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January 30, 2014

Sectarian Splits Widen in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley

by Jamie Dettmer

Deadly suicide bombings in Beirut and rocket attacks on towns along the border with Syria – all tied to the raging civil war in Syria --  are leading many Lebanese to feel they now have no choice but to identify more closely with their sectarian groups,  and in many cases embrace hardliners among their co-religionists, warn beleaguered moderate politicians and analysts. 
 
The hardening of sectarian feeling is on clear display in the northern Bekaa Valley hugging the border with Syria. Shia Muslims in the town of Hermel, which saw its first suicide bomb ever two weeks ago and was struck on January 25 by four Grad rockets fired by a jihadist group fighting in Syria, blame Sunni neighbors for the uptick in violence as much as they point fingers at foreign fighters battling to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an uprising increasingly influenced by Sunni extremists.
 
They fear visiting the nearby hardscrabble mainly Sunni town of Arsal just 15 minutes away. Arsal’s population has more than doubled swollen by at least 40,000 Syrian refugees as well as Syrian rebel fighters, who rest up in the town and are treated for wounds sustained in fighting in the adjacent Qalamoun region where Syrian government forces have been pressing an offensive.
 
Shiite opinion is hardening and those who doubted the wisdom of the involvement of Hizbullah Lebanon’s militant Shia movement, in the Syrian civil war on the side of Assad, an adherent of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are now revising their criticism and falling in line.
 
“Ideas have altered since Hezbollah first started fighting in Syria,” says 50-year-old Mohammed Alaw, a high school teacher, who is aligned with no party.  There is deep anger in Hermel over the January 16 suicide bomb that killed five and wounded 40.
 
When young Lebanese Shiite fighters started to return in body bags in the summer during a hard-fought battle to help Syrian government forces retake the town of Qusair from rebels, some townspeople questioned why Hezbollah was fighting in Syria, arguing the real enemy is Israel. Hermel was heavily bombed by Israeli warplanes during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah because it was an important junction in an arms-supply route for Shiite militiamen battling Israel’s soldiers further south in Lebanon. 

Mohammed Alaw says many of his students are now flocking to Syria - either as fighters or in support roles.
 
“Now I see Shiites who condemned or did not agree with Hezbollah going into Syria have changed their minds.” They are doing so, he says, because they now think Hezbollah leaders were right when they argued that radical Sunni Muslims, or takfiris [apostates] as they call them, will come for Lebanese Shiites once al-Assad had been ousted.
 
He says his students are doing so because they fear Shiite Islam and their families’ safety is threatened.
 
In Arsal, which is perched on the the mountainous slopes above low-lying Hermel, there is equal suspicion. Before the Syrian civil war erupted the towns had close ties and many Sunnis worked in the richer Hermel but the employment and social connections between the two have unraveled. Hezbollah officials say they have very little contact with Sunni leaders in Arsal now.
 
Abed Hassan, a 24-year-old marble quarryman who has been helping refugees in bedraggled and windswept camps on wasteland when he can, says he would be in danger if he set foot in Hermel.
 
“Hezbollah fighters have been mounting informal checkpoints and young Sunnis risk being seized if we travel beyond Arsal,” he says. Hezbollah officials deny they mount checkpoints, saying they leave it to the army to protect Hermel, but plainclothes Hezbollah fighters were scrutinizing cars on a road leading from Arsal, hoping, they say, to prevent any more suicide bombers reaching the town.
 
Sectarian communities across Lebanon share a sense of being besieged. But that is all they share – aside from fear and the weaving of conspiracy theories pointing to a variety foreign powers, including the United States, being behind an effort to drag Lebanon into civil war.
 
The rhetoric of sectarian animosity is becoming more aggressive and polarizing and coloring everyday conversation. Shiites and Sunnis accuse each other of being apostates even atheists.
 
Sunni Sheikh Mohammad Imam fears demonizing language legitimizes sectarian violence.

“Eliminating the opposite point of view is against the instructions of the holy Quran, which calls for dialogue and negotiating with people using moderation,” he warned the Daily Star, Lebanon’s English-language newspaper. He fears the Lebanese are dragging themselves into a bigger sectarian conflict.

Moderates say their voices are being drowned out amid the rising anger and turmoil.
 
An agreement in principle by Saad Hariri, the leader of the mainly Sunni March 14th bloc of political parties, to enter a unity government including Hezbollah, has triggered anger among militant Sunni leaders.   So far the agreement has come to naught with squabbling over cabinet positions making it look less likely every day.  But Abu al-Bara, an ultraconservative Sunni sheik in the north Lebanese town of Tripoli says the damage has been done and feelings against Hariri have hardened.  

“We now hate Hariri and all the Sunnis here hate Hariri because he decided to sell the blood of all martyrs and to go in with the other side,” he said.