x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Shadow of another war hangs over southern Lebanon border

Most residents of southern Lebanon have little interest in a new war, but Hizbollah and the Israelis may have other ideas.

The negotiations in Turkey over Iran's nuclear programme last weekend were not particularly high in the attentions of the Lebanese living along their country's southern frontier with Israel. And yet if Iran is one day attacked militarily because the talks have failed, the Marjayoun-Hasbayya district will probably again become a front line in a destructive confrontation between Hizbollah and the Israelis.

This serene district, located in Lebanon's south-east corner, is a reminder of the country's bracing contradictions and essential beauty, whatever its status as a past and future battlefield. Lying at the foot of Mount Hermon, the area includes inhabitants from most Lebanese religious groups. It's not wall-to-wall harmony, but the intricacy of the communal geography, like the economic challenges faced by all, has favoured collaboration over conflict.

Hizbollah remains the ultimate decision-maker. However, the party maintains a low profile, and is largely unseen in the succession of non-Shia towns and villages stretching from the majority Christian agglomeration of Marjayoun to the mainly Druze Hasbayya. This contrasts with Hizbollah's much greater visibility in the central section of the border area, principally around the Shia township of Bint Jbeil. That may partly explain why United Nations troops deployed in Marjayoun-Hasbayya seem more relaxed, and can be seen eating at sidewalk cafes without perceptibly heightened security measures.

And yet all around there is precariousness, and an uneasy equilibrium. Israel's northernmost settlement, Metulla, is so close as to seem a part of the Lebanese landscape. Israeli listening posts dot the ridges leading from Mount Hermon southward, and behind them is the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in June 1967. Among the Israelis, Hizbollah, the Lebanese army and UN contingents, we have one of the more heavily militarised of international boundaries.

One potential flashpoint is the Israeli-controlled town of Ghajar, which is considered the westernmost extension of the territory taken from Syria. Half the town belongs to Lebanon, but was again seized by Israel during the war of summer 2006. The inhabitants are Syrian Alawites who once thrived on smuggling. In 1981, when Israel annexed the Golan, they accepted Israeli citizenship.

I recall overhearing a conversation some years ago between two members of a Shia political party walking below Ghajar. "Who are they?" one asked, wondering whether he should return a wave from the villagers. "Even they don't know," his comrade answered.

How true - of Ghajar and sometimes of the Lebanese in Marjayoun-Hasbayya, who still are dealing with the legacy of the long Israeli occupation that ended in 2000. Many of those who remained during that time collaborated with Israel, or in one way or another benefited from its presence. This was usually the consequence of necessity, but it's also undeniable that thousands of Lebanese - Christians, Shiites and Druze - had ties to the instruments of occupation, above all the South Lebanon Army, the Israeli-backed proxy militia.

No one likes to mention it, but at the time the economy of the border region was more prosperous than today. The combination of an open border and a substantial number of people on the Israeli payroll meant a transit trade of sorts and cash to spend. In contrast, Marjayoun-Hasbayya has today become Lebanon's dead end, far from the centres of economic vitality, facing closed doors all around. The situation there is more difficult than in the Bint Jbeil district, where Shia money, bolstered by significant remittances from a dynamic emigrant community, has produced additional work opportunities.

Everyone in the south, however, suffers from the fact that the Lebanese army does not allow foreigners near the border without authorisation from the defence ministry. Hizbollah in particular, ever worried about Israeli spies, is equally reluctant to see travellers traipsing through a strategic area. The restrictions are resented by the population, which is eager to benefit from Lebanon's tourism trade. That's understandable, because the virgin region potentially offers a wide variety of leisure interests.

There is a consensus that if a new war were to break out between Hizbollah and Israel, it would be far worse than that of 2006. The Israelis would probably re-enter Lebanon, and they have reportedly been training for this eventuality. Marjayoun-Hasbayya, particularly the Hizbollah stronghold at Khiyam, would be a prime target in any ground campaign, as Israel strives to dismantle Hizbollah's infrastructure. The district also provides ready access northwards, into the lower reaches of the Beqaa Valley, where Hizbollah has built a defensive line that extends into the Jezzine district.

If the Israelis were to remain in Lebanon for an extended period of time, to impose a resolution on Hizbollah, Marjayoun-Hasbayya could turn into a double-edged sword for the party. The topography makes it ideal to pursue a guerrilla war. At the same time, however, the sectarian mix would require Hizbollah to be careful when it comes to managing the aftermath. Everyone in southern Lebanon, including Shiites, dreads having to endure yet another round of fighting. But while the discontent among Shiites could be easier for Hizbollah to neutralise, that would be less true for the other communities.

That's where the tranquillity of Marjayoun-Hasbayya, and much of the rest of southern Lebanon for that matter, is most meaningful. The mild people of the south are sick of the destruction that has been visited on them for decades. Hizbollah risks quite a bit if it drags Lebanon into fresh hostilities, above all on behalf of Iran. An idyllic setting hides myriad anxieties that still remain unaddressed.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut