ARSAL, Lebanon: Most Arsal residents react with surprise or bitterness when asked whether, as some have suggested, there are members of Al-Qaeda in their town, which lies near the country’s northeastern border with Syria.
They argue that Islamic extremists have little influence in Arsal, whose economy has boomed in recent years with the discovery of marble and other stones in the surrounding valleys.
From Baalbek, the town sits roughly 35 kilometers toward the border region in the northern Bekaa Valley.
Small houses sit next to each other at the bottom of hills, while some newer homes are perched on top.
Arsal’s residents number 50,000, with 40,000 living in the village and the rest living in other Lebanese towns, cities or abroad.
In December, Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn said arms were being smuggled and “some members of Al-Qaeda organization” were entering Lebanon through illegal crossings on the Lebanese-Syrian border, particularly in Arsal, under the guise of belonging to the Syrian opposition.
Ghosn’s remarks sparked controversy across the country, including in Arsal, whose residents deny the accusation.
Ahmad Karnabi, a resident, argues that conservative and even moderate Islamists enjoy little support in the town, citing the results of the 2010 municipal election in which such candidates secured just 500 votes from some 6,000 eligible voters.
Hussein Hujeiri, also known as Hussein Hallaq, is among the very few residents of Arsal who is reported to be an extremist, he adds.
Security bodies tried to arrest Hujeiri last summer on charges of being involved in the kidnapping of seven Estonian tourists who went missing in March near the Bekaa city of Zahle.
The seven were released after four months under murky circumstances and authorities do not know Hujeiri’s current whereabouts.
Mohammad Flaiti, a resident of Arsal, agrees with Karnabi, saying that Sheikh Mustafa Hujeiri, the imam of a mosque in Arsal, could also be described as an “extremist.”
But Sheikh Hujeiri, who calls for adopting Salafi Islam, enjoys little support from Arsal residents, Flaiti argues.
The two Hujeiris, who are distant relatives, have lived most of their lives outside Arsal, during which time they began to follow Salafi Islam.
Smuggling between Arsal and adjacent Syrian towns is common along the illegal crossings in the rugged valleys, and social ties between Arsal residents and Syrians are strong. Lebanese residents have shown their support for the uprising in Syria and around 70 Syrian refugee families are currently being hosted in the area.
“This is being used as a pretext to accuse the town of hosting and supporting Al-Qaeda members ... these are fabrications,” Flaiti says.
Flaiti cites a good economy for the relatively weak support for Salafi Islam in Arsal, explaining that the economy began to improve over two decades ago with the discovery of marble and other stones used in construction, some of which are now exported.
“There are 120 factories in [the town ] for processing the stone and $1.5 million circulate daily in the village in operations related to the sector,” he says.
Flaiti says that between 3,000 and 4,000 Arsal families benefit directly and indirectly from this industry.
“The town has a high demand for workers in this field, which means that any young man can find a job within days and with a daily wage ranging between $22 and $50,” he adds.
The area is so dominated by the industry that some 70 percent of the income comes from processing and selling marble and other stones, while 20 percent comes from jobs in the public sector and the remaining 10 from agriculture, cattle and border smuggling.
Residents of Arsal say that before the discovery of the stones, young people in the town joined Palestinian organizations and national parties which confronted Israel’s attacks on south Lebanon.
Another half hour and 25 kilometers on a dirt road leads to the area of Kherbet Daoud, on the northern outskirts of Arsal along the border with Syria. The Syrian army has crossed this part of the border several times since the start of Syria’s uprising in mid-March of last year. One resident of Kherbet Daoud was killed and others have been wounded during these cross-border incursions.
The homes of shepherds and residents of the area, which is very close to the Homs-Damascus road, now sit empty as their inhabitants fled to safer areas.
The distance between Kherbet Daoud and the Syrian city of Nabik and other Syrian towns ranges between 15 and 20 km and residents of towns on both sides of the border maintain close social and economic ties.
Karnabi notes that the Syrian side of the border is under the control of Syrian border guards and members of the Syrian army and intelligence, but there are few Lebanese authorities on the Lebanese side.
For his part, Arsal’s mayor, Ali Hujeir, says he hopes that the Lebanese government will foster development in the area, “rather than making unjust accusations against its people of supporting and Al-Qaeda members.”