In Southern Lebanon, a Minority Still Dreams of Escaping Hezbollah's Stranglehold

Twenty years after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, the pro-Iranian party reigns supreme in the border strip.

Facing Israel, a giant rigid poster of Qasem Soleimani points to Jerusalem. Photo P.K.

In the "Garden of Iran," located in the border village of Maroun el-Ras in southern Lebanon, a giant poster of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps who was killed in a US raid in January in Baghdad, appears to taunt the Israelis. The poster, raised in front of a Palestine flag, points to Jerusalem, which, according to the signs placed in the village, is 160 kilometers away.

Hezbollah built this huge public garden, which overlooks Israeli collective farms and agricultur-al fields, with Iran's help after the July 2006 war.

Here, lectures are held in an auditorium named after Imam Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Islamic Revolution's supreme leader, and barbecues and picnics are organized under 33 concrete per-golas marking the 33 days of the July 2006 war, which broke out between Hezbollah and the Israelis. Each pergola is named after an Iranian province.

Twenty years after Israel's withdrawal from the "security zone" it had created along its border with Lebanon, Hezbollah reigns supreme more than ever before in southern Lebanon. The group has become stronger year after year, despite the deployment of the United Nations Inter-im Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) which was reinforced following the adoption of UN Security Coun-cil Resolution 1701, that ended the 2006 war, as well as the deployment of the Lebanese army in the same year.

"The feeling of intense joy is still as it was 20 years ago, when Israeli troops withdrew from the border zone. It was our victory over the enemy," said Abbas, 47, who was sweeping the side-walk outside his grocery store in Maroun el-Ras. At his side, his 23-year-old daughter, clad in an Iranian-style black chador, nodded, even though she vaguely remembered that day and the day she returned to the liberated village, together with her family who was living in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

At the "resistance square," a roundabout between Maroun el-Ras, Bint Jbeil, Ainata and Ai-taroun, an area that witnessed heavy fighting in 2006, Hezbollah's yellow flags fluttered in the wind, just like the banners paying tribute to the Party of God for May 25, the day marking the withdrawal of the Israeli army in 2000.

Qassem, a 25-year-old supermarket owner who was living in the southern suburbs of Beirut, returned to his village of Aitaroun five years ago." Here, it is better for business. I feel at home and safe even if the Israeli enemy is just a stone's throw away. Here, Hezbollah protects me."

In this border area, nothing is possible without Hezbollah's consent. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly difficult for journalists to work freely. Their papers are checked several times by men who refuse to identify themselves and their cars are followed by vehicles with tinted win-dows.

While many do not hide their support for Hezbollah, some people in this region are against the party's stranglehold, even if they are not the majority and are afraid of expressing themselves freely.

"We have changed occupiers"

"It is very simple. To say what we think, we shouldn't be needing Hezbollah ('s support). A gro-cer who criticizes them, for example, will see that he no longer has a clientele as they would spread the word to bring him to his knees; and so no one in the village will buy anything from him," said Ayman from Houla, a border village with many supporters of the Communist Party. "With the Amal Movement, Hezbollah has also infiltrated all state services. I was kicked out of my job as a contract teacher in a public high school because I was openly criticizing the party, not in my classes but in my private life. It is simple, the (school) director is one of them," he added. Ayman is not the only one facing such a situation.

Other public teachers as well as nurses and doctors at public hospitals in Bint Jbeil and Mar-jeyoun say they have lost their jobs over the past 20 years for the same reason.

Yet, many of them had paid a high price for the fight against Israel. Zeinab Fouani (Oum Khaled), an octogenarian who had 10 children, is an example. Oum Khaled, also from "Red Houla," lost five of her children in operations against the Israeli occupiers during the 1980s.

Still alert and possessing all her mental abilities, she wiped away her tears as she recalled how her children were killed during paramilitary operations."My children were imprisoned, not only in jails run by the Israelis in Ansar and Khiam but also in one controlled by the Amal Movement in Zefta. Are you talking about liberation? We have only changed the occupier," said the wom-an, who joined the Lebanese Communist Party in 1954 and surely does not mince her words.

Fouani still dreams of recovering the body of her son Farjallah, who was killed when he was 22 years old in an operation against the Israelis in 1987. She recited the letter he had written to her on the eve of his death, and which began with "when you wake up, I will be gone."

"Israel is gone, but today we are occupied by militiamen and thieves," she said, referring par-ticularly to the current economic crisis.

In Kfar Kila, which faces the Israeli town of Metoulla, a concrete wall was built by the Israelis in 2012 to avoid militant tourism. For years, buses carrying Hezbollah supporters or Palestinian refugees used to stop there to throw stones at the enemy. "For me, Israel does not exist. I feel so safe thanks to Hezbollah," said a mechanic.

In a café across from the wall, three men talk about the economic crisis. "At the time of the Is-raeli occupation, there was money. The inhabitants of the border area were the richest in southern Lebanon. Today, we are struggling to ensure our daily bread," said one man. Another added: "It is almost the same thing. The Israeli occupiers have been replaced by another form of occupation, and on top of that came the economic crisis."

Under the occupation, the Israelis paid not only the members of the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA), the militia they had established, but also hundreds of people, men and women, who went to work in factories and hotels in the Galilee.

The Money from Israel

In the village of Kfar Kila, Moussa was riding his motorbike when his comrades called out to him by his nickname in Hebrew, "Moshe." Moussa, in his forties, is a former SLA militiaman, who also worked in the fields across the border. After the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, he served a year in prison but in this Shiite village, the inhabitants still call him a "col-labo." "I worked very little with the SLA, then I became a day laborer in the kibbutzim. Today too, I am a daily worker in Lebanon. No, I did not make any friends in Israel. But when Israel was here, we had a lot more money," he said.

During the Israeli occupation, those who did not leave their villages were forced to collaborate with the occupying forces and their proxy militias. This is why many teenagers left the occupied area to settle elsewhere, often far from their families.

In the border Christian villages which suffered from the control of the Palestinian fedayeen be-fore being occupied by Israel, people remain on their guard and prefer not to mention this pe-riod in history.

Mohammad, a former Communist Party official from Aitaroun, took part in the massacres that were committed in the nearby Christian village of Aishiyeh in 1976. "I was very young, I did not understand that war leads nowhere, and up until now I regret it. I fled my village when the Is-raeli troops arrived in 1978. I came back eight years later to carry out a paramilitary opera-tion," he recalled, sitting on his terrace. "Look at the tree on the hill. When I got there in 1986, it was night and there was no electricity. When I distinguished my house, I started to cry," he said, moved by the memory.

"Even today, 20 years after the Israeli withdrawal, Lebanon is still living with the after-effects of the war; look at the control of militias that want to muzzle members of their own community. We must build a new Lebanon, a country where everyone will live in peace," he said.

Sadek, who also belongs to the Communist Party, explained that "the Israeli army left so that others come to make the law. We dreamed of building a state that takes care of its citizens. Our only salvation now is the October 17 Revolution. It is the one that will bring down Hezbollah and with it all the warlords."

(This artcle was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 25th of May)

In the "Garden of Iran," located in the border village of Maroun el-Ras in southern Lebanon, a giant poster of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps who was killed in a US raid in January in Baghdad, appears to taunt the Israelis. The poster, raised in front of a Palestine flag, points to Jerusalem, which, according to the signs placed in the...

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