AL-QAA/BEIRUT: Samir Awad laid out the documents one by one; some ordained ownership of three morsels of land in Wadi al-Khanazir, another representing nine in Bayoun and another three in Nahmet al-Fouah.
Altogether the mukhtar has 40 units in the vast agricultural tract of Masharih al-Qaa, but only five are accessible to him. The rest, Awad says, were appropriated illegally right under his nose.
He lost his lands gradually beginning in his boyhood years before the Civil War. Now Awad is a middle-aged man and can’t quite recall which plots in Masharih al-Qaa are his, but is nonetheless adamant that he is their rightful owner.
Part of the problem is that the 180 million square meters of land – divided into 1,440 real estate units – in the majority Christian border town of Al-Qaa is communally owned. Awad is a shareholder among many. Some have taken advantage of legal loopholes and sold their plots of land, disfranchising others in the process.
The mukhtar says his lands in Masharih al-Qaa were arrogated by illegally constructed residential buildings or sold without his consent. The area is inhabited by residents from the neighboring Sunni majority town of Arsal and the mostly Shiite Hermel, a demographic feature that has also given rise to decades-old Christian anxieties that, in many ways, is epitomized by the land issue.
“The land was never distributed,” Awad says.
“Everyone knows what he owns on paper, but in reality it’s messy.”
In reality, the land issue in Al-Qaa is one of corruption and poor governmental regulation, but the fact that it happens to affect a majority Christian town has transmuted it into a political one, in which an increasingly marginalized sect interprets land loss as an existential threat.
The issue is not singular to the border town, as Christian municipalities in Zghorta, Jezzine and Jbeil have also rallied against what they perceive to be the seizure of their lands by their Muslim neighbors.
Bashir Matar, a municipal council member in Al-Qaa and land activist, describes the Muslim presence in the agricultural areas of the town as an “occupation” and “rape,” an indication that the Syrian occupation of the town, which began in 1978 when its army massacred more than 30 young men and ended in April 2005, still colors how locals perceive their Muslim neighbors in Masharih al-Qaa.
On Sept. 25, according to Matar, the Interior Ministry bequeathed municipalities with the right to manage construction permits in their own communities, presumably to focus on anti-terrorism measures in and around the area. At that point, Internal Security Forces personnel were tasked with managing such permits. The decision was revoked about a month and half later, but Matar says “the damage had been done.”
Matar says about 150 new residential complexes were built in Masharih al-Qaa during the brief window of time as the ministry decision greatly facilitated the construction process. In total, he estimates there are 1,200 illegal constructions in the area.
“It’s not that I think it’s wrong that some people are selling, it’s that they are selling land that belongs to others as well,” he says, explaining why he believes the constructions, which stand on lands that were sold willingly by their owners, are illegal. “They don’t have this right.”
“People are silent about this issue because they are getting paid,” he alleges, pointing a finger at March 8 supporters who sit on the municipal council, among them Mayor Milad Rizk, whom Matar accuses of profiting “indirectly.”
“Since he [Rizk] took charge things have gone downhill, largely because people are unaware of their [land] rights, and he [Rizk] isn’t doing anything about it,” Matar says. The municipal council is divided with seven members against and seven for Rizk’s resignation.
“Rizk always uses the excuse that he doesn’t want to start a sectarian problem for not taking charge and fighting illegal construction,” he adds.
But other residents in Al-Qaa question lobbyists like Matar and his assertion that the constructions in Masharih al-Qaa are in fact illegal.
A well-informed source who has family in the town told The Daily Star that most Christians who sold their lands did so years ago, but have only recently charged that the transaction was illegal.
“The prices [of those lands] have changed, so now they want those lands back,” said the source, who requested anonymity.
“The Army has erected checkpoints in Masharih al-Qaa to stop these people from constructing on lands that don’t belong to them,” the source said.
An Army Intelligence officer stationed close to the checkpoint told The Daily Star that “the municipality is selling land, but the people have also sold their own land.”
From the outset, Masharih al-Qaa appears surprisingly vacant for an area where there are supposedly thousands of new constructions. The skeletal frames of a handful of new houses dot the main road, just before the last checkpoint toward the Syrian border, nowhere near the number that Matar claims have been erected in the past few years.
While the sincerity of the legal concerns surrounding the land issue in Al-Qaa is moot, the selling of Christian lands in general is a source of disquiet.
According to Talal al-Doueihy, head of the “Lebanese Land – Our Land Movement,” Christians once owned 8,130 kilometers of land in Lebanon after independence. “Today, Christians own approximately 4,000 kilometers of land, including surveyed land,” Doueihy said. “They lost 50 percent of their lands.”
Due to successive wars, many Christians emigrated, compelling them to sell their lands, he said.
Another problem Christian land owners suffer from is the revocation of their right to pre-emption, a contractual right under which a party has a primary opportunity to buy an asset or piece of land before it is offered to a third party, in this case a non-Christian.
Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, however, terminated the right after he took office in 1997, Doueihy claimed.
“They [Hariri’s administration] wanted to let Arabs from the Gulf invest in the country,” he said.
“Almost 100 percent of land buying is done by Muslims from Christians,” Doueihy added. “This has created a sort of panic for Christians.”
From the regulation side, there are four draft laws that have been submitted to Parliament’s committees for review that relate to the issue of land.
The first was submitted by Butrous Harb, which calls for ceasing the selling Christian-owned property altogether. It’s less controversial equivalent was proposed by MP Joseph Maalouf, which calls for ceasing the sale of lands over 3,000 meters and outlawing intermediaries from purchasing land.
MPs Sami Gemayel and Ibrahim Kanaan have also submitted laws regulating the rights of foreigners to purchase lands.
“The law I submitted is directed against the selling of lands and is not oriented toward a specific religion; rather it is meant to create some hurdles to impede the crooked practices that exist today,” Maalouf says.
According to the MP, legal loopholes, such as the ability of a third party to purchase land meant for someone else “who might have malicious intentions,” and a lack of registration and other hidden fees facilitate dubious land transactions. In addition, Maalouf believes the selling of land should require a majority municipal vote.
In cases like Al-Qaa, where municipal division have actually exacerbated land issues, the MP recommends involving the local governorate to temper disagreements.
Maalouf says illegal construction is a ubiquitous problem but that “Christians are losing the most.”
For author Pierre Atallah the Christian land issue symbolizes the extent of the sect’s anxieties in the country, a condition that has been mounting since the signing of the Taif Accord that ended the Civil War.
“The Taif ended the war, yes,” he says. “But at the end of the day Christians lost the role the once played as a real partner in Lebanese affairs, the role of the president for instance has diminished. And in one way or another has influenced the feelings of the Christian community and pushed about 20 percent of them to sell their lands.”
“These Christians gave up on the idea of Lebanon,” he said.
Reflecting on the pluralistic principles upon which the country was founded, Atallah says: “It’s not just land, it’s the idea of Lebanon that is at stake.”