region,” he said.
But residents here expressed frustration with some politicians, who in their eyes, had voiced reservations in their support for the Army. Though the people here see Hezbollah and the resistance as a complement to the military, many insist that only the Army can be a guarantee of civil peace and a force of unity among the Lebanese.
Amhaz said the town, which is majority Shiite and a stronghold of Hezbollah, was ready to take on ISIS and the Nusra Front, but he said they had hope that the Army would spare them such a conflict.
“We are always ready,” Amhaz said. “If the resistance calls on us in a moment to be ready, the area will be ready. It is part of the resistance.
“We are ready for ISIS and Nusra but God willing they will not reach us because the Army will protect us,” he added.
Underlying the sentiment is shock, and disbelief that the militants can be reasoned with – that the creators of a supposed Islamic caliphate can ever be potential neighbors.
Even Saddam Hussein, the great scourge of Iraq’s Shiites, was better than ISIS, one resident said.
“It’s true he was a butcher, but there was no ISIS or Nusra,” he said.
Men and teenagers circulated a video on cellphones Tuesday that they said showed a Lebanese soldier being beheaded by Islamist militants shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ as they killed him. The Army denied that the video depicted a Lebanese soldier and said it was not recent.
“They ruin Islam’s image,” Amhaz said. “Islam is not like this, it is civilization and dignity, not heads cut off and hearts torn out.”
Amhaz said Shiites in the Bekaa Valley should not use sectarian rhetoric, partly because moderate Sunnis, as he describes them, were crucial to the survival of the resistance.
“Sectarianism is banned from our dictionary in this region, and we will not use it even if we lose a thousand people,” he said.
In addition, Sunnis are crucial to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, he said.
But he stressed that avoiding such rhetoric was also important because of demographic realities.
Although differences exist between Sunnis and Shiites, the most common situation is harmonious coexistence, he said.
“We Shiites are a drop in the Sunni ocean in the Arab world,” Amhaz said. “Alone we do not represent anything.”
Amhaz said he hoped both Arsal and its surrounding villages could join hands in fending off ISIS and other militant groups.
“This phenomenon is a danger to the entire Arab world,” he said. “They do not have mercy on Sunni areas either. They are slaughtering the Sunni before the Shiite because if you do not follow their line then you are an apostate.”
Roughly 1,000 active duty Army soldiers – over 5,000 if retirees are included – hail from Arsal, and some of these are fighting the militants.
Residents of nearby villages often recall with nostalgia the days when they fought side by side alongside Arsal residents in the Civil War or against the Israeli occupation.
Amhaz said rumors of defections from the Army were “lies” aimed at worsening these sectarian divisions.
Shehadeh Hjouli, a Labweh resident whose home lies on the outskirts of the town on the road to Arsal, said residents here considered Arsali families their own.
Indeed, this is a common refrain when they are asked about their planned response once the latest crisis is over.
But residents also express frustration with those who back the militants among Arsal’s citizens.
Another common refrain is how Arsal offers a “favorable environment” to the growth of militant movements, due to its proximity to Syria and the porous mountain border that links it to the Qalamoun region, where there are frequent battles between rebels and the Syrian regime’s army backed by Hezbollah.
Hjouli blamed some Sunni sheikhs and politicians for stoking the fire of sectarianism, saying they were only concerned about maintaining their popularity.
He points to the many intermarriages between Sunni and Shiite families in Arsal and Labweh in years past.
But now, there is talk of how some Arsal residents fear associating too publicly with their Labweh neighbors, because they fear that if they do so, they risk being branded as collaborators.
Residents tend to place the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri as the key point when the relationship soured. The Syrian war widened the rift.
It will take time before it is healed, said Hjouli, after so many years of incitement.
“They want to let out steam by fighting,” said Hamzeh Shammas, a cafe owner in Labweh, who used to get many customers from Arsal.
Shammas, who ruefully recalled days when Arsal was a trading hub that employed many in the region in its construction industry, said the only solution was for Arsal’s residents to protect their borders, ensuring that gunmen did not enter with refugees from neighboring Syria who needed aid.
“They were taking in the displaced, but now they are displaced,” he said of Arsalis.