HERMEL, Lebanon: Local residents have criticized the Bekaa Valley security plan, claiming that the government is arresting petty criminals while dangerous fugitives remain at large, and should instead focus its efforts on economic relief and development.
Sunday marked the fourth day of raids by the Lebanese Army, Internal Security Forces and General Security. The moves are part of a plan to restore governmental control in the eastern region.
Some 128 people have been arrested across the Bekaa valley since the raids began. The initiative comes following a security plan launched in the restive northern city of Tripoli last April. Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk has stated that the focus will then turn to Beirut and the southern suburbs.
Machnouk announced the impending deployment of security forces last Tuesday, telling the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat that the long-delayed plan for the Baalbek-Hermel area “is ready and would be implemented in the coming few days, probably at the weekend, by a joint force of 1,000 troops backed by 500 members of police and general security.”
As the government touts the large number of arrests, there is strong feeling – shared across the public – that the situation is being mishandled.
Residents have pressed for investment and reform rather than raids, in the belief that these will give people a better chance to start again and rebuild their lives within the law.
Wanted cannabis grower Ali Nasri Chammas, a resident of the West Baalbek village of Boudai, said he “took measures” once he heard the security plan was being put into effect, and will keep a low profile as he watches how the raids unfold.
Chammas does not categorize himself as a criminal in the same vein as the murderers, kidnappers and car-theft gangs active in the region, and said that residents in the Baalbek-Hermel area want such activities to stop. He said his own criminality was born of necessity.
“The harsh living conditions forced me to grow drugs so that I can provide food and schooling for my kids.”
According to one of its leaders, the politically influential Shiite Jaafar clan supports the Bekaa security plan, but has doubts about whether the right people are being targeted.
“The Jaafar clan strongly rejects all acts of kidnapping and car theft,” said Ahmad Jaafar, head of a committee demanding amnesty for fugitives in the Baalbek-Hermel area.
Jaafar, known by his nom du guerre Abu Assaad, said he hoped such activities would cease, explaining that there was a threat they could escalate into inter-clan fighting.
But the status of cannabis growers, who form a majority of the fugitives, remains an issue of contention between the government and locals, Abu Assaad said. He also cited a lack of significant representation at the national level.
“The absence of real parliamentary representation for the Baalbek region’s clans” is the root of the problem, according to Abu Assaad. “The current lawmakers represent the Amal Movement and Hezbollah, and they don’t speak on behalf of all the clan’s members.”
He said the misrepresentation is apparent in the lack of development projects in the Bekaa Valley, discussions for which have dragged on since the 1990s.
“This forces many of Baalbek-Hermel’s citizens to resort to illegal crops,” he contended.
According to Abu Assaad, around 35,000 warrants have been issued against residents of the area, most of them for simple crimes and misdemeanors such as theft, trespassing, traffic and construction violations, and growing drugs.
He alleged that no more than 2,000 warrants were for major crimes such as kidnapping, car theft or the trafficking of the illegal synthetic drug Captagon.
Firas Alam, who represents a number of fugitives and prisoners from the area, agrees and said that only economic development can resolve the ongoing security problems in the Bekaa.
The lawyer also contended that there should be a comprehensive amnesty for those wanted for petty crime, and an overhaul of Lebanon’s narcotics legislation.
Hasan Mazloum, a teacher and a trade union activist living in Brital, is skeptical of the plan’s effectiveness and the government’s stated intentions. He believes the plan was launched to garner media attention.
“The most wanted fugitives fled because of the plan. Some left the Bekaa Valley and went to Syria or [Beirut’s] southern suburbs, but none was arrested,” said Mazloum.
“It’s as if the security forces wanted to arrest fugitives just for media publicity ... but it’s not worth the money the government is spending on it,” Mazloum said, adding that he did not believe the plan would succeed.
Mazloum said the Christian town of Zahle should have been included in the raids, as it also serves as a safe haven for fugitives. He alleged the security plan was motivated by the security forces’ desire to appear even-handed in their treatment of Lebanon’s religious groups.
“The plan was implemented just to say that a Shiite area in Baalbek-Hermel was raided in return for a Sunni area in Tripoli.”
Ahmad Audi, who drives a van along the Baalbek-Beirut route, voiced doubts as well.
“We welcome the Lebanese Army and the Internal Security Forces, because they came here to provide security and protection for the citizens of our area,” Audi said.
But he added that the Army and ISF were arresting people wanted for “simple violations,” while “major fugitives” remain on the run, or are tipped off before they can be apprehended by security forces.
“They know about the security forces’ movements before they even launch [operations] to arrest them.”
He said that after the security plan is brought to an end, fugitives will return and continue with their daily lives as if nothing had happened.
Audi alleged that some of those on the run were more than just fugitives – that many were involved in fighting Syrian Islamists attempting to penetrate the Lebanese border.
“Many of those wanted are credited with combating members of ISIS and the Nusra Front as they tried to seize control of Hezbollah outposts in the outskirts of Brital.”
Mahfouz Mahfouz, the secretary of the National Association for Culture and Development in Hermel, seconded Audi’s characterization of the men.
Mahfouz said it was impossible for the plan to succeed, as many of the fugitives were busy fighting extremists in Syria’s Qalamoun and along the Lebanese-Syrian border, making them nearly impossible to apprehend.
These remote mountain regions have served as a refuge not just for Islamists, but also for fugitives who have fought against them, Mahfouz explained. Security personnel cannot move into the areas due to ongoing clashes between the army and Islamist fighters.
Like many from the region, Mahfouz concluded that without an economic plan, the government’s security plan would not achievelasting success.