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Ana Maria Luca

Politics and property

The 6,000-square-meter plot of land straddles the towns of Jdeideh and Fanar, north of Beirut.  It is situated between the villages of Rwayssat and Zaatryieh, two Shia neighborhoods largely inhabited by refugees, who moved there from Bekaa Valley after the civil war. 

In 2007, a wealthy Christian businessman sold the land to an Islamic non-governmental organization led by a current Hezbollah minister. The transaction was officially registered in 2008, but, it was only a month ago that members of the Jdeideh municipality first saw the contract and noticed that the value of the land declared was much lower than its real price.  The land’s estimated value is approximately 10 million dollars, but the contract put the value at around half a million dollars.

When it was leaked to the media a few weeks ago, the case raised eyebrows.  It was not the tax evasion allegations against Minister of Agriculture Hussein Hajj Hassan that got people talking.  It was the transaction between businessman Jean Abou Jaoudeh, a Christian, and the Islamic Association for Education, an Islamic NGO closely linked to Hezbollah, that started a dangerous Christian-Shia quarrel on who controls which part of Lebanon.  The rift revealed deep-rooted sectarian resentments. 

Politicians say the dispute is not about individuals buying an apartment, but about Hezbollah purchasing strategically positioned pieces of land.

Christian political parties in the March 14 coalition, namely the Lebanese and Phalange Forces, reacted aggressively to the land purchase by accusing Hezbollah of having a “bit-by-bit” strategy of taking over Christian and Druze lands. “It is a purely political move and its purpose is to provoke a demographic change and modify the region’s profile,” Phalanges MP Sami Gemayel told MTV.

While Hezbollah remains silent on the matter, other Shia politicians, such as Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, say the whole issue is being exaggerated.   Berri expressed his disappointment over the debate, saying there is always a campaign against Hezbollah whenever a Shia buys a piece of land in a Christian area.  He also pointed out that the most expensive real estate in Shia areas is owned by non-Shia.

"We are working to fortify Lebanon to be a space for work, dialogue and agreement against its mere enemy, Israel," Berri added.

While Berri downplayed the issue, other Christian politicians say transactions such as the one in Jdeideh are taking place all over Lebanon. In some neighborhoods of Beirut, such as Hadath, Christians have agreed not to sell property to Shia buyers in order to “preserve their community”, municipality employees told NOW Lebanon. But the agreement also applies to Shia members who don’t support Hezbollah.

“It’s a strategy. They have techniques of taking over the land bit by bit and then linking those bits,” Jdeideh municipality council member Adel Elia told NOW Lebanon. “In the 1960s, the Christian community used to own 60% of the land in Lebanon. Now it’s just 30%,” he said.

According to Serge Dagher, the head of media department for the Phalange party, the problem is not with individuals from the Shia community buying property, but with Hezbollah, an armed group outside the Lebanese state that is acquiring strategic property.

“If somebody, a Shia individual, buys an apartment or a piece of land, it’s not a problem. Hezbollah is different, it’s obviously strategic. Hezbollah usually buys land in high positions, overseeing roads or strategic objectives, or closing access to some objectives,” he told NOW Lebanon.

Elia says that when the Jdeideh municipality council found out about the transaction, they discussed it in a meeting, which was attended by the former landowner.

“He said he needed the money,” Elia said.  “But we don’t believe him, he doesn’t have financial problems. I think he is trying to become a candidate for the next parliamentary elections. Now, we are trying to see if the municipality can take the land back and turn it into public property.”

After Lebanese journalist George Eid disclosed the details of the affair in a report on MTV he said he received threats.
“I got this phone call and somebody told me ‘you’re playing with fire’,” he told NOW Lebanon. 

Land seller Abou Jaoudeh filed a lawsuit against MTV for libel.  Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan would not provide any comment to NOW Lebanon on the matter.

According to the Lebanese Forces international affairs advisor Elie Khoury, transactions similar to the one in Jdeiddeh took place in the Jezzine area, the bay of Litani, Marjayoun and Hasbaya in South Lebanon, as well as along the Blue Line and in Jbeil.  Khoury said Christians and Druze who relocated during the civil war and don’t want to return to their original land and therefore sell it at a low cost, around five or six dollars per square meter.

“It’s too obvious to be just a coincidence,” he told NOW Lebanon, as he read from the two-page list of transactions that his party had put together.  He said that in the Bay of Litani, a Shia businessman who appeared to be middle class, bought 1.5 million-square-meters of land, implying that the funds came from an outside entity. 

In another case in the Jezzine area, Khoury said a 2.2 million-square-meter farm has been turned into a Hezbollah military compound, and that last year, a Lebanese Armed Forces helicopter was shot down while flying over the area.   Other big pieces of land in Deir Mimas, Marjayoun, Burghuz in Hasbaya were bought by those associated with Hezbollah, he said.

Many Shia families have moved out of Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods like Dahiyeh into areas like Hadath, on the outskirts of Beirut, according to the employees of that municipality.  They say Christian landlords made an agreement to no longer sell property to Shia, but only to rent. “We are trying to preserve our community,” one Hadath municipality worker said.  “They are our neighbors, we live in peace, but it’s our way to preserve our identity.”

Nadine Elali contributed reporting to this article

  • Noni A

    I am not a fervent supporter of the Hizb but I find this approach unacceptable. We should have learned now after all these years that communitarism is destructive and reaches sometimes an intolerable level of racism. People who claim they are against this transaction because of the Hizb and not the shiiaa are hypocrites and liars.

    November 7, 2010

  • John

    AS LONG AS THE STORY IS FACTUAL< THERE IS NO PROBLEM, WHY DO THE LEBANESE LIKE TO HIDE THE TRUTH?

    November 6, 2010

  • Aysha

    Nothing new in this method of infiltration. How do people think Hizbully and their weapons instantly appeared in the areas they did in 2008. Truth is they didn't instantly appear. They were already there, and had been for some time. Wake up Lebanon.

    November 6, 2010

  • Tannourine

    dont you love it howminister Husein hajj hassan always seems to leave us with no comment on the issues that matter....

    November 6, 2010

  • Arzak Ya Libnan

    Tamer, pplease read the article correctly, and kindly note that this progressive website did try to contact eh other side of the conflict who in turn refused to answer any questions. what do they have to hide?????

    November 5, 2010

  • Fadi

    Well tamer if u have another cite/quote the other way around kindly share..

    November 5, 2010

  • Tarek Rossi

    tamerk, seriously which part of "Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan would not provide any comment to NOW Lebanon on the matter" did you have trouble understanding? Does your reaction to anything pertaining to HA so knee-jerk and instinctive you automatically begin typing before reaching that part? When HA uses Iranian money to buy massive chunks of land in predominately Christian areas people start to wonder and worry, especially knowing HA's ideology of establishing an Iranian style Islamic republic. Before accusing others of inflaming sectarian tensions maybe HA should start acknowledging that other sects actually live in this country and stop saying they should be terrified if they don't follow the dictates of the supreme leader Nasralla. You see we will not accept the fate of other Christians in the ME.

    November 5, 2010

  • t.k

    from a website that claims to be so progressive it's so sad that this article only chooses to cite/quote one side of the issue and inflame sectarian tensions.

    November 5, 2010