Ayoub did not need his legs to stand up for his family. When he found out that his brother was missing, he did not think twice. He went to the mosque and waited for the sheikh to arrive for evening prayer. From the height of his wheelchair Ayoub gave the cleric a piece of his mind. “I told him: ‘You shall not preach here as long as I live! Where is my brother?! Tell me where they took my brother!’”
Sheikh Bilal Shahimi, the imam of Ali Ibn Abi Talib Mosque in Saadnayel, is close to Hezbollah — the villagers know it. Together with several family members, he has been recruiting young men from the Sunni town for the party’s Saraya Mouqawama [Resistance Brigades], where Hezbollah assigns supporters who do not meet the religious and ideological conditions to join the party.
Ayoub’s brother had joined the Saraya and there were rumors in town that he had been sent to Syria together with other young men from Saadnayel. Ayoub posted a Facebook status: “I will not let the sheikh enter the mosque if he doesn’t tell me where my brother is. Whoever is man enough should come to stand with me.” Then he went to the mosque. Many people from the town — parents and relatives of the recruited youths — indeed stood with him.
Young men from the village say that they now look up to Ayoub for his courage. “He was the one who started all of this and the people followed and stopped the sheikh from going to the mosque that night. [Sheikh Shahimi] came back with 10 armed men — Palestinians from the village — and they shot at us with a machinegun,” a young resident of Saadnayel says while showing NOW the way to Ayoub’s house. “[Ayoub] is in a wheelchair,” he says, “but he has guts.”
Ayoub adjusts the remote-controlled bed. He says he’s still angry. “[Sheikh Shahimi] has been preaching here for 20 years already. I have no idea if he was Hezbollah’s man before, but he started recruiting young men from the town three years ago.”
It was precisely three years ago, during an incident involving the Resistance Brigades, when Ayoub was put into a wheelchair. Sheikh Shahimi was also involved. “Three years ago many people from the village wanted him to leave the mosque because of his Hezbollah affiliation. I did not interfere at first. I wanted to stay out of trouble,” he said. But a friend’s family went against the sheikh after he recruited one of their sons, and Ayoub backed them up. That is when the boys from the Brigades shot at him. A bullet hit Ayoub’s spine and left him paralyzed from the waist down.
The Resistance Brigadeswere set up in 1997 as a separate body of Hezbollah’s military to accommodate non-Shiites within the Islamic resistance against the Israeli occupation. It incorporated Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze who wanted to join the fight and participate in attacks against the Israeli army. The occupation ended in 2000, but the Brigades still exist. Their presence in the Bekaa Valley and South Lebanon has been heavily criticized within the Sunni community over the years, especially since the Future Movement made Hezbollah’s weapons one of its main grievances in 2005. Some Future Movement politicians even tried to put the dismantling of the Resistance Brigades on the agenda of the ongoing dialogue with Hezbollah, but in vain.
“What is, in fact, the Resistance Brigades? It’s a kind of tool to create divisions among families and communities,” Future Bloc Bekaa coordinator Ayoub Kazoun told NOW. “They see the weakness in people — they search for people who need financial help, who have financial problems; they approach them and use the excuse of fighting terrorism and fighting Israel.” Kazoun says the recruiting in Sunni communities across the Bekaa Valley has become more aggressive and overt in the past two years, and he believes it’s a political strategy to keep the Sunni community from threatening Hezbollah’s domestic political plans while the party is busy fighting in Syria.
Dividing the Sunnis
“Hezbollah is well-connected everywhere in the region and even some clerics are in its pocket,” said Ali Majzoub, secretary of Majdal Anjar municipality. “They’re using the unemployed, the poor. Every young man has the ambition to own a car, a mobile phone etc. That’s how these groups can use these young men. It was more discreet before 2013, but now it has become very clear.” But Majzoub says the Resistance Brigades are not kept active for the sake of recruiting new soldiers for the Syrian fronts. According to Kazoun, even when Lebanese Sunnis support the Hezbollah-led March 8 movement politically, they don’t sign up to fight in Syria.
“Hezbollah had a clear strategy after it got involved in Syria: to let the Lebanese Army fight in Arsal and protect its back in Lebanon, because it wanted to concentrate only on fighting in Syria,” he said. “But that did not work, so it focused on recruiting for Saraya Mouqawamaand had a view [of the situation inside the Sunni community] that turned out to be wrong.”
Kazoun says the Sunni community was disappointed with the Future Movement’s weakness after Saad Hariri’s government fell in 2011 and the Syrian uprising started, and that this paved the way for Hezbollah to interfere. “But their calculations turned out to be wrong: Future Movement supporters did not engage in domestic fights against other Sunni members of the Resistance Brigades. There are people who come and tell us that they are working with the Saraya Mouqawama and they tell us why. We know exactly what the situation is. And we know they will not be sent to the front.”
In the region around Majdal Anjar, a town situated just a mile away from the Masnaa border crossing with Syria, the Resistance Brigades openly recruits members and makes its presence very visible. “I think it is recruitment strategy,” says Majzoub. “The more they show off; the more they show they are powerful, the more members join. They are very smart, these people in Hezbollah — they know how to deal with every community. Here, they take people who have problems with the authorities or who have arrest warrants issued in their names. They solve their problems and then they ask them to cooperate.”
Mazjoub says that no recruits from the Majdal Anjar area fight in Syria and he doesn’t believe any Sunni member of the Resistance Brigades has sent to the front. “But they are sent to trainings, just in case they might be needed. What the Sunnis are used for, however, are reconnaissance missions in Syria, as they have access to rebel areas and make good informants.
“They offer some money; around $400 per month. But more than that, they offer weapons, and, most of all, protection and the illusion that they are powerful. They can do whatever they want; they’re protected, they don’t get arrested. Nobody even questions them,” Ayoub says. “My brother was recruited and taken to a training camp in Baalbek. When he came back, I tried to convince him to quit. He didn’t, and he left again recently.”
When his brother did not come back and rumors began to circulate that the young men from the town might have died in Syria, Ayoub wanted answers. He got one answer, but no explanations: his brother was in Baalbek for training. Ayoub shrugs. He says as long as his brother is alive, he’s at peace.
Stirring the spirits of war
Sheikh Shahimi hasn’t stepped foot in the Ali Ibn Abi Talib Mosque since the protest against him last week. The sermons and prayers are now held by Sheikh Issa Kheireddine, who is also being tasked with deescalating the conflict. “There is no real solution to these problems,” he told NOW. “This is happening in Saadnayel, Majdel Anjar, Bar Elias and other towns in the Bekaa Valley. We are trying to spread awareness among the youth to limit the recruitments.”
For Sheikh Kheireddine the situation is dangerously close to a civil war. “If the plan was to resist Israel, the Sunni communities do not have a problem joining the Resistance. But if the plan was to find the weakness of the Sunni community and take advantage of its fears, this is not the way things work. The Sunni people, who see Saraya al-Mouqawama members holding weapons, shooting people, driving cars with tinted windows and acting like thugs, will not accept this. This will create more tension and more division,” he warned. “This is not the Lebanon we want. I do not want to live in an extremist country. I want to live with the Christians and the Shiites and the Druze.”
Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609
Myra Abdallah contributed reporting and translating.