ARSAL/BEIRUT: Hajjeh Nawal is reminded of the biggest threat to her family’s safety every time she steps into her bathroom.
A crack in the shower tiles runs through the side of the concrete wall, the result of heat damage wrought by a rogue RPG local gunmen fired into her neighbor’s living room.
“Jana and Douna, my daughters, thought the whole building was going to burn down. Everything was black with dust,” Nawal said. “I’m more afraid of these neighborhood clashes than the bombings. The explosions are isolated, but these people have knives, guns, they have brass knuckles.”
Nawal and her family live in the Jamous neighborhood of Beirut’s southern suburbs, an area that has suffered from half a dozen terrorist bombings linked to Syrian fighting next door.
Over a hundred kilometers away, the small town of Arsal in the Bekaa Valley suffers from a similar quandary. Rocket attacks from Syria and a flood of Syrian refugees have attracted state security and international media attention to the once-obscure border area. But uncontrolled arms remain a serious and largely unaddressed issue even under the eyes of Army detachments now stationed there.
However, in Beirut’s southern suburbs, security checkpoints have blocked every major entrance into the area for more than a year as a way to thwart outsiders from attacking the largely residential area. But the most imminent threat to daily safety comes not from outside, but from within the neighborhood itself, as bickering among family clans regularly devolves into armed shootouts.
Nawal’s downstairs neighbor had nothing to do with a street fight that flared in April between the feuding Nasreddine and Dirani clans. A fighter accidentally hit the apartment building and engulfed the first-floor apartment in flames. New cream-colored tiling and a fresh coat of white paint belie the state of devastation inflicted less than two months ago.
For every truce brokered by security forces or local religious figures, another violent altercation follows. Earlier this week, a man unrelated to a dispute was shot dead during what was meant to be reconciliation between the Nasreddines and Diranis.
Illicit arms and general lawlessness are not limited to Beirut’s southern suburbs. Some 120 kilometers north of Beirut, gun violence endures despite the increased presence of security forces.
Arsal, a town of 35,000 in the Northeast Bekaa Valley, made headlines over the last year as more than 50,000 refugees spilled across the Syrian border in. While the army has deployed heavily throughout the town and its environs, sweeping refugee camps for illicit weapons and terror suspects, gun violence and interclan disputes continue to claim Lebanese lives.
“Everyone has guns,” said Diana Krimbi, an Arsal native. Her brother, Mohammad, was recently killed when relative fired a shot at random and struck his femoral artery.
“There is no police presence,” she lamented. “It’s not even safe to walk in the streets.”
Krimbi is one of several Arsalis who have suffered violent deaths or injuries in recent months. Sleiman Abdullah Hujeiri was found slain in his car in April, a bullet wound in his head. A man from the Berro family gravely wounded a man named Ali Hassan Fliti two weeks ago.
While Syrian refugees and fighters have been involved in a number of security incidents in Arsal over the past year, there is little indication that Syrians were involved in any of the above-mentioned crimes.
In the southern suburb area of Laylaki, another simmering feud between the Zeaiter and Hajoula families has erupted into recurring street fights. Sitting at a cafe considered the operations base for the Zeaiters, one member of the gang-like clan explained that most inter-family clashes were the result of petty tiffs or to defend women’s honor.
The ongoing rivalry between the Hajoulas and the Zeaiters started with an isolated incident that spiraled into tit-for-tat altercations involving dozens of extended family members. Two people have died in the Zeaiter-Hajoula feud and dozens of others have been wounded, said M. Zeaiter, who asked to keep his full name anonymous.
Clan members and residents alike say the Army does very little to address the violence, preferring to cordon off the site of clashes rather than enter the brawl.
“They come in when the fighting settles down because we’re using heavy machine guns. They also don’t want to look like they’re taking sides,” Zeaiter said. “Sometimes they make night raids on our apartments. But if they’re going to come, then we’ll get a call from someone warning us so we can move the weapons.”
But these intracommunal clashes exacerbate the presence of illicit arms in the southern suburbs. Zeaiter said one of the family ringleaders bought more than $100,000 worth of heavy weapons and ammunition from arms dealers in the Bekaa Valley to defend themselves against the Hajoulas.
“He bought all the weapons he could find,” Zeaiter said.
As for the innocent neighbors affected by gun fights, Zeaiter said they tried as best as they could to warn the neighborhood of an impending fight by firing shots in the air over several hours.
In Arsal, acts of violence, often involving members of prominent local families like those in Laylaki, continue to plague the town despite the presence of the Army.
According to Mohammad Hujeiri, an Arsal resident, clans rather than Lebanese authorities rule the town.
“There are around 20 families in Arsal, and each family thinks that they are the boss,” he said. The Hujeiri family, which itself has many branches and interfamily divisions, maintains authority in the town.
“The Abu Zeidein Hujeiris have problems with the Flitis, the Breidis have problems with the Abu Qassem Hujeiris, and the Issa Hujeiris have problems with everyone.”
“Everyone takes vengeance into their own hands,” he said, adding that he doubted the Lebanese Army could resolve these long-standing feuds.
Mayor Ali Mohammad Hujeiri dismissed any concerns over such clan violence.
“Sometimes, problems do happen, and two people get into a kind of fight, but they try to fix it as soon as possible,” he said, shifting his heavy frame behind his mayoral desk.
The mayor, like others in Arsal, was more concerned by the destabilizing presence of Syrian refugees and Islamist elements in hiding along the border than the town’s perennial security issues. He expressed faith in the Lebanese Army’s ability to maintain order in Arsal.
Mohammad Hujeiri, however, believes that the safety of Arsali people is of little interest to officials in Beirut. “No one cares about Arsal. They only care about terrorists.”
Speaking to The Daily Star earlier this week, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, like Arsal’s mayor, brushed off the importance of clan violence.
“These are traditional fights, we will always have these fights, and they always find a solution at the same time,” he said, adding that he didn’t consider it a major security concern.
“There’s nothing major for me unless it will make a big problem for a city like Beirut or Tripoli, but when its small areas involving two families, there’s always a way to solve the problem.”