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Clotilde BigotNovember 03, 2023
The Rev. Najib Amil, pastor of St. Georges, a Maronite parish in Rmeich in southern Lebanon on Oct. 23. Photo by Hunter Williamson.The Rev. Najib Amil, pastor of St. Georges, a Maronite parish in Rmeich in southern Lebanon on Oct. 23. Photo by Hunter Williamson.

On the hillsides around small Christian villages in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah fighters are launching rocket fire into Israel, inviting counter strikes from Israel Defence Forces just a few miles away. The tit for tat conflict has been continuing since the terrorist attack by Hamas forces on southern Israel on Oct. 7. In the middle of the two warring parties along the Lebanon border are ancient communities of Maronite, Melkite and Orthodox Christians.

Many Christians here, remembering the catastrophe of the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel and expecting this conflict to get much worse, have already abandoned these agricultural communities, leaving their homes and olive groves and finding refuge with family and friends far from the border. Virtually everyone from the Christian village of Alma al-Shaab has fled. Miled Eid, a former mayor of Alma al-Shaab, will not be among them.

“We stayed in 2006, so I will be staying,” he says.

Christians in the south feel caught in the crossfire; they are not against Hezbollah, but they do not support its attacks on Israel.

Alma al-Shaab is less than two miles away from the border with Israel. In this small village of about 800 Melkite and Maronite Christians, Mr. Eid owns a hotel, Alma Verdi, which has stayed open despite the unsettled situation.

“We have some journalists here sometimes, and I live in the hotel at this time.” Mr. Eid explains that he did not want to risk driving back and forth on roads that could come under I.D.F. attack.

The Rev. Maroun Gaafari, also plans to remain in the village. “My role as the head of the village church [Mars Elias] is to stay as long as there are civilians here,” he says.

“We believe that we should not have to leave our homes. This is a poor village. People here took years to build their houses, and in Lebanese culture, your house is a significant part of your identity, so we will not leave them.”

“We do not know what will happen, but many more people left than in 2006,” Father Gaafari says. About 60 residents remain in Alma al-Shaab. If the fighting intensifies, he believes the holdouts will leave too. Father Gaafari is also the head of a public school in the village; like others across the border region, it has been closed since the latest conflict began.

‘This is not our war’

Mr. Eid refers to Israel as “the enemy,” but like many people in southern Lebanon, he speaks perfect Hebrew. “We had been occupied for two decades”—from 1982 to 2000—he explains. People here believe the liberation of the south was achieved by Hezbollah, and most in the region say they remain grateful for that. During the 2006 war, residents here say many Christian villages were hit by I.D.F. artillery fire and missile strikes, despite promises from Israel that they would not be attacked.

“We don’t mind Hezbollah, they protect us in a way, but we stay cordial with them and we each stay within our villages.”

Christians in the south feel caught in the crossfire; they are not against Hezbollah, but they do not support its attacks on Israel. “We don’t mind Hezbollah, they protect us in a way, but we stay cordial with them and we each stay within our villages,” Mr. Eid says.

And Lebanese Christians feel for the Gazan people. “We have been occupied too,” says Mr. Eid. “But this is not our war, and we do not want to be dragged into it.”

“In Alma al-Shaab, we are apolitical. We are not affiliated with any party; we have decided that it would be better this way, and things work much better,” Mr. Eid explains.

He had been the head of the Lebanese Forces in the village, a Christian party, but he decided to close the office once he became mayor back in the early 2000s. “We are much better off without [sectarian] politics.”

Alma al-Shaab is a typical southern Lebanese village, where most of the income comes from agriculture. Many of the Christians here maintain orchards and sell their fruits and vegetables in the markets of other nearby Lebanese towns, while other Alma al-Shaab villagers own shops and bakeries.

During a tour of the village on Oct. 23, three explosions could be heard from the hills nearby. “This is not normal; these are close to us,” Mr. Eid cautions. It is time to leave and retreat to the hotel.

That day, four Hezbollah militants were killed in the countryside around Alma al-Shaab. As rumors circulate of the names of the people killed, William, an Alma al-Shaab resident, discovers that he is believed to be among the dead. He will receive dozens of phone calls from worried friends and family.

