Rockets, ruins, and revenge: Clan violence spirals in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

Three years after the fatal shooting of DVD shopkeeper Issa Jaafar, the killing risks igniting a tribal war that a weakened Lebanon appears powerless to prevent, reports Sunniva Rose in Baalbek

In 2017, DVD shop owner Issa Jaafar, 22, was killed in a shoot-out with two members of another prominent local family.

Violent deaths are not uncommon in the Lebanese town of Baalbek but what is unusual is that three years later, Jaafar’s death threatens to ignite a local clan war.

The capital of the Bekaa region in eastern Lebanon is known for its ancient Roman ruins – but also for guns, violence, drugs and smuggling over the porous border with Syria.

The city remains trapped in a cycle of revenge killing that is increasingly dangerous because economic collapse has weakened the Lebanese state and security is deteriorating.

Unrest in Baalbek is one of many examples of a resurgence of localised conflicts that could further destabilise the cash-strapped state. Farther north-east, expanding smuggling activities have revived decades-old disputes over access to land.

Meanwhile, political leadership is absent as distrust of state institutions grows. The country has been without a fully functioning government since mid-August, after the explosion of several thousand tonnes of ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port killed about 200 people and forced prime minister Hassan Diab to resign. He has since been indicted along with three other senior politicians.

Baalbek attracted national attention in early October because of several viral videos showing heavily armed men from local tribes patrolling streets in the back of pickup trucks. One of the groups briefly set up roadblocks, reigniting haunting memories of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.

At the time, Baalbek-Hermel Governor Bachir Khodr described the spike in tension as “very dangerous and harmful”.

Since then, clashes have continued on a near-weekly basis, but the local media’s interest has faded as more pressing problems, such as government formation and the investigation in the port blast, dominate headlines.

Another reason for the lack of coverage is that powerful clans prefer to solve their disputes themselves in an area where family loyalties are strong.

One clan can comprise tens of thousands of people in both Lebanon and Syria.

But The National was able to meet two large clans at the centre of the current tension in Baalbek – the Chamas and Jaafar families. Each gave widely different versions of events.

Revenge on the streets of Baalbek

One thing is certain: on October 4, 2020, a local man named Mohammad Chamas was shot in broad daylight.
It was Issa Jaafar's brother, Moussa, who pulled the trigger, his own family said.

They argue that Mohammad had to die because he and his brother Abbas had carried out the 2017 killing of Issa. While Abbas was jailed for the killing, most local residents say that Mohammad was probably innocent.

Without consulting anyone, Moussa, in his twenties, took his dead brother's old gun and bullets, their grandfather Wajih Jaafar told The National. Before pulling the trigger, Moussa told Mohammad: "This is for Issa."

Wajih Jaafar, 85, said he was happy his grandson had avenged Issa’s death.

The retired taxi driver said that Moussa had been provoked by Abbas Chamas’s release from prison a few days earlier.

Moussa is now on the run but was already pursued by the authorities as he has outstanding warrants on charges of drug dealing, a local official told The National.

The Chamas clan rejects claims that Mohammad Chamas was involved in Issa Jaafar’s murder.

They believe he was a target only because Abbas Chamas is too difficult to get to.Since his release from prison, he has lived in a heavily protected district of Baalbek.

The government official, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the clans, agreed.

“Mohammad Chamas was clean and not involved in anything. This crime was purely about vengeance,” he said.

"Sometimes, on purpose, they don't kill the killer himself. They kill someone from his family, just to see him suffer. They usually choose the best one of the family. It's like mafias back in Sicily, or The Godfather," he said.

A few days after the killing of Mohammad Chamas, representatives of the most powerful local political parties, Hezbollah and Amal, brokered a fragile truce between the families.

Member of the Chamas clan promised to wait for the Jaafars to hand over the killer to the Lebanese authorities. This has yet to happen.

