WAZZANI, Lebanon: The owners of resorts and leisure parks by the Hasbani River say they will press ahead with plans to clean up the area despite Israeli warnings that it will not permit such activity.
MP Qassem Hashem from Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc said the cleanup would continue “whether the enemy likes it or not,” be it through the Army, resort owners or residents.
The Blue Line, which the U.N. drew to indicate Israel’s line of withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, passes through the middle of the Hasbani River in the area.
Israel has been prohibiting the owners of parks, restaurants and resorts that are scattered along the river’s western bank from making use of the eastern side.
Owners of the tourist sites want to clear rocks washed down the river by the winter rains that are now blocking part of the channel. But the work would require access to both sides of the river, and the Israelis have rejected Lebanon’s requests to complete the cleanup.
Army officials from both Lebanon and Israel have met under the auspices of UNIFIL to discuss the issue, as well as a separate dispute over the Nabi Sheaib well in Blida.
Lebanese resort owners reject any Israeli claims to the river, however, and say they are intent on continuing to clean the area.
In their opinion, Israel’s real motive for rejecting the cleanup requests is to target Lebanese tourism.
Sulaimah Khalife, one of the owners of the famed Qaryat Hosn al-Wazzani leisure park, said proprietors received word from Israel through the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon that cleanup efforts were prohibited, even though they had sent in a request beforehand.
Qaryat Hosn al-Wazzani, located 1 kilometer upstream from the point where the river flows into Israel, attracts scores of both foreign and local tourists.
The park initially drew attention of the government of Israel in March 2010, when the Jewish state deployed 30 fully equipped Israeli soldiers opposite the area where it was being constructed.
“The river is Lebanese and the land is Lebanese, and we are working on cleaning the river after the end of the winter season ... and this annoys the enemy [Israel], especially as the tourist season is starting,” investor Ghassan Mohammad said.
Mohammad told The Daily Star that it came as no surprise to him that Israel would take measures to provoke the Lebanese, but added that they would continue to clean up the area regardless of any threats.
According to engineer Youssef Hamze, any Israeli claims to the eastern side of the river are baseless “because the French Mandate left the river to Lebanon according to an agreement signed in 1921.”
Hamze stressed that though no conflict had ever taken place by the river, Israel was resolved on causing trouble to “target tourism and displace residents from their areas.”
The Lebanese government has engaged in standoffs with Israel over the Hasbani since the withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon in 2000. Between 2000 and 2001, several crises erupted between the governments of Lebanon and Israel after Lebanese farmers diverted a small amount of the Hasbani’s waters to irrigate crops.
An investor in the area who wished to remain anonymous said there was no need to fear the threats made by the Israeli authorities.
“Nobody instills fear in our souls except God,” the investor told The Daily Star.
“We are enjoying spending the day with our families on the river, and we do not fear the threat of the enemy even if it comesto the river’s banks. ... It is our right to frequent the parks scattered around the area since they are on Lebanese land,” he said.
Zahra al-Abdullah another one of Qaryat Hosn al-Wazzani’s owners, said tourists from across Lebanon were still flocking to the park despite Israel’s threats.
“We have taken a decision to pump life back into the [Hasbani] River, which is a national and touristic cornerstone despite all of Israel’s allegations,” Abdullah said.
MP Hashem said the Blue Line itself was “meaningless” because it was merely a line of withdrawal.
He added that Israel’s claims to the river were “false and void.”
Speaking at a news conference at Qaryat Hosn al-Wazzani, Hashem echoed the opinions of resort owners in stating that the river itself was purely Lebanese, and it was therefore the right of every Lebanese citizen to enter the area and invest in it.
“No matter how much the enemy tries, this right is bound to return to its owner, and Lebanon has been able, through its national will, to resist [Israel] in 2000 and in 2006 in order to keep this land and this water,” Hashem said.
The MP added that concerned Lebanese officials and the Army were currently in contact with UNIFIL forces regarding the issue, but stressed that the river and its banks would be cleaned even if a solution is not reached.