'This was the safest place in Lebanon': A tense Christian town empties

Ain Ebel has largely been sparred on the fighting so far, but most of its residents have still left

Retired soldier's home destroyed by Israeli shelling

Retired soldier's home destroyed by Israeli shelling
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“Since the war of 2006, this was the safest place in Lebanon, the quietest place in Lebanon,” says Imad Lallous, the mayor of Ain Ebel, referring to his village in southern Lebanon, only a few kilometres away from the Israeli border.

But he isn't just referring to the security situation; Mr Lallous also refers to a unique set of circumstances that have led to a very low crime rate, which he attributes to the presence of three security bodies in the area – the Lebanese Army, the UN peacekeeping mission (Unifil) and Iran-backed Shiite armed group Hezbollah.

Ain Ebel stands in contrast to much of southern Lebanon, which has a strong Shiite majority and is one of Hezbollah's main power bases. The residents of the town are largely Christian and supportive of Hezbollah's largest political rival, the Lebanese Forces.

But conflict has returned to the region once again as Hezbollah and Israel have traded blows across the border, with multiple casualties on each side. The sound of cross-border shelling was intense and frequent when The National met with Mr Lallous. Saturday was the deadliest day yet for Hezbollah when it lost six fighters.

He described the atmosphere in the town as very tense, with 60 per cent of inhabitants – mainly women and children – having left for the capital Beirut.

In contrast to 2006 – when Israel and Hezbollah last fought a full-scale war – the Iran-backed group does not currently have any positions in the vicinity of Ain Ebel, meaning the town has largely been spared thus far since the last two weeks of fighting.

“It was normal,” Mr Lallous says when he asked about previous relations with Hezbollah. “As president of the municipality I used to speak to them, we used to sit down and talk [about] the problems of the of the area.

“This was going in a very good way, until the kidnapping and killing of Mr Hasrouni … the situation was a little bit disturbed.”

Elias Hasrouni, 72, a co-ordinator for the LF in the Bint Jbeil region and a resident of Ain Ebel, disappeared and died in mysterious circumstances two months ago.

Initially it was believed he died in a car accident, but the LF would later accuse Hezbollah of involvement in his alleged assassination.

“Most of the people here in the village, they believe he was killed because he was opposing them, he was from the Lebanese Forces,” said Mr Lallous, who has been the head of the municipality since 2016.

“But we still don't know exactly why he was killed and we don't know who did it. We never said directly that this party killed him or that party killed him.”

Full-scale war

Mr Lallous insists that the municipal council itself was not elected on a political basis or party affiliation, and came through agreement from the families of Ain Ebel, which has a population of around 4,000 in the summer and 1,500 in the winter.

Hezbollah largely acts autonomously. While it might be increasing its rhetoric over a future full-scale war with Israel, much of Lebanon does not want it to be dragged into a conflict.

Fears are particularly heightened since the country is engulfed in an economic crisis, and international aid it received in 2006 to help rebuild the country might not be guaranteed in a new war.

When that brutal, month-long war took place, large built up areas across Lebanon – but particularly in Hezbollah's powerhouses, mainly in the south of the country – were levelled. More than a thousand people died and the reconstruction was costly, and lengthy.

“I believe three-quarters of the Lebanese population don't want Hezbollah to get involved in the war now. I'm sure of that. A big majority of the Shiite people don't want to get involved in the war. But what can they do? said Mr Lallous.

“If you go to Bint Jbeil, it's a big city … people have fled their houses,” Mr Lallous said, referring to one of the largest towns in the region, a key site of fighting in 2006.

“In 2006, Bint Jbeil was completely destroyed. It was rebuilt by Saudi and Qatari money. Now who is going to help? Nobody is going to spend one penny.”

Updated: October 22, 2023, 11:07 AM