Late last Saturday night, Hussein Kamel Jaafar, a member of the Beqaa Valley’s infamous Jaafar clan, was kidnapped near the town of Arsal. Since his abduction, a spate of new tit-for-tat kidnappings has been ongoing involving Arsal residents and members of the Jaafar clan. As of late this afternoon, two residents have been abducted in the Beqaa town of Chaat, the Vice President of Arsal’s Municipality Ahmad Fleeti told NOW.
In order to better understand how the hostage negotiation process between the two groups will proceed NOW spoke to local figures in Arsal and the Jaafar clan.
According to a member of the Jaafar clan who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons, when Tribe Y kidnaps a member of Tribe X, tribal code dictates that Tribe X retaliates by kidnapping a member of Tribe Y. In this case, Tribe Y is not so much a tribe, but what he described to NOW as a “gang” of Syrians and Lebanese that kidnapped Hussein Kamel Jaafar Saturday and took him to a Syrian village called Yabrout. The group is rumored to be aligned with the armed Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad. The Jaafar clan responded by kidnapping 10 residents of Arsal, five of whom have since been released. With the members of each group holding opposing members for leverage, the negotiation process can begin.
“There is no official negotiation process,” said Fleeti. He maintained that negotiations happen between the two parties and that under such circumstances there is no government interference. This understanding is supported by a statement from Baalbek/Hermel MP Kamel Rifai (aligned with Hezbollah) saying that in such cases negotiations take place through “unofficial channels.”
Arsal is a predominately Sunni Muslim area, while the Jaafars hail from the predominately Shiite area of Hermel. While this has given the kidnappings a sectarian shadow, sources NOW interviewed maintained the kidnappings were “tribal matters” and were not related to sectarian conflict.
However, Arsal mayor Ali al-Houjeiri acknowledged that while the incident was not caused by sectarian differences, it could indeed aggravate them. “We ask the Jaafar family to avoid clashes and sectarian tension, and we ask the government to interfere and release the kidnapped,” Houjeiri said in a statement Thursday.
Whether or not sect plays a role, there remains a tense relationship between the Jaafars in Hermel and the residents of Arsal, making any prospect of hostage negotiation precarious.
Jaafar clan member said that after the kidnappings, officials from both sides typically meet to “put their demands on the table.” He said that the Future Movement’s Secretary General Ahmad al-Hariri visited clan leaders Yassine Jaafar and Ahmad Ali Jaafar to discuss demands, though it is not thought that Hariri is officially representing the kidnappers.
“The kidnappers asked for one million dollars and Ahmad Hariri interfered and postponed this demand,” said the Jaafar source.
He added that there is no deadline for negotiations and that both sides will discuss demands until a solution is met.
The Jaafar clan is one of the largest in Lebanon. Lebanon’s Hermel region, located in the northern Beqaa Valley on the Lebanese border with Syria, is home to many clans including the Jaafars. Geryes Mechref, a historian from the Beqaa Valley familiar with tribal practices, told NOW that clans from the Hermel region have a reputation for operating illegal activities like growing hashish and enforcing tribal justice. But there is another side.
“The clans are very logical in the way they operate,” said Mechref. It is tradition for clan elders to meet every time an issue arises. The clan allows each elder a chance to express their opinion on disputed subjects before the clan leader makes a ruling.
He also mentioned that loyalty is paramount to the clans. This loyalty is often reserved for clan members and family but can extend to those with positive personal ties to individuals in the clan. “This loyalty even supersedes the law,” he said, explaining that even if clan members are sought after by Lebanese security forces for illegal activity (for anything from petty theft to murder), it is the clan’s duty to defend their own.
The current saga is ongoing with figures from both sides calling for the release of their own kidnapped. Until a deal is reached the kidnappings threaten to continue and pull at the Beqaa’s sectarian fabric. Cutting a deal though may prove tedious. The kidnappers have demanded $1 million, but the source from the Jaafar clan believes there may be other motives at play. “The [kidnappers] demands till now are not clear,” he said.
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