In private, some doubt that Moussa will be given up and wonder whether the victim’s family will “take their rights” – as in, seek revenge – themselves.

If and when this happens, it would be likely to restart the cycle of assassinations.

Locals say they have no choice but to exact their own revenge because the Lebanese judicial system is notoriously slow and sensitive to political pressure.

But the government official cited examples of revenge killings after the release of criminals who had served over a decade in jail.

“Even if official authorities do their job, it’s not enough. They [the clans] say that they can only clean their dignity with blood,” he said.

Violence on rise as economy collapses

Even if this kind of revenge or blood feud is not new, the situation is deteriorating.

The recent surge in security incidents in the Bekaa region, which houses the highest number of fugitives in the country, can be blamed in part on Lebanon’s economic collapse.

"There is a lot of pressure on security forces. They are doing everything they can even if they are going through hard times because the salary of public servants lost a lot of its value," Mr Khodr, the Baalbek-Hermel Governor, told The National.

The local currency dramatically depreciated in the past year. The salary of a young soldier, which used to be worth about $800 a month, is now worth roughly $150.

For Mr Khodr, the economic crisis is to be blamed for 20 per cent of the rise in crime in the Bekaa.

“Logistically, we are suffering a little bit, but I believe the army is doing a great job,” he said.

Triggered by a collapse of the banking system in late 2019, the country’s "worst-ever" economic crisis has robbed many Lebanese of their savings and caused mass unemployment. Today, more than half the population is in poverty, UN figures show.

Police statistics show that armed robbery, excluding cars, more than doubled across Lebanon between January and September 2020 compared to the nine preceding months. Murders increased by nearly 80 per cent.

A police representative said crime was concentrated in Mount Lebanon, the most densely populated region of the country. The Bekaa came second.

Mr Khodr argued that the crisis has had a limited impact in the region because it was already poor. “The region has been neglected for decades. People never lived a luxurious life like other Lebanese regions” in the first place, he said.

But retired sociologist Melhem Chaoul, who used to direct the Lebanese University’s Social Sciences Institute, linked the economic crisis to an increase in security problems.

“The share of the pie is decreasing and this could cause more problems between them [rival gangs],” he said.

“These are endemic conflicts that are resurfacing with new clothes.”

One trigger could be the drop in the price of hashish, which has been widely and openly cultivated for decades in the Bekaa Valley despite being illegal.

Its price has halved in the past five years, from between $500 and $800 a kilo to between $200 and $400 a kilo, said Hassan Makhlouf, a professor at the Lebanese University who researches drug trafficking.

Lebanese authorities stopped destroying cannabis fields near the Syrian border after the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. This caused an increase in cultivated land and therefore a fall in prices.

“Dealers who used to make a living out of the hashish trade must find other resources, such as smuggling between Lebanon and Syria,” said Mr Makhlouf.

Last week, caretaker Interior minister Mohammad Fehmi also told The National that the economic and financial crisis had heightened security risks.

Why did Issa Jaafar’s death spark a war?

The circumstances of the 2017 killing of Issa Jaafar are very different depending on who you ask.

The Jaafar clan say that he was killed because of an escalating verbal dispute with Mohammad Chamas, who also ran a DVD shop.

But the Chamas clan accuse Issa Jaafar of trying to rob Mohammad’s two brothers, Alaa and Abbas. They say that a shoot-out ensued and that Issa died by accident.

Reality probably lies somewhere in between.

“When these clashes happen, it’s always about illegal activities,” the government official said.

What is important is that Issa Jaafar was a member of the notorious Jaafar clan, which has operated for decades largely outside state control.

Though clan members The National spoke to denied being involved in illegal activities, security forces and researchers say that many of them control Lebanon's illegal drug trade.

The distrust between state institutions and clans is mutual. The latter accuse the government of deliberate neglect and unfair treatment at the hands of the judiciary, while a former high-ranking soldier who used to be deployed in the region described locals as “cowards” and “foolish machos”.

