Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Religion

LEBANON: Druze Take On Hezbollah, Because They Must

Mona Alami

BEIRUT, May 21 2008 (IPS) - Ghostly white sculptures are scattered along the greenery on each side of a sinuous road leading up to a Lebanese mountain range, their silhouettes contrasting against the violet sky. This area, known as the Symposium in Aley, Mount Lebanon, is located behind the infamous ‘888’ mountaintop, a strategic point in Lebanese military history.

Silent witnesses to the fighting in Lebanon's mountains. Credit: Mona Alami

Silent witnesses to the fighting in Lebanon's mountains. Credit: Mona Alami

Recently, it was once again the scene of bloody combats, with Druze fighters battling Hezbollah militants. Old memories of war have been suddenly conjured up among the Druze – one of Lebanon’s smallest religious sects – fuelling sectarian sentiment.

A cohesive, close-knit community, the Lebanese Druze, also known as al-Mowahedoon (Unitarians), are comprised of some 250,000 people spread across Mount Lebanon, the Chouf area, Bekaa valley and South Lebanon. “The movement – which was initiated by Hamzah Bin Ali and originally split in 1017 from Ismail Shiism – is built on an esoteric interpretation of Islam and Sufism. Druze people were also warriors that historically defended the Muslim abode,” explains Dr. Sami Makarem, professor at the American University of Beirut and author of ‘The Druze Faith’.

Over the past three years, since the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, allegedly at the hands of Syria, the country has been divided between a pro-Western majority (the March 14 Movement) and a pro-Syrian and Iranian opposition. Comprising the March 14 majority is the Sunni Future Movement, the Christian Lebanese Forces and Kataeb party and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) – which boasts of the majority of Druze supporters and is led by Walid Joumblat, who also heads one of the most prominent Druze feudal families.

On the opposing side is Prince Talal Arslan, head of the Druze Democratic Party, which is allied with Shia opposition groups Hezbollah and Amal as well as the Christian Free Patriotic Movement.

Discord among the warring factions took a turn for the worse on May 7, when a scheduled labour protest morphed into a semi-coup. Over the course of seven days, brutal battles were unleashed in several Druze mountain villages between Druze fighters and Hezbollah militants after the ‘Party of God’ took over Beirut within hours on May 8. According to Wajdi Mrad, Aley’s mayor, tensions initially started to rise as reports of Hezbollah vans driving around the ‘888’ mountaintop and roadblocks being erected by militants circulated in the region.

In a fragmented country like Lebanon, villages, towns and regions have been historically tinted with sectarian colours, as most are inhabited by one dominant community or another, with the exception of Beirut, which is a melting pot of different sects. Any attempt to invade a particular territory is treated as a direct threat to the community. Thus, Hezbollah’s infiltration into Aley’s 888 Mountain on May 8 was seen as an attack on the Druze inhabitants in the area, and led to the killing of three of the militant group’s fighters, whose bodies were later paraded in town by Druze militia men.

The next day, four Druze members of the Aley municipal police were kidnapped by Hezbollah in retaliation, which led to a wave of violence in the mountain region in the Druze villages of Aley, Bayssour, Aytat and Choueifat, and the surrounding of the two Shia villages of Keyfoun and Qmatieyh. Violence spread to the Druze strongholds of Barouk and Niha in the Chouf, where attempted Hezbollah operations were aborted by Druze fighters and dozens of the party’s gunmen were arrested and remanded to the Lebanese army.

“The events that took place in the mountains initially resulted from the killing of the three Hezbollah members and were politically motivated without any confessional dimensions,” says lawyer Malek Arslan, member of Arslan’s Democratic Party. The death toll in the battles remains much disputed on both sides of the divide: according to the PSP, some 19 Druze and 40 Hezbollah fighters were killed during the conflict, while a Hezbollah source would only confirm the death of 11 of its militants.

Little is known of Hezbollah’s true intentions in the mountains, and theories about the party’s motivation remain controversial. One explanation stems from the geographical location of the two Shia enclaves of Qmatieh and Qayfoun within the dominant Druze area. The seizure of Choueifat would have allowed Hezbollah to connect the two villages to their stronghold in Dahyeh, in the suburbs of Beirut. The incentive to converge Shia areas could account for the party’s use of excessive force, including the bombing of Choueifat using heavy weapons like 106mm and 23mm rockets.

Many in the Druze community, however, remain doubtful as to the reasons behind Hezbollah’s attack on their villages.

“What motivated Hezbollah to send fighters into the region? I am absolutely sure they were not from – with the exception of one – Keyfoun or Qmatieh, but from the South,” says Mrad, who was injured in the battle that took place on the ‘888’ mountain. The mayor explains that he was visited by a delegation from Keyfoun, who came to inquire about his health and assure him that no feud would take place between the village residents and the Druze.

When gunfire erupted on the fronts of the ‘888’ mountain and Bayssour, Druze villagers sprang to defend their territory, taking their 15-year-old Kalashnikovs from the civil war days (which lasted from 1975-1990) and hunting rifles. “The Druze is the son of his land, which bears significant meaning to him. There is a trinity in the Druze belief between the soul, the body and the land,” said Makarem.

Every Druze house has weapons, says one Druze doctor who resides in the area and joined the new security apparatus that has been recently put in place in the mountain villages. “The PSP may still possess old weapons caches from the 1980s, but most villagers automatically seized any weapons they could get their hands on, whether a knife, rifle or gun as they heard the sounds of shooting and bombing resonating in the valley,” he recalls.

The physician, who participated in the 1975 war when he was just 14, never expected to revert once again to the language of weapons. “We were under attack and reacted accordingly. Our priority is to defend our homes, our land and our families. It is a matter of honour for us. What is life worth living if I am subjected to the killing of my family, or humiliation?” he asks.

According to Makarem, the Druze belief is built on three aspects of existence, each complemented by four essential qualities. “The mind is dovetailed by wisdom, the heart by courage, and the body by moderation. The fourth quality linking the other three together is the accomplishment of justice.”

In the streets of Choueifat, justice and honour seem to be closely intertwined in the Druze collective unconscious. “Hezbollah staged a coordinated attack on our village. My neighbours, who I have lived with for more than 20 years and who belong to Hezbollah, left two days before the attack. Militia men stormed the village, putting guns to our heads, destroying religious and political symbols,” says a mother of three, who supports Arslan’s opposition Democratic Party.

“I used to support the resistance against Israel and Hezbollah’s defence of its weapons. But, here in Choueifat, fighters from the Party of God treated us as if we were Israelis, regardless of whether or not we belonged to the PSP or their allies, the Democratic Party,” she adds, clearly shaken.

A few steps away, in the Old Souk area, which witnessed the brunt of the battle, a young girl, May Tarrabay, told IPS: “I am extremely distraught at the turn of events. I will face difficulties in trusting Hezbollah once again, or any member of the Shia community. It is sad that it has come to this.”

In Druze areas, the political divide among the population seems to have faded away. “For the Druze, political dissensions vanish when the community is under attack,” says Makarem. “This can be attributed to our minority position and to our Unitarian beliefs.”

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