KHIAM, Lebanon: A flimsy wire fence on the opposite bank is all that separates the neo-bohemian river resort, with its tropical thatched roofs and gleaming azure pool, from the Israeli troops on the other side. On the ridge overhead, a group of Serbian U.N. peacekeepers keep watch for any sign of provocation. “Those flowers over there are in the occupied Golan, and behind that hill is Palestine,” says the impeccably mannered manager, Mahdi al-Mahdi, pointing across the flowing water. Ducks, oblivious to the line of fire, preen and nibble at weeds as tiny fish and crabs swarm the clear water.
The most strategic point of one of the tensest borders in a turbulent region might seem an unlikely place to relax and unwind, but that is exactly what Zahra Abdallah and her brother, Khalid, had in mind when they decided to fulfill their late father’s dream of opening the Hosn al-Wazzani tourist village on the Wazzani springs.
Some four years after Hosn al-Wazzani opened, a modest tourism industry is beginning to blossom along the banks of the contested river, with different members of the locally influential Abdallah family opening five tourist establishments in the area.
“This is our ancestors’ land. We were raised here,” says Zahra, wearing a bright floral top, seemingly keeping in theme. “Every speck of dirt is ours, and we will not give up a single stone.”
The beachy vibe combined with the spirit of resistance makes for a unique atmosphere, and, despite sporadic faceoffs with the Israelis and a general decline in tourism nationally since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, business is going well, she says. When The Daily Star visited on a weekday, a single Lebanese family was enjoying a large lunch by the water, but Abdallah assured a reporter that no one less than Speaker Nabih Berri’s wife, Randa Berri, had lunched there the previous weekend, and there wasn’t an empty table in the place.
A half-finished building nearby – another hotel due to open in several months – seems to stand as evidence of the establishment’s success. “We were forbidden from this land for a long time because of the Israeli occupation,” Zahra says. “After the July War, [Hezbollah] established a balance [of power] and we really wanted to build here.”
“People say ‘oh you are so daring, you are not afraid,’ but we’re not; this is our land,” Zahra continues. “We love peace and this is our peaceful challenge.”
She insists their clientele are not only interested in the resort’s strategic location, but it is, of course, a draw.
“People like to come and breathe the air of the occupied land,” she says. The Wazzani River resorts could be considered part of the growing cottage industry of resistance tourism, which includes Hezbollah’s resistance museum in Mlita, the Iranian Garden in Maroun al-Ras, the Fatima Gate, and Khiam Prison Museum, which was bombed by the Israelis in 2006 but remains open.
But if the resort’s location is one of its main appeals, it also poses unique challenges. Recently, the U.N. had to step in to broker an arrangement between the Lebanese and Israeli armies to allow the Abdallahs to clear debris from the river that gets washed down from the annual floods. Israeli soldiers regularly cross the Blue Line to take pictures of the resort, said Zahra, unnerving staff there. Several years ago, when the place was still under construction, Zahra says a team of Israeli soldiers raided the site, destroying some building materials and disabling a bulldozer.
The resort’s placement on the border also means that non-Lebanese must receive security clearance from the Army Intelligence in order to visit, a prohibitive hassle for some.
Not far down the road lies Nabaa al-Wazzani Rest House, owned by Hussein Abdallah, Zahra and Khalil’s uncle.
Hussein is welcoming, if somewhat less optimistic than Zahra. His establishment, now in its second year, is empty, and he blames the general lack of stability. “Things would be different if the situation in Syria were better ... if we had a president – it all affects us.” Still, he says, tourism along the Wazzani “is growing.”
Nabaa al-Wazzani is not Hussein’s first attempt to make the river a tourist destination. He opened his first rest house in 1983, just a year after the Israeli invasion of 1982, but it did not survive.
Despite the risks, he insists that “when the situation is good, everyone comes,” and called on the state to do more to support businesses along the river, in the same way Israel encourages settlement along its borders.
“Lebanon is not benefiting from this water,” most of which flows into Israel, he says. “We’re preserving our land.”