15 years after liberation, south Lebanon residents want no more wars
TYRE - Fifteen years after Israel’s withdrawal from the area, residents of south Lebanon are keen on maintaining relative peace and security. Israel occupied part of southern Lebanon following its 1982 invasion of the country, but withdrew in 2000 after a campaign led by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia.
Since 2006, following a devastating 33-day war between Hezbollah and Israel, the area, which was for decades the Arabs’ main battleground against Israel, has witnessed an unprecedented phase of calm and tranquillity.
For many inhabitants, the struggle against Israel has shifted from south Lebanon to Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad against Islamist armed groups.
Mohamad Srour, a tobacco farmer from south Lebanon’s village of Aita Shaab, is confident that Israel will not engage Hezbollah again after the “defeat” it suffered in 2006.
Hezbollah has repeatedly confirmed that its military capabilities have progressed since its war with Israel in 2006, which killed, according to UN data, some 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 160 Israeli soldiers. “I believe that Israel will not venture in a new aggression against Lebanon but is satisfied with supporting the terrorist groups in Syria,” Srour told The Arab Weekly.
For Mariam Moussa, whose son was killed in the fighting against Israel in 2006, “war is already behind” the people of south Lebanon. “There will be no more wars here,” she said. “The conflict is in Syria now and it would take many long years before it ends.”
Like Moussa, many residents of south Lebanon are keen on preserving the largely stable and peaceful situation that has prevailed in the region since the Lebanese Army, backed by a bolstered UN peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, deployed along the border with Israel in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1701. The resolution, which ended hostilities in 2006, banned Hezbollah’s military presence in the border area and placed it under the exclusive control and monitoring of the army and the international force.
Firas Hajj, a resident of the border town of Kfar Kila, said the people do not want Hezbollah to fight Israel from south Lebanon anymore. “We hope the resistance movement (Hezbollah) will not engage in a new war with Israel,” he said. “What we care about is the future of our children. We hate wars. We want to have a just and comprehensive peace in the whole Middle East, and to see crises being resolved through the United Nations.”
The feeling in south Lebanon is unanimous. After experiencing peace and prosperity for several years, “no one wants war” in that part of the world, not even the most fervent advocates of struggle against Israel, according to Farid Khalil, a Hezbollah supporter.
“I believe that Hezbollah will not give Israel any alibi to invade the south once again. And I hope that Israel will not corner the party and drag it into a confrontation that it does not want,” Khalil said.
Because of its relative climate of security, south Lebanon has attracted visitors from inside and outside the country and encouraged wealthy expatriates to return to their lands and villages, which they fled during the Israeli occupation.
“After 2000, the south was relieved. Many people came back from abroad. They built mansions in their hometowns and invested in tourism and other development projects. The price of land and real estate climbed and prosperity returned,” noted Mahmoud Asaad from the border village of Marwaheen. “That is why the Lebanese do not want war with Israel anymore. They just want to live in peace and ensure a safe future for their families.”
On May 24, 2000, Israel completed the withdrawal of its forces from southern Lebanon in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 425, ending 22 years of occupation.
Hezbollah’s yellow banners hang on top of street lights at village entrances, next to posters of the Shia party’s fighters killed in combat. Most were killed during decades of fighting against Israel, but posters of new “martyrs” have appeared; those of Hezbollah fighters killed in the past two years fighting Islamist militants in Syria.
Fears of repercussions from Hezbollah’s deep involvement in the Syrian civil war were spelt out by several south Lebanon residents.
Jamil Asmar, a Shia, said he feared reprisals by residents in the Sunni village of Shebaa, who could sympathise with the Syrian militants and act against Shia villages. “We want the south to be kept out of the events in Syria. We had enough wars, destruction and displacement,” he said.
His fellow Shia, Fatima Bazzi, who was enjoying a day out in Iran Park at Maroun al Ras, was more vocal about her opposition to Hezbollah’s military role in Syria. “We don’t want to have more (Lebanese) dying in Syria. The true martyr is the one who dies while defending his own national land, not in a foreign land or for a cause that is not his,” Bazzi said. Bazzi even called for disbanding the group’s armed wing, while bolstering the army to make it strong enough to protect Lebanon. “Hezbollah must rest now. It should return to the Lebanese fold and get integrated in the Lebanese Army,” she added.
Hezbollah’s deep engagement in the Syrian conflict in support of Assad’s regime has largely damaged its position in Lebanon and tarnished its once respected image in many parts of the Arab region. It has even led to questions within its Shia base as to why the group is risking a lot by siding with an unstable and rogue Syrian regime. But the overall Shia sentiment remains strongly pro- Hezbollah, though the conflict with Israel, while still a focus of rhetoric, has faded to the background.
For Sheikh Ali Yassine, a Shia cleric, “if it wasn’t for Hezbollah, Israel would have stayed in south Lebanon and turned its towns into settlements”.