ARSAL, Lebanon: Typically busy on a weekday, the streets and alleys of Arsal are now quiet, both traffic and footfall having dropped significantly since the attack on the Army and death of two soldiers nearly two weeks ago.
With 45,000 residents and stretching over 316 square kilometers, the town is one of Lebanon’s largest, but many residents are now refraining from moving around in an attempt to avoid the numerous Army checkpoints and headquarters which have been set up around Arsal.
The outskirts of the town touch several Syrian villages.
People of the town are now cautious, waiting for what will happen next and trying to work out exactly who has been implicated in the crime, in which an Army patrol was attacked after apprehending a resident wanted on terrorism charges, who was himself killed in the arrest.
As a number of innocent people share the same name as those on the wanted list, some of them have been held and interrogated for several days, creating a tense atmosphere throughout the town.
Speaking on behalf of Arsal’s residents, the town’s mukhtar, Mohammad Hasan Hujeiry, says that “arbitrary measures are being taken against the residents of the town because of incomplete reports that some informants are providing to security bodies. These reports and measures are obstructing people’s businesses and humiliating them.”
According to Hujeiry, there are only 10 people who are still being held by the Army over the incident, only one of whom is suspected of being involved in the crime.
Several different rumors are being circulated by residents over what really happened, as they do not trust the official interpretation of events. They are also calling for a transparent investigation into the case.
Since the attack, one of the names being implicated in many media reports is that of Salafist Sheikh Mustapha Hujeiry, nicknamed Abu Taqiyeh. However, he denies media reports that he urged town residents through his mosque’s minaret to attack the patrol, denying he was even in Arsal at the time.
Another suspect, Arsal’s mayor Ali Hujeiry, nicknamed Ali Abu Ajineh, who is wanted for questioning by the Army intelligence, along with his son Hussein, says that the local Army and Internal Security Forces command initially denied they had a patrol in the town that day.
He says he only found out that the patrol belonged to Army intelligence after contacting head of the ISF Information Branch, Col. Imad Othman, who confirmed it.
After that, the mayor says, he made an effort to help save the lives of the wounded soldiers.
But following the incident the mayor called those residents of surrounding villages who held shows of support for the Army “thieves and thugs.”
A day after those comments, a local newspaper republished remarks he made to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in the wake of the May 2008 clashes in which he said that he and the people of Arsal could “take over the entire Bekaa Valley, stretching from the village of Lebaa, near Arsal, to Maqneh, to the north of Baalbek, in 20 minutes.”
Maqneh is a mainly Shiite area, which crosses the highway from Baalbek to Homs.
Lebaa’s mayor, Ramez Amhaz, last week responded to Hujeiry’s 2008 comments, saying, “Arsal’s mayor cannot take over a single inch of this town,” and he called on the judiciary to prosecute the mayor for making threats.
This exchange of accusations between the two mayors has further exacerbated tension between the mainly Sunni Arsal and the majority Shiite villages of Nahla, Younnine, Maqneh, Lebaa and Nabih Othman, as well as the entire district of Baalbek-Hermel.
Arsal’s residents largely support the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, whereas those from the Shiite villages are overwhelmingly supportive of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.
Adding to this sectarian element is the fact that residents of these villages are mainly clan members, so revenge attacks are a common occurrence.
Tension between Arsal and its Shiite neighbors dates back to the aftermath of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005 and then increased again following the May 2008 clashes.
Scuffles frequently erupted with residents of Shiite villages when convoys left Beirut to attend March 14 rallies.
Tensions increased again after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, particularly after the heavy militarization of the conflict.
Arsal also hosts around 12,000 Syrian refugees, with many local residents providing shelter and aid to those displaced by the conflict next door.
The town has also been a crucial hub for the smuggling of arms to the Syrian opposition in the governorates of Damascus and Homs.
The smuggling takes place through several routes, which were used long before the Syrian uprising to smuggle fuel and other products, and which were a source of living for around 10 percent of Arsal residents.
Aside from those who have already been questioned over the incident, a security source told The Daily Star that the Army intelligence and the Information Branch have a list of 40 names wanted in connection with the crime. Topping this list are Arsal’s mayor and his son, followed by Sheikh Mustapha Hujeiry and his son, Ubada, and one of the area’s prominent arms dealers, Hussein Ahmed Hujeiry, nicknamed Hussein Daad.
Most of those on the list are also wanted for other crimes such as arms dealing and for attacking Army and ISF patrols in the town on previous occasions. The list also includes other Salafists.
The list is being constantly updated according to new information, the security source said. The source suspects that the Army will remain positioned around the town for a long time, not only to bring in the wanted people for questioning but in order to block this central smuggling route of both arms and men.
Around 75 percent of arms smuggled from Lebanon to the Syrian opposition are transited through this route, the source added, especially since the Syrian government evacuated its positions on the adjacent section of their border late last month.
The source added that after both the Lebanese and Syrian armies closed the border crossing at Masharih al-Qaa, on the northeastern border, around three months ago, security bodies have discovered that smuggling has since been reorganized through new routes.
The new route now starts in Tripoli, and crosses through the village of Deir al-Ahmar, west of Baalbek. From Deir al-Ahmar arms are then transferred to Syria through the towns of Arsal, Nabih Uthman and Ras Baalbek.
The source said the attack on the Army had at least prompted it to deploy in these areas, adding that this would help minimize the smuggling of arms.