“This is a poor village. People here took years to build their houses, and in Lebanese culture, your house is a significant part of your identity, so we will not leave them.”

“No, I am not dead; I’m fine,” William, says with a bemused smile, answering each call.

But people are properly worried. William, who declined to share his full name because of security concerns, could have easily been a victim of Israeli shelling, although he has nothing to do with Hezbollah or the renewed conflict.

Just outside Alma al-Shaab on Oct. 13, two artillery strikes hit a group of journalists, killing Issam Abdallah, a videographer for Reuters News, and wounding six other journalists from Reuters, AFP and Al Jazeera. In a report released on Oct. 31, Reporters Without Borders charged that the attack on the group, clearly identified as press, was targeted, not accidental.

Yvette, who asked that her full name not be used, is reluctantly making plans to leave Alma al-Shaab. “My daughters live north of Beirut; they are scared for me, so I will leave tomorrow,” she says.

Yvette owns a bakery that offers traditional Lebanese fare; she had to close when the fighting started. Despite the danger, she had been unwilling to leave her business behind. “In Lebanon, the electricity situation is very bad; so we continue to pay for our generator, as the state does not provide much electricity, just a few hours a day. I have to continue paying around $400 a month for the generator because if I stop, all the food in the fridges will go to waste, around $6,000 worth of food.”

She would like to stay even as her daughters urge her to leave. “In 2006, we all used to gather in the church’s basement,” she says.

“Most of our youth, once they finish high school, want to study either in Beirut or abroad,” Father Gaafari says. Few of them imagine a life in these small Christian communities after they finish school.

Mars Elias, one of the biggest churches in the village, was damaged in 2006 when I.D.F. hits on Alma al-Shaab were intense. So far the community has escaped any military strikes that might require re-establishing that church shelter.

Fleeing the fighting

The new conflict has come just as the olive harvest was set to begin. Many farmers began their work earlier than usual because of the artillery and rocket strikes nearby. Some have already lost their harvest to fire caused by I.D.F. artillery.

Namer Atta lives in Labbouneh. He lost several plots of olive trees because of I.D.F. shelling on Oct. 31. “My two brothers each have a field with different vegetables, like cauliflower. Both were partially burnt as well,” he says.

The three men have 100 acres of land. They believe their land was struck by incendiary weapons. “The goal was to ruin our crops,” Mr. Atta says.

North of Alma al-Shaab, close to the eastern border with Israel, is another Christian village, Deir Mimas. Surrounded by green hills and close to some of the most famous hiking trails in the country, the land around Deir Mimas has also been targeted by Israeli forces responding to Hezbollah rocket fire.

If the fighting gets worse, Mrs. Hasbani says she will also leave. “We have an apartment in the Beirut suburbs, but I am not worried about myself; what about those who do not have any place to go? What will they do?”

Haloun Hasbani is the mokhtara of the village, the resident who plays a liaison role between the state and the people of the community village, a uniquely Lebanese civic role. Mrs. Hasbani also owns a guest house with her son.

“We used to have lots of international military come from different U.N.I.F.I.L. bases at the guest house,” she recalls with a smile. “We have gone through the Covid crisis, then the economic crisis, and this year was [looking like] a good year. October was fully booked. But now everyone canceled,” she says.

Mrs. Hasbani also owns an olive grove. “I just came back from picking up olives. Look at my dirty hands,” she says. This year the harvest was conducted under dangerous circumstances. “We had to hurry up to pick everything because we do not know if we’ll be able to work in the grove if the fighting gets more intense,” she says.

Mrs. Hasbani usually sells her olive oil in Deir Kifa, a larger Shiite community nearby, “but the road is constantly shelled, so I cannot go anymore; it is far too dangerous.” Deir Mimas, as well as all the surrounding villages, has been emptied of inhabitants.

“We know that for now we are safe inside the village, but we constantly hear planes, explosions and drones over our heads; it is unbearable.” The buzzing of I.D.F. drones is constant. The distressing sound persists even when nothing can be seen in the Lebanese sky. “They are so high up we don’t see them. It is the same for the jets passing above us,” Mrs. Hasbani says.

