The deadly February 1 gun battle in the Bekaa town of Arsal illustrates two dangerous ongoing developments in Lebanon: firstly, the rising sectarian bitterness felt by Sunnis against Shias, and secondly, the volatility of the northern Bekaa. The details of the incident are still shrouded in uncertainty. What is known is that a unit from military intelligence shot and killed Khaled Hmayed, a resident of Arsal, as he was driving to a mosque for noon prayers. What is also known is that a crowd of some 200 to 300 armed residents of Arsal chased the army unit into the wilderness south of the town and caught up with the soldiers when their vehicles became stuck in snow and mud. An officer and a soldier were shot dead in the ensuing firefight.
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The army subsequently said that Hmayed was a wanted terrorist and had been shot when he resisted arrest. Some townsfolk say that Hmayed fought with Syrian rebels and was “executed” in a hail of gunfire and that there was no attempt to arrest him. They further charge that Hezbollah members were present with the army unit and that an additional four people dressed in civilian clothes were killed in the gun battle. These same townsfolk also suspect that the dead were Hezbollah fighters, pointing to the fact that the army has not disclosed their identities. Hezbollah vehemently denied any role in the fight.
Still, the ramifications of the incident are of more consequence than the details of what actually happened. The town was surrounded by special forces troops from the Air Assault regiment and a checkpoint was established on the single asphalt road that leads into Arsal.
Several residents have been detained and arrest warrants for some 35 people have been prepared. But the crackdown on Arsal has deepened already widespread feelings of Sunni grievance over the perceived domineering behavior of Hezbollah, and by extension, the government and army. In the days that followed the army’s restrictive measures on Arsal, Sunni delegations flocked to the town, including from the Future Movement and Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, the ubiquitous anti-Hezbollah cleric from Saida. When Assir sought to visit Arsal himself, Shia demonstrators in Baalbek blocked the Bekaa highway with burning tires, forcing the cleric to postpone his trip.
Not for the first time, it is the army that finds itself caught in a Catch-22 situation. If the encirclement of Arsal persists, it risks a backlash from the residents. Ali Houjeiry, the mayor of the town, has warned that the patience of residents is finite. The men of Arsal have a well-established reputation for stubbornness and militancy. The town is also an important logistical hub for Syrian rebels, especially those fighting in the Qusayr district just north of the border.
The army’s measures around Arsal have effectively neutralized the town from war in Syria to the disadvantage of Syrian rebels, further building resentment among the local population.
However, if the army pulls back without apprehending the suspects involved in the shootout, it risks undermining the integrity of the military. Arsal’s leaders are aware that the eyes of the Sunni community are upon them and they feel little pressure to yield fully to government demands.
Furthermore, the northern Bekaa is being gradually sucked into the vortex of Syria’s war that is raging just a few hundred meters from the border. Hezbollah fighters are battling Syrian rebels, including Lebanese volunteers from Arsal and other Bekaa villages, in the Qusayr area.
So far, both sides have refrained from dragging the conflict into Lebanese territory, seemingly mindful of the consequences that such a step would have on internal stability. But the border is slowly dissolving as the conflict next door intensifies. Syrian rebel forces allege that Hezbollah has been firing Katusha rockets against their positions from Hawsh Sayyed Ali, a belt of orchards north of Hermel on the border. Then mid-February, General Selim Idriss, chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, issued an ultimatum to Hezbollah — desist from operations in Syria or the FSA will take the war into Lebanon.
Residents of Arsal say that Hezbollah has deployed fighters into the rugged barren mountains east of Ras Baalbek to set up observation posts and ambush points to block rebels from moving between Arsal and the border. If true, clashes can be expected in these remote hills. Even if a face-saving deal is reached over Arsal to resolve the immediate crisis, it is unlikely that the town will stay out of the news for long.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London