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Mideast conflicts meet in tiny patch of Lebanon

April 26, 2014

CHEBAA, Lebanon (AP) — This small, scenic patch of land where the frontiers of Syria, Lebanon and Israel converge has long been a flashpoint, with Hezbollah fighters and Israeli troops positioned face to face in close quarters across undefined and disputed borders.

The Syrian civil war has made the region known as Chebaa Farms even more dangerous.

Rival sides in Syria’s conflict crisscross it smuggling weapons and fighters, and sectarian tensions are rising as Chebaa’s mainly Sunni residents, joined by thousands of Sunni Syrian refugees, turn against Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah group because of its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Even in a country with as many potential triggers for violence as Lebanon, Chebaa’s unique geographic location brings together a collection of particularly bitter enemies. And with tempers fraying on all sides as Syria’s war drags on, there are concerns that a misstep by just one of the players in this idyllic landscape of green, rocky hills could drag everyone into a wider, even nastier conflict.

For the Lebanese military, which officially controls its side of the disputed frontier, the main concern appears to be the influx of Syrian refugees.

At an army checkpoint in the foothills of Mount Hermon, just outside Chebaa, Lebanese troops search and question Syrians as they arrive in Lebanon after an hours-long trek across the rugged mountain frontier. Soldiers say worry that rebels fighting Assad’s forces could try to sneak into the village with their weapons and stir up trouble between Sunnis and Shiites — or across the frontier with Israel.

The troops also check Lebanese vehicles carrying humanitarian aid across the border to Syrian villages that have been under siege by Assad’s forces for months. The soldiers frequently confiscate food and medicine — desperately needed items in the blockaded communities — and only allow vehicles carrying bags of flour to pass.

The army has not said why it seizes those materials. But the practice has fueled local resentment against the army, leading some Sunni residents to accuse Lebanese soldiers of acting at the behest of Hezbollah.

“No food is allowed to pass for desperate people, while Hezbollah is whisked through with weapons with no questions asked. What are we to think?” said Mohammed Jarrar, the director of the town’s Sunni Islamic Center.

Lebanon, a nation of 4.5 million people, is struggling to cope with more than a million Syrian refugees. One way to stem the tide is to feed people inside Syria.

But if humanitarian aid is prevented from reaching them in Syria, Jarrar said, more refugees will stream across the border into Lebanon, putting further strain on resources and sectarian relations here.

Already, Chebaa, which local officials say has a population of some 4,000 people, offers few job opportunities. It has no hospital and no government institutions to speak of apart from a police station. Like elsewhere in Lebanon, the influx of Syrian refugees has doubled the number of inhabitants in Chebaa and overwhelmed the community.

For residents, the main fear is that battle-hardened Shiite militants fighting Sunni rebels in Syria will turn on Sunnis in Lebanon. So far, Jarrar said there have been few armed incidents despite tensions.

“Nobody wants the situation to get out of hand,” he said. Sunnis who once supported Hezbollah, he said, have grown deeply suspicious if not outright hostile to the group.

“When it comes to resistance to Israeli occupation, we are on the same boat with Hezbollah,” Jarrar said. “In Syria, we are against Hezbollah. We support the revolution against a regime that is unjust and that Hezbollah supports.”

The dispute with Israel is over the larger, 65-square-kilometer (25-square-mile) region known as Chebaa Farms. It has been a source of friction for decades, complicated by ownership disputes and an unmarked border between Lebanon and Syria.

Beirut and Damascus say Chebaa Farms belong to Lebanon. Israel says the enclave is part of the Golan Heights its forces captured from Syria in 1967. The United Nations says the area is part of Syria and that Damascus and Israel should negotiate its fate.

While relations have been hostile between Syria and Israel since the Israelis captured part of the Golan Heights, Damascus has kept the border area with Israel quiet for most of the past 40 years. Most of the violent breaches have occurred on the frontier between Israel and Lebanon, including Israel’s invasions of Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s abductions of Israeli soldiers.

After Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in May of 2000, it retained a small part of the disputed Chebaa Farms territory to which the Lebanese government has claimed ownership. Hezbollah has used Israel’s continued occupation of this strip of land to justify its need to retain its arsenal and keep up attacks on Israel.

In October 2000, Hezbollah guerrillas disguised as U.N. peacekeepers managed to kidnap three Israeli soldiers on the border near Chebaa Farms.

Today, Chebaa’s landscape is marred by rows of barbed wire and metal fences that separate Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied part. Israeli army towers and Lebanese military outposts on top of surrounding hills face one another as United Nations peacekeepers patrol the roads below. Israeli military aircraft hover in the skies overhead almost daily, and Israeli soldiers regularly detain Lebanese shepherds in the area for questioning.

Lebanon’s army is officially in charge of security on the Lebanese side of the border, and no Hezbollah militants can be seen moving around. Still, it’s impossible to ignore the group’s presence in the area.

Planted a few hundred meters (yards) from a gate in the metal fence separating the Israeli army in Chebaa from Lebanese territory is a giant Hezbollah poster with a picture of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque with the words “We are coming” written on it in Arabic and Hebrew.

Hezbollah’s armed intervention in Syria has led some to question whether the group, which has lost hundreds of fighters, has been weakened from that conflict to the point that it won’t be able to fight Israel.

In what appeared to be — among other things — an attempt to put such doubts to rest, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah earlier this month claimed responsibility for a roadside bomb that went off near an Israeli military patrol along the frontier in the Chebaa area, causing no injuries.

Nasrallah said the March 14 bombing was in response to an Israeli airstrike in February on a Hezbollah base in southern Lebanon.


Follow Barbara Surk on Twitter at www.twitter.com/barbarasurkAP

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