“Before 2006, we were all doing great; we were working in our fields,” Father Amil says. “In one minute, everything changed, and war started.”

A few days ago, explosions hit the countryside around Deir Mimas, “about 500 meters away from us,” she says. “All the windows of the guest house shattered; we had to clean everything.” More violence, but not enough yet to push her out of her village.

If the fighting gets worse, Mrs. Hasbani says she will leave. “We have an apartment in the Beirut suburbs, but I am not worried about myself; what about those who do not have any place to go? What will they do?”

Losing hope in Lebanon’s future

To preserve Deir Mimas from any intrusion, village police make rounds at night. “People from the village who live abroad send them some money, and around 10 men check every night that no one sets up rocket launchers or that any intruders come into the village,” Mrs. Hasbani says.

“The intruders,” as she describes them, also include refugees from Syria, who live on the outskirts of the village. Without the nightly patrol, “maybe the Syrians will come and take over the houses of the people who have left,” she says.

The same concerns can be heard in many other Christian villages. Rmeich is one of the biggest villages in the south with 7,000 inhabitants. Adding to the complexity of the social and political conditions in this border region, Palestinian militant factions have emerged from refugee camps north of Rmeich around Tyre and Saida.

In 2006, the village was declared a safe haven by the Israeli army, and residents from the surrounding communities came into Rmeich to avoid the fighting. Back then, Fouad Alam says, “we opened our houses and shared our food; it was not an issue.”

“But this year, with all the Syrian [refugees already in residence], we will not be able to accept them in the village,” he says.

Surrounded by green hills and close to some of the most famous hiking trails in the country, the land around Deir Mimas has also been targeted by Israeli forces responding to Hezbollah rocket fire.

Mr. Alam is a municipal worker who is in charge today of setting up a field hospital in the city’s school, next door to a Red Cross office. Medical providers here want to be ready in the event that heavier shelling begins or strikes begin to land inside the village.

Next to him, the Rev. Tony Elias is also helping to set up the field hospital. “On the first day of the clashes, many Syrians wanted to take refuge here, but we had to stop them,” he says. “Now, with many men from the village, we prevent them from entering. It has nothing to do with racism.” It is a question of capacity and logistics, he assures.

Residents of Rmeich, mindful of the 2006 experience, spend a lot of time thinking about logistics. “The closest hospital is eight miles away, in Bint Jbeil. If the road gets bombed, it is impossible to transport the wounded; this is why, with the municipality, we decided to set up this little field hospital with 15 beds to treat the injured,” Mr. Alam says. The men insist that the Christians of Rmeich have great relations with their neighbors and that all will be treated at their field hospital as long as they are Lebanese, not Syrian or Palestinian.

The Rev. Najib Amil is the pastor of St. Georges, a Maronite parish. “Before 2006, we were all doing great; we were working in our fields,” Father Amil says. “In one minute, everything changed, and war started.”

“Now, I have no idea what things will be like in the future,” Father Amil says. The interview is interrupted by Hezbollah rocket launches and a few moments later return fire from the I.D.F. Explosions on the hills surrounding the town can be seen in the distance.

“There are explosions every night here, but Hezbollah does not launch anything from [inside] Rmeich; they simply pass through the town,” Father Amil says. “We have great relations with other religions here. I go to Muslim celebrations; they come to Christian celebrations.”

In Lebanon’s south, the idea of a better future increasingly appears a vain hope. “Most of our youth, once they finish high school, want to study either in Beirut or abroad,” Father Gaafari says. Few of them imagine a life in these small Christian communities after they finish school.

Lebanon’s economy seems trapped in an endless state of crisis; the country is burdened with the care of many thousands of refugees; a war between Hezbollah and Israel seems ready to ignite again. Between 2020 and 2023, over 200,000 Lebanese left the country.

This latest conflict and increasing hopelessness leave the Christians who remain in southern Lebanon wondering if the Christian presence here may one day vanish forever. “We wait,” Father Gaafari says, knowing “we can only rely on ourselves and on our community.”

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