SHEBAA, Lebanon: Officials in the southern town of Shebaa decided over the weekend to heighten security measures, as fears rise of fighting such as has been seen in Arsal spreading to other parts of the country.
“[The situation is alarming] and we are announcing this security plan to prevent Shebaa from danger,” Mayor Mohammad Saab said during a meeting.
“In Shebaa, as in Arsal, we have become threatened and call on the Lebanese Army and security forces to take measures regarding this urgent matter.”
The location of Shebaa, which sits on Lebanon’s southeastern border with Syria and the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, has prompted concern that Syrian opposition fighters coming from rural Damascus could enter the town and clash with the Army, similar to recent events on the northeastern border in the Bekaa Valley.
Earlier this month, vicious clashes erupted between the Lebanese Army and fighters belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, some of whom were living in Arsal’s Syrian refugee camps, while others crossed from Syria. The clashes began following the Army’s arrest of Syrian militant commander Imad Ahmad Jomaa.
The fighting, which continued for five days, resulted in a total death toll of 19 Lebanese soldiers after another body was discovered Saturday evening. Militants have also captured 20 members of the Internal Security Forces and 19 soldiers.
After a security meeting over the weekend, the municipality of Shebaa, which is home to thousands of Syrians fleeing the ongoing civil war in their country, announced a plan to counter threats posed by armed groups and decided to look into the situation of Syrian refugees and organize their presence with the help of the Lebanese Army and local security forces. It was followed by a visit to the Army’s center in the Al-Bayader area to express solidarity with the military.
Although battles between troops from the rebel Free Syrian Army and the Syrian government have been limited to the Syrian side of the border, the plan aims to pre-empt security concerns in the town and other neighboring areas.
According to an informed source, many Syrian men entering the village have sustained wounds from the fighting that has been taking place across the border, prompting security forces to check they don’t belong to terrorist groups. Regardless, for over a year security forces have allowed large numbers of Syrians coming from mountainous areas to enter the village for humanitarian reasons.
“This meeting mainly focused on setting limits for illegal acts committed by Syrian refugees,” said MP Qassem Hashem, from Speaker Nabih Berri’s bloc.
Hashem emphasized the need for the Army and security forces to ensure that refugees only entered Lebanon through legal crossings.
The source said the Lebanese Army had raided a number of refugees’ houses, but that no one had been arrested and nothing illegal found.
“We are against any security transgressions and will not protect anyone doing unlawful things, whether they’re Lebanese, residents from the town or a Syrian refugee,” said Marjayoun-Hasbaya Mufti Sheikh Hasan Dali.
“We call on our fellow Syrian refugees [to behave] because we don’t want any of us to flee the town,” he added, pointing to Arsal’s deadly fighting.
With around 6,000 refugees in the town, Shebaa’s Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya official Mohammad Jarrar explained that precautionary measures had also been taken to prevent more from coming in. Although many Syrians have been legally entering the southern border district of Hasbaya, a number have also come in illegally via rugged mountainous routes, mainly from Beit Jin in Syria.
According to the plan, Jarrar said, around 30 tons of wheat will be sent to Syria’s Beit Jin and Heeneh in addition to other food supplies.
“Through this plan we will save ourselves and the Lebanese government from another huge influx of Syrian refugees,” Jarrar said.