Shebaa, Lebanon: As this country teeters on the edge of a sectarianist abyss, there is one small area that has managed to immunise itself against any potential internal explosion – despite seemingly having all the necessary ingredients to ignite.
Shebaa, a largely Sunni town of 25,000 people on the south-eastern tip of Lebanon, is perched approximately 1,500 metres above sea level, and spread across two steep, rocky mountainsides overlooking a bubbling stream. On one side, it shares a border with Syria. On the other, it shares a border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
To add yet another complexity, the Shebaa Farms, fields of arable farmland adjacent to Shebaa and owned by Lebanese residents of the town, remain under Israeli occupation.
And unlike other border Sunni towns here, such as Majdal Anjar in the north of Lebanon and Arsal in the Bekaa Valley, Shebaa has an eclectic mix of opposing political and religious factions. It also has to deal with an influx of Syrian refugees flowing in over the border. Yet none of these complexities have brought the town into confrontations either with its neighbours, or between townsfolk themselves.
Baathist versus Salafist
The MP for the area of Arqoub, of which Shebaa is a part, is a Baath Party member who has been returned to his seat for the past 12 years.
Qassem Hashem, sitting in his media office in the southern town of Marjeyoun, explained that, despite the direction in which the country appears to be moving, Shebaa has been able to isolate itself from the strife.
“The presence of Islamist groups such as Jamaa al Islamiya and the Salafist movement are not new to the area, they have been around for a while,” he told Al Jazeera, dismissing recent claims of the emergence of an Islamist presence in the area, provoking tensions in light of recent events both in Tripoli and in Sidon.
“When the situation in Syria started, all the different political factions, which include the Future Movement, the Baath Party, the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the pro-Hezbollah groups, sat together and took the decision to not allow the instability from both inside Lebanon and inside Syria to spill into Arqoub and Shebaa,” he said.
Even if politically we are not all on the same page, we all agree that maintaining stability and security is key.
“Even if politically we are not all on the same page, we all agree that maintaining stability and security is key.”
These claims were repeated by residents of Shebaa, both by Baathists and their traditional foes, the Salafists.
Sheikh Mohammad al Zoughbi, the Salafist sheikh of Shebaa, confirmed Hashem’s sentiment, adding the purpose of such a move was to “neutralise the area from the effects of Syria”.
Maintaining an active presence in Shebaa, Zoughbi pointed out that, as Salafists, they only became organised as a movement after the liberation of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation in the year 2000 – but they have been present in the area since the 1980s.
The Salafist movement in Lebanon has recently emerged as one of the alternative forces on the ground, after what many here feel is a disconnect between the Sunni community and mainstream politicians. This is partly due to the lack of coherent leadership, and also due to events in neighbouring Syria.
Recent clashes between armed groups and the Lebanese army in the southern city of Sidon, as well as in the northern city of Tripoli, both predominantly Sunni areas, have left many within the community believing there to be a targeted campaign against their sect, a rhetoric much touted by the more extreme elements of the community.
Clerics within the Salafist movement and close to the movement, such as recent fugitive Ahmed al-Assir, have pointed to these clashes and accused the Lebanese army of being in cahoots with both the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, as well as Iran, to push forward an agenda which targets the Sunni community.
Zoughbi admits the frustration voiced by some elements of the Sunni community elsewhere in Lebanon has resonated within Shebaa as well.
“There is definitely a feeling deep within the Sunni community that the military intelligence is close to Hezbollah, or working on a pro-Hezbollah agenda,” he said.
“But in Shebaa these are just people talking about their frustrations. It hasn’t turned into action, and we don’t have the environment for escalation.”
Yet despite the increasing political and sectarian rhetoric emerging from other Salafists in the country, Zoughbi remains non-political.
Shebaa is the grave of political parties.
“As Salafists we are all one group, and it is true, some have taken on a political interest,” Zoughbi told Al Jazeera from his office in Sidon. “This is not supposed to happen… we do have our own political views, however.”
“We have a relationship with everyone,” he said, pointing out that it is not unusual to find many of the families in Shebaa with family members in opposing political factions.
“The people of Shebaa and those surrounding act like one big village… If there is an issue between two people who are politically opposed to each other, the politics is left at the door, and the issue is resolved between the individuals and their families.
“Shebaa is the grave of political parties”
Once the influx of Syrian refugees began two years ago, Zoughbi said the decision was taken by political and religious factions in Shebaa to increase the presence of the Lebanese army on the border, in an effort to limit the entry of those who were not coming in for humanitarian reasons.
“After we saw what happened to other areas in Lebanon, we all agreed that there should be no military presence either entering Syria from Shebaa or coming in from Syria to Shebaa,” he said.
Currently there are approximately 2,700 Syrian refugees residing in Shebaa, most having come in on foot from neighbouring Jib Janine.
We have one enemy
Mohammad Markis was born and raised in Shebaa, only fleeing the area during the Israeli occupation. Returning after the liberation in 2000, he now owns a petrol station next to his house that looks out onto the vast mountainside, a large Israeli observation point looming on one of the peaks.
For him, it is unsurprising Shebaa has remained immune to Lebanon’s chaos, as historically the area never played a role in the civil war.
“While there is an environment that supports the Syrian rebels, it hasn’t reached the point of physically helping them with weapons,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the political factions agreed very early that no events or demonstrations supporting either side would be held in Shebaa.
A supporter of armed Lebanese resistance against Israeli incursions, he confirmed the statements made by Zoughbi. “Even during this period of instability, there haven’t been any clashes here,” he said. “We all know each other and see each other on a daily basis.
“I would say 80 percent of the people living here aren’t into the internal politics of the country.
I would say 80 percent of the people living here aren't into the internal politics... Our enemy has always been Israel.
“This area is already highly sensitive due to its geographic location… Even when there was the civil war it didn’t reach us. Our enemy has always been Israel,” he said. “They are on our doorstep, on our land. We are living this.”
This characteristic is what makes Shebaa stand apart from the rest of Lebanon, according to Hashem.
“Our enemy is Israel,” he said. “We face the Israeli occupation every single day.”
Reports from Shebaa demonstrate a slew of Israeli violations; Israeli armed forces frequently cross the fence in the area, or fighter jets violate Lebanese airspace, or Israeli armed forces detain shepherds in the area, the most recent of which occurred on Tuesday.
Zoughbi feels the rest of the country lost sight of the nation’s enemy in 2008, when clashes erupted in Beirut between the two opposing political camps.
“We watched it on TV from Shebaa, and came to the sad realistion that their first interest was no longer fighting Israel, but rather each other,” he said.
“It’s really sad what is happening to the rest of the country,” one of his followers told Al Jazeera.
“We wish the rest of Lebanon could be like Shebaa.”
Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Nour_Samaha