South Lebanon Reminds Us That Freedom Has A Price

South Lebanon

Pope John Paul II once said, “Lebanon is more than a country, it is a message. The message of freedom and an example of pluralism for the East as well as for the West.

Truly, in the country with so many contrasts and divisions that have shaped a social and political landscape in the modern history, there is some underreported, yet mutual feeling of belonging to the land, shared by Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims alike.

In the 1990s, when the Pope uttered these words, the Lebanese were slowly recovering from a bloody civil war lasting from 1975 to 1990. It was, however, only one of the conflicts that left behind the mark of pain and resistance.

A tiny coastal country in the Eastern Mediterranean is unique not just thanks to the most powerful empires entering to its history and archaeological richness that was left behind them.

Mleeta Resistance Museum
The square inside of the Mleeta Resistance Museum.

For the average European, with traditional south European holiday experience, visiting Lebanon means both finding something familiar and discovering new sights and traditions to be remembered forever.

While tourists are instinctively attracted to sea resorts with sandy beaches or amazing Levantine cuisine, there are far more sights that tell a different story.

Barouk South Lebanon
A lush cedar reserve in Barouk.

For the average European, with traditional south European holiday experience, visiting Lebanon means both finding something familiar and discovering new sights and traditions to be remembered forever.

Cedar trees are special for Lebanon, and in the Bible they are touted as a symbol of holiness and eternity. The Cedar tree is also pictured on the country’s flag right between two red stripes that represent the Lebanese blood spilled in wars against oppressors.

Lebanon Fla

The white background symbolizes the purity of the snow that covers the Lebanese mountains.

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Indeed, someone who would expect mostly hot weather and exotic beaches in Lebanon must be amazed by its range of natural diversity. For example, one can view snowy strips of mountains, such as Barouk in the Mount Lebanon governorate, which is located some 50 kilometers southeast from Beirut.

Further south, along Mount Lebanon, the heritage of wars against Israel resonates more intensely. South Lebanon is often described as a ‘Hezbollah stronghold’ in the Western media due to a majority Shia Muslim population in the area. As elsewhere in the Middle East, the situation is far more complex than how outside observers try to simplify it.

Though the civil war officially ended in 1990, many believe it was really extended to 2000 when the Israeli army occupying the southern regions finally withdrew. The invasion was launched in 1982 under the pretext of eliminating the power base of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

As elsewhere in the Middle East, the situation is far more complex than how outside observers try to simplify it.

Litani River South Lebanon
The river Litani became one of the key points the Israeli army tried to control in south Lebanon. Water has often been a source of the regional conflicts.

By allying with local Christian Maronite militias under the banner of the South Lebanon Army, it quickly provoked a deeper internal conflict in the country. Shia Muslims, along with other pro-Palestinian groups who considered the SLA traitors, emerged as the most steadfast force against the occupation.

Thanks to the military support from Syria and Iran, local Shias formed Hezbollah. The Beaufort Castle, or Qala’at al-Shaqif in Arabic, near Arnoun village, best describes the dynamics of the Lebanon war. The castle is pictured below.

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Until 1982, when it was seized by the IDF, this landmark from the Crusades was controlled by the PLO, and on one occasion even visited by Yasser Arafat. Today, with Hezbollah flag flying over it, it is clear who  runs the territory.

South Lebanon and Israel
While standing at the ruins of Beaufort Castle, its visitors gain understanding of its strategic location; as it offers a view of northern Israel and southern Lebanon.

Like many regions in Levant, south Lebanon prides itself on countless numbers of small villages scattered across hills. Many of these villages have mixed Muslim-Christian populations, which represent peaceful coexistence and resistance to religious and sectarian violence that stains Lebanon’s past.

Just a few kilometers from Arnoun, north of the Litani River, lay various picturesque and remarkable villages, which provide beautiful sights for watching the sunset…or Israeli tanks.

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Many of these villages have mixed Muslim-Christian populations, which represent peaceful coexistence and resistance to religious and sectarian violence that stains Lebanon’s past.

In the village of Jibshit (above), locals know the area as the birthplace of two prominent spiritual founders of Hezbollah, Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid and Sheikh Ragheb Harb. Sheikh Ragheb Harb was assassinated by the Israelis in 1984.

South Lebanon food
Orange trees among Al-Ansariyyah valley.

Anyone who visits South Lebanon (or Jnoub) shouldn’t miss Mleeta. In 2010, Hezbollah officials opened a museum known as the ‘Tourist Landmark of the Resistance.’ It is a reminder that the movement was involved in another war with Israel, and though it only lasted for a month, the conflict brought devastation to the area.

The turmoil was especially felt in places with Shia majority, such as the southern Beirut suburb, Dahiyeh, and southern Lebanon around the river Litani.

South Lebanon
The entrance to the complex welcomes its visitors with a poetic sign which states, “Where land speaks to heaven.”

The struggle to force Israel to withdraw resonates in Lebanon as a victory of freedom for all Lebanese. However, this struggle has strategically made Hezbollah one of the most important actors in domestic politics and a feared enemy in Israel.

Hezbollah South Lebanon
This outpost was used by the former Hezbollah leader, Abbas al-Mousawi, before he was assassinated by Israelis in 1992.

While the museum is a historic reminder of the fighting against Israeli occupation, the place was also used by Hezbollah as a bunker with several tunnels during the 2006 war, which the Shia Islamic movement declares as a victory.

South Lebanon
This is a military planning room inside of a bunker, which is also comprised of a living room and kitchen.

There are many experts, including those from Israel, who have concluded they underestimated the resilience of the Lebanese fighters.

South Lebanon Hezbollah
Exposed tanks and other military equipment that Hezbollah captured from Israeli forces can be found inside of the museum.

The conflicts with Israel, however, also left behind an unresolved issue of the Shebaa farms, a small piece of land north of the Syrian Golan heights, both still occupied by Israel.

South Lebanon
The Al-Sarafand sea front at sunrise.

From hilly villages and the military theme park, South Lebanon tells us its own message – one much different from sunny beaches and posh cafes in Beirut. Neglected for decades, this region has become a bearer of both peace and war.

There are many experts, including those from Israel, who have concluded they underestimated the resilience of the Lebanese fighters.

Despite the social issues, economic challenges, political disputes, and security threats found throughout the East and West, the Lebanese have learned that life (and the fight) must go on.

 

Please note the following:
All photos, except for the main image, are provided by A.H. Due to security issues we cannot provide further details concerning the photographer, except that A.H. is a native of South Lebanon and knows the area very well. 

Furthermore, this article was edited by Hannah Bauman at Between the Lines Editorial. You can reach Ms. Bauman at [email protected] if you are interested in her editorial services. 

 

Denisa Eštoková

Denisa Eštoková

Denisa Estokova holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Charles University in Prague where she wrote the thesis about the Middle Eastern alliances. Her areas of specialization include the MENA geopolitics, Iran, Russian foreign policy in the Middle East and the role of Islam in politics. She speaks English, Slovak, Czech, Russian and has also studied the German and Arabic language.

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