By Mona Alami
September 23, 2014
The recent wave of kidnappings plaguing the Bekaa Valley region, after the killing of a Shiite Lebanese soldier by Syrian radical factions, underlined the growing show of force of Shiite tribes whose interests often diverge with – and supersede – Hezbollah’s political calculations.
For many Lebanese, the recent events were a stark and painful reminder of the Civil War. Relatives of the missing soldiers and policemen who were abducted during clashes between the Lebanese Army and radical groups the Nusra Front and ISIS in the border town of Arsal blocked roads in protest and carried out sectarian kidnappings.
“When people take the law into their own hands, what will Sayyed [Hassan] Nasrallah do?” a mayor from the Baalbek region asked me a week before the kidnappings took place.
The Bekaa Valley is known for its crime families, who abide by their own code of conduct. There, the state has very little power and rivalries and problems are generally solved by tribal elders. Bekaa clans have long maintained an ambiguous relationship with Hezbollah. In turn, the party has been wary of cornering the powerful families with its policies – when necessary leaving this task to the government or the Army to avoid alienating the families and risk losing their support.
Since the Lebanese Civil War, the clans have relied for income on illicit trade of all sorts – from car theft to hashish production and distribution, arms dealing and, more recently, kidnapping for a ransom. When the war ended in 1992 the Lebanese state destroyed the hashish fields, without providing a real alternative to the farmers. With the slow breakdown of state authority in the wake of the killing of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Bekaa crime families resumed their past behaviour, and this trend only increased with the beginning of the war in Syria.
Contrary to South Lebanon which has benefited from the rise of Shiite parties such as Hezbollah and Amal, the Bekaa remains plagued by poverty and low education levels. Not only is the Hermel in the northern Bekaa among the country’s most impoverished areas, according to a national report supported by the Central Administration of Statistics and published in 2009. It also has a high illiteracy rate. Shiites in the Bekaa were left behind while those in South Lebanon were able to rise socially thanks to Amal and Hezbollah’s growing clout in the political system. The southerners accumulated political experience, engaged in governance, and benefited from the financial remittances from family members living in the Gulf and Africa.
While the chaos in the Bekaa might be partially attributed to historical factors, Hezbollah did not push the state to adopt a viable development policy in the Bekaa region. This was, partly, a reason for the so-called “hunger revolution” in the Bekaa in 1997, in which a former party secretary-general, Sheikh Sobhi Tufeili, and followers from the Bekaa broke away from Hezbollah. Tufeili has since then turned into one of Hezbollah’s most acerbic critics.
Since 2011 and the start of the Syrian civil war, several incidents involving Bekaa tribes have pointed to the growing muscle-flexing of the crime families as well as to their independence from the political parties. The clans have shown that when their interests diverge from the priorities of the political parties, they are prepared to defy them.
“We support Hezbollah as long as our interests align, but our loyalty goes to the tribe when our business and families’ concerns or honour are at stake,” a Shiite from a powerful Bekaa family told me.
This has been confirmed on multiple occasions. In May 2012, the Jaafars, a Bekaa Shiite clan, kidnapped around 70 Sunnis to secure the release of another clan member kidnapped across the border in Syria. In August 2012, the Moqdads, another Bekaa clan, abducted dozens of Syrians and a Turkish national to ensure the release of a relative who was taken hostage in Damascus by a group claiming to be linked to the rebels. In 2013, when a member of the Jaafar clan was kidnapped from the Sunni town of Arsal, a bastion for Syrian rebels, before being transferred to Syria, his clan retaliated by kidnapping residents from the village.
Hezbollah is acutely aware of the Bekaa clans’ sensitivities. Last year, contrary to its past behaviour, the government, in which Hezbollah was represented, avoided cracking down on cannabis farmers. Both Hezbollah and Amal are treading carefully to avoid provoking the ire of the Shiite clans. They are aware that while many Bekaa Shiites support them, their allegiance depends on how much margin they are provided when it comes to their illegal businesses or their family’s honor and security.
The threat of renewed sectarian violence will remain for as long as the lives of the Lebanese soldiers are threatened by ISIS and the Nusra Front. The recent events have shown that Hezbollah is finding it more difficulty to rein in its support base in the Bekaa. It will find it increasingly difficult to control the situation there if blood is spilled.
Mona Alami is a French-Lebanese journalist and researcher who writes about political and economic issues in the Arab world. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.