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Sectarian tensions on rise in Bekaa Valley

The highway leading to the Bekaa Valley town of Bar Elias, close to the Syrian border. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

KAMED AL-LOZ, Lebanon: Sunni residents of the Bekaa Valley are growing increasingly frustrated by the influence of Hezbollah and the party’s continued involvement in Syria. Though tensions between the area’s largely pro-opposition Sunni towns and the party – which backs the regime – have been simmering since the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the war in Syria and more recently the siege of Arsal have exacerbated friction, residents and experts told The Daily Star.

“Anger is brewing,” said Sheikh Yehia al-Braidy of Talabayya, a mixed Sunni-Shiite town in the central Bekaa Valley. He points to a growing feeling among Sunnis, particularly in the predominantly Shiite Bekaa Valley, that their co-religionists in Lebanon and Syria are the victims of a double standard.

“People fighting in Syria with the regime are identified as resistant, but Sunnis [supporting the opposition] are identified as murderers and terrorists,” he told The Daily Star.

This often-echoed sense of injustice is not without cause, according to Hilal Khashan, a professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut.

“I think their [the Bekaa Sunnis’] concerns attest to an established reality on the ground,” he told The Daily Star. “The concerns and apprehensions are well-founded.”

Many in the Sunni community feel that the Syrian regime used its enormous influence to shape the Lebanese Army as it was being rebuilt after the Lebanese Civil War, ensuring that the top command posts were occupied by its allies, Khashan said. “Many Sunnis view the Lebanese Army as biased,” he added.

In Kamed al-Loz, a predominantly Sunni town in the west Bekaa region, locals complained that a handful of residents had recently been detained for shooting in the air after a wedding, while gunfire from Hezbollah supporters echoed with impunity in Beirut after Yabroud, a Syrian opposition stronghold, fell to regime forces earlier in March.

“The people [Sunnis] are no longer accepting this,” Sheikh Braidy said.

No Hezbollah supporters have been arrested for providing military or material support to the Syrian regime, according to Mario Abou Zeid of the Carnegie Middle East Center, while several Lebanese citizens have been detained for smuggling arms and other goods across the border to Syrian rebel strongholds.

“The resentment of Hezbollah has been increasing every day,” Abou Zeid told The Daily Star. “They [Hezbollah] have been controlling the whole [Bekaa Valley] region. They’re putting pressure on the Sunni communities and trying to track everyone.”

The tension between Hezbollah and opposition supporters, a fissure that falls largely along sectarian lines, has increased since the fall of Yabroud, resulting in the subsequent “siege” of the predominantly Sunni border town Arsal, which is hosting more than 50,000 refugees.

Unidentified residents from nearby Labweh, a predominantly Shiite town, blocked the only road leading to Arsal after a suicide bomber blew up his car in neighboring Nabi Othman, a mixed Christian-Shiite village. The blast killed four people, and came in the wake of a number of rocket attacks on Labweh claimed by radical Sunni groups in Syria.

The car bomb was seen by the local Shiite population as evidence to support their long-held belief that Arsal is hosting terrorists and is a key smuggling route for explosive-rigged cars that are being detonated in areas where Hezbollah enjoys support. Hezbollah and some Lebanese authorities have made similar accusations against the town, which openly supports the Syrian opposition.

The blockade lasted two to three days and prevented the transport of all food and other supplies to Arsal. In response, residents of several Sunni towns across the country burned tires in the streets, blocking major thoroughfares in protest.

Some believe the actions taken against Arsal portend future operations against Sunni towns sympathetic to the Syrian opposition.

“We’re taking Arsal as a warning for what might happen in the future,” said Ali, a Kamed al-Loz resident. “This is just the beginning.”

Khashan, however, felt that Arsal’s strategic position as a border town was unique, and doubted the prospect of future blockades by Hezbollah supporters.

“I can’t see it,” he said. “Arsal provided a linkage to the rebels in Qalamoun. ... I cannot think of another Sunni town in Lebanon that serves the same function.”

A Hezbollah checkpoint on the road to Arsal, erected in recent months, has also been a point of contention. Positioned just a few kilometers from an Army checkpoint in Labweh, a group of men in uniforms bearing the Hezbollah logo on their sleeves wave cars to the side of the road, guns in hand. They brusquely search vehicles, sometimes demanding that drivers and passengers leave their vehicles and explain their business in Arsal, residents say.

“Those they [Hezbollah] don’t like that they see from afar, they stop them and they search them, publicly. Of course, it is an act of provocation,” said one resident of a predominantly Sunni town in the central Bekaa Valley who asked not to be identified because he had been bringing subsistence supplies to Arsal.

Future MP Issem Araji, who represents the central Bekaa Valley town of Zahle, told The Daily Star that while Hezbollah had been repeatedly asked to dismantle the checkpoint, he “doubted” that the party would comply.

Underlining the March 14 bloc’s commitment to dialogue and national unity, he said the checkpoint threatened security in the region, predicting “a reaction from the Sunnis.”

For Araji and the rest of his political alliance, it is Hezbollah’s continued presence in the Syrian conflict that risks pushing Sunnis toward radicalism.

“This is why we [March 14] are calling on Hezbollah not to intervene in Syria, because we know that this intervention will increase the people who are supporting the extremists in the Sunni community,” he said.

Khaled al-Hajj, a resident of Kamed al-Loz, agreed. “People are exploding themselves because they have seen a lot of injustice and crimes against them and their families,” he said. “They retaliate by blowing themselves up in regions where Hezbollah enjoys wide support.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 31, 2014, on page 4.

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