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Rumble in the Bekaa

Yassin Jaafar is the major of Jiwar al Hashish, meaning the hashish neighbourhood, in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa valley. A more appropriate name is hardly conceivable because the Bekaa has for centuries been a byword for Lebanon’s hash cultivation and drugs trade. Yassin is also one of the heads of the powerful Jaafars, one of the big families of the Bekaa, who deal in drugs and have a reputation for crime and random violence.
Hezbollah in the Bekaa
Hezbollah in the Bekaa Imad Moughniyeh on a tank on the road to Baalbek photo by RedSnapper

“Hey, we deal in drugs but we are not thieves,” Jaafar objects, speaking in his sea-side apartment in Beirut, far away from turmoil of the Bekaa valley. He deplores the conflict with Lebanon’s army in which his family has become embroiled. Mid-April the Jaafars killed four soldiers in the Bekaa in revenge for the death of one of the leaders of the family’s drugs operation.

The Bekaa is a very sensitive area because it borders Syria and is the conduit for the weapons of the armed Shia Hezbollah movement to Beirut and the south. As in the south, Hezobllah is the de facto power on the ground but its relations with the big families of the valley have always been strained. Now it sits on the sidelines rubbing its hands as it watches Lebanon’s ramshackle army take on the crime families.

Just days after four soldiers had died in a revenge killing for the death of one of the leaders of the Jaafar family, armoured vehicles and jeeps were parked in the garden of Hassan Abbas Jaafar’s house in the Sharawneh neighbourhood of Baalbek, in the heart of the Bekaa valley. Soldiers were carrying out boxes and furniture, piling it on a big heap. Sharawneh, were many Jaafars live, had been surrounded by the army which had sworn to hunt down the killers.

The Jaafars immediately tried to restore relations with the army and promised to hand over the killers. “We are one hundred per cent behind the army,” says Yassin Jaafar. Everybody in Lebanon pays lip service to inviolability of the army, an institution that symbolises the fictional national unity of the country. Being made up of the country’s various sects, it is perpetually in danger of falling apart when it goes into action and it is no match for its most likely challengers, foreign and domestic.

In the Bekaa, as in the south and in the southern neighbourhoods of Beirut, the army and the police are mere bystanders. Even the traffic is often regulated by Hezbollah activists. For the army to act against the crime families it first had to receive the green light from Hezbollah, which it got earlier this year. According to people who know the area, Hezbollah’s involvement goes much further. “Hezbollah provides the intelligence because the army has not been present in these areas for decades.”

Yassin Jafar sounds resentful, both towards the authorities and towards Hezbollah. “Hezbollah weakens the families. They don’t deal with the heads but appoint lower members to important positions in order to divide us.” Despite widespread resentment in the Bekaa against Hezbollah, the movement dominates the valley both in security matters as politically. It is certain to win the Baalbek area in the upcoming elections in June and no member of the big families stands a chance.

The army’s campaign against the big families further weakens them and raises the question of the timing, ahead of the elections. Either the army is doing Hezbollah’s dirty work, as it is in several other instances, or the authorities and the party of God feel they have a common interest in this case.

For all his professed loyalty to the army, Yassin Jaafar complains about the attitude of Lebanon’s rulers. Crime in the Bekaa is mostly a problem of underdevelopment and neglect, he says. “They deal with us only through the stick of the army but are not present in any other way,” he says of the authorities.