The Chouf mountains, home to Lebanon’s Druze community, is swathed in white mist. Clouds hang over the lush valleys and stony peaks of the Barouk and Niha mountain chains, separating the Chouf from the fertile Bekaa Valley. It was exactly two years ago that these white peaks witnessed a battle between Druze fighters, mostly from Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, and Hezbollah during the week-long May events that shook Beirut and parts of Mount Lebanon.
In one exchange, 13 Hezbollah vehicles and their fighters were encircled and captured (elsewhere on the mountain Hezbollah suffered fatalities). However, the PSP fighters were ordered to hand over the prisoners and their positions to the Lebanese army. “This was a political decision that resulted from the intervention of [Parliament Speaker] Nabih Berri, [Hezbollah chief] Hassan Nasrallah, and Walid Jumblatt,” says Shawki Zeidan, a PSP official and civil war veteran. The battle was a contributing factor to the end of the hostilities and led to the Doha Agreement, the appointment of Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and the formation of what was called a “consensus” government.
The Barouk mountain chain, one of Lebanon’s few wildlife sanctuaries, extends into the Niha region before blending into the southern Jezzine area – Hezbollah’s new northern frontier after the 2006 war, which also saw the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers south of the Litani river. A mass of arid peaks, Niha is one of the Druze’s holiest places, home to the shrine of Naby Ayoub, or Job, a handsome white structure that towers over the grassy valleys below.
“The village [of Niha] has been the talk of the Druze community in recent weeks, as rumors circulated that Jumblatt has allowed Hezbollah to take up positions in surrounding areas” since his political volte-face last August, says one PSP member who preferred not to be named. Naji Alameh, another Druze fighter from they Aley area, denied the rumors, saying simply: “I could not believe there was any truth to them.”
The mist fades into the warm afternoon sun. We hike a few kilometers above the shrine of Nabi Ayoub. On a small plain lying between two stony twin peaks, a young Hezbollah fighter dressed in fatigues is on the lookout. A few meters separate him from the entrance of what appears to be a small bunker carved into the rock and protected by a grayish stone wall and a metallic door. He runs down from his position. “What are you doing here? This is a military position,” he shouts, brandishing his machine gun. “No one is allowed around here!” He pauses for breath, still astonished by our presence. “You’re in luck. We usually shoot anyone who crosses the area.”
He asks about our plans, searching us before ordering us out of the area. An older fighter stands by the entrance of the bunker looking on. A few meters away from the bunker, empty artillery positions have been dug in the reddish soil. The young fighter tails us at a distance, before once again running up to us, walkie-talkie in hand. “You are not allowed further,” he shouts. “The whole area in front of you is a military zone. You have to cut through the Bekaa.” He pauses. A big childish grin sweeps across his face: “I am not the Lebanese army. I am Hezbollah.”
In the valley below, Druze residents are concerned by these developments. “The area should not hold any strategic importance for Hezbollah, which has built much of its success around unconventional guerilla warfare,” says a former army general. “This position is not far from the old Israeli outposts and can be easily spotted by reconnaissance planes and destroyed by airstrikes without much difficulty.” Indeed military sources confirmed that two Israeli bunkers built in the 1980s run deep into the mountain.
The general believes that the new Hezbollah positions are essentially a political statement. “They can, however, be used either for observation or communication purposes,” he adds, although another PSP fighter said that to his knowledge Hezbollah’s communication networks lie away from Niha, further the south, in the Jezzine and Jabal Safi area. Nonetheless, Hezbollah’s positions are a concern for the Druze. “Control of the heights has long been important in time of war,” explains Alameh. “In this particular situation, it can provide domination over the whole Druze region below.”
Mona Alami NOW Lebanon
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