HERMEL, Lebanon: The Army plans to launch a crackdown on crime in the country’s eastern Bekaa after similar operations saw success in Beirut’s southern suburbs last month.
The Army’s September raids reasserted its presence in the southern suburbs and won praise. On the heels of that campaign, which was undertaken with the full backing of Speaker Nabih Berri and Hezbollah, the Army is planning a similar crackdown on criminal elements in the east of the country.
But prominent local figures warn that if the state does not take tangible steps to boost development in the Bekaa, the security campaign could backfire and lead to clashes between residents and the military.
Berri has initiated contacts with the Army, influential figures in the area and his allies in Hezbollah to ensure another successful operation, but some residents dismiss the campaign as merely a political stunt.
Local figures, who are seen as the driving force of the plan, have set preconditions on the state – primarily the drafting of a development plan – before it begins serving thousands of arrest warrants against “wanted individuals.”
“We do not need a military force that will arrive to instill fear and clash with residents. Any such plan should be accompanied by a development approach to rescue this region from its poverty,” said Mofleh Allaw, a member of the Hermel Municipality.
Sitting at an empty rest house in Hermel overlooking the Assi River, where work on a dam has been halted since 2006, Allaw lashed out at the state for decades of neglect that began in the late 1960s.
“Due to the lack of security and stability in this region as a result of the state’s abandonment, we witness capital flight, tourists too afraid to visit, banks rarely opening branches in this area,” he said.
It is estimated that more than 35 percent of Bekaa families live below the poverty line, and many farmers voice fears over increasing desertification that could severely affect agriculture, a dominant sector in the region.
Many attribute high crime rates to underdevelopment in the area, and others blame lenient law enforcement as well as corruption and bribery within the ranks of security agencies and the judiciary.
Allaw noted the Army’s already heavy presence in the region, and suggested the plan could merely be a political move ahead of the 2013 parliamentary elections.
He said he believed political parties in the area were adopting such measures to embarrass their rivals and fend off arguments that predominantly Shiite regions do not abide by state laws.
Others like Hasan Mazloum, a teacher and a political activist from Brital, agreed with Allaw’s take on the security campaign. “If they are implementing the plan for some political gain then they should have mercy on us and not place the Army in confrontation with the people.”
He also warned that the region is on the brink of an economic collapse that “no Army or politician can contain.”
The idea that the state has turned its back on citizens in the Bekaa is not uncommon. Many residents are frustrated with a system that neglects local development and are disappointed in political parties that were supposed to act as the alternative.
In Hermel, Baalbek and the outskirts of the Bekaa region bordering Syria, a number of Army checkpoints stand in contradiction to the popular image of a region ruled by armed clans, drug lords and utter chaos.
“The media and politicians have drawn an ugly picture of this region that it is a lawless area ruled by feuds between some armed clans ... That is not who we are,” Allaw said.
Hussein Nasreddine, a man in his 80s and a prominent figure in his clan in the Hermel village of Zoghrine, said Bekaa residents were mainly victims of increasing crime.
“They allowed the thieves to grow and for kidnappings to increase; they should be held responsible, not us. People have been asking for security and stability, but no one is ever here to listen,” said Nasreddine, who is also known as Abu Misbah.
The Army’s plan comes months after a string of kidnappings in the Bekaa that have raised regional and international concerns of a deteriorating security situation in a country already suffering from the crisis in neighboring Syria.
While some ruled out the possibility of a clash between the Army and the Bekaa community, others believe that conflict could break out if a general amnesty law is not applied first.
“If the Army enters the region in the way they’re describing in this security plan without an amnesty first, blood will be spilled,” said Ahmad Sobhi Jaafar, a member of the 25,000-strong clan, in his hometown of Shrawneh.
Jaafar said he and other Bekaa figures have prepared a proposal seeking general amnesty for thousands of individuals that would exclude crimes such as national treason and cases that have been referred to the Judicial Council, Lebanon’s highest judicial court.
He noted that there were 13,906 cases for Bekaa residents where the courts ruled in absentia, describing most of the crimes as silly. “They have traffic violations for tinted windows, lack of a license plate, driver’s license, and personal feuds,” said Jaafar, surrounded by some 10 clan members.
But Hezbollah MP Kamel Rifai, a Baalbek-Hermel lawmaker, ruled out the possibility of approving an amnesty to accompany the security campaign given the lack of a consensus over such a law, adding that a speedy judicial process can encourage people to hand themselves over.
“What we want from the state is to speed up trials and judicial measures when someone with an arrest warrant is detained,” Rifai said.
He also said his party has provided the necessary “political cover” for the security plan and that the government should ensure speedy trials in return.
Under Lebanese law, a suspect can remain in detention for an indefinite period of time before their trials. Residents blame not only the state and what they called “deliberate negligence” toward the region, but also influential political parties, mainly Hezbollah.
Rifai defended his party’s record, placing blame on a government “that hasn’t approved a state budget since 2005, preventing parliamentarians from carrying out state-sponsored projects.”
But Jaafar along with his other clan members voiced disappointment in the work of political parties in the area, mainly Hezbollah. “They have promised us so much but delivered so little.”