Though it is criticised by many locals, Bekaa’s image of a lawless drug-fuelled region is regularly promoted in media interviews with heavily armed drug dealers who openly discuss the hashish trade.

A 2017 Ramadan television series, Al Hayba, which depicted the armed struggle between two clans at the Syrian-Lebanese border, was hugely popular.

The Bekaa clans have a long history of fierce independence. They descend from the military staff of a famous Shiite Muslim family, the Harfouches, that was wiped out in the 19th century, Mr Chaoul said. Since then, “they have never tolerated central power, whether it was from the Ottomans, or from the Lebanese state”, he said.

Clans deny allegiance to political parties, but Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally Amal interfere in their internal affairs.

Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek, a respected moderator who brokered the recent truce between the Chamas and Jaafar clans, is also a co-founder of Hezbollah and the representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Lebanon.

A clan member, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from Hezbollah, blamed political parties for weakening tribal solidarities.

“Before, everybody respected the word of elders. Now, they’re only half-tribes. They are losing their strength,” he said.

“What we really need is the state, not parties like Hezbollah who have done nothing to develop the area despite our assets. We have fertile agricultural land and the Baalbek ruins [classified by Unesco as a world heritage site],” he said.

“Traditional values of solidarity and respect for elders are crumbling,” agreed Mr Chaoul, who pinned it on attempts to “mimic international gangsterism”

Inherited from Bedouin traditions of the Arabian Peninsula, they stipulate that mediators must be appointed to resolve conflicts without bloodshed. Their decisions should always be enforced.

“The younger generation is letting go of strong values to safeguard their interests,” Mr Chaoul said.

Mafia culture with a local twist

Some of the young have espoused a globalised gangster culture but with a local twist, by flaunting their wealth, whether real or imagined, in parallel to their belonging to the local community.

In a video published on YouTube a few months after his death, Issa Jaafar wears a necklace in the shape of the sword of Imam Ali, a revered Shiite figure, and a gold ring and smokes a cigar.

The Jaafars reject comparisons to the mafia. Like the Chamas family, they are keen to highlight their respect for the Lebanese army.

Wajih Jaafar spoke to The National while sitting in the reception area of a luxurious mansion in Chewarneh, a neighbourhood of Baalbek that is ruled by his clan.

The owner of the house, Abou Hassan Jaafar, who said he had acted as one of the mediators between the two families, downplayed the discord.

"This was a personal problem. We still love and respect each other," he told The National. "We are not like in America, where there are drug mafias," said Abou Hassan Jaafar, who sported gold rings encrusted with diamonds and a gold cigarette holder. He said his wealth comes from land ownership.

To boost their credentials, members of the Jaafar clan often repeat that they fought ISIS groups alongside Hezbollah in the sparsely populated mountain border region with Syria in 2015.

“Our missiles come from ISIS,” said Abou Hassan Jaafar, who declined to show the clan’s weapons, saying they were stored “elsewhere.”

A cycle of revenge killing

But despite the official reconciliation, tensions remain high, and not just between the Chamas and Jaafar clans.

“The situation is calm to a certain extent, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something happened at any moment,” said Mr Khodr.

“This cycle of blood revenge needs to end,” said a local who is not a clan member and declined to be named.

“Every family has some kind of revenge killing going on with the Jaafars: the Cheairs, the Tfeilis, the Chamas … There isn’t a family that hasn’t fought with them,” he said.

Abbas Assadallah Chamas, the 94-year-old leader of the 200,000-strong Chamas clan in Lebanon and Syria, was furious when The National met him at the end of a two-hour meeting with 400 clan members to discuss the aftermath of Muhammad Chamas's death.

“There are thugs among the Jaafars. They steal, and yesterday, they did a crime. They set up a checkpoint against us,” he said, referring to a widely shared video of an improvised roadblock after Mohammad Chamas’s death.

Following his murder, dozens of members of the Chamas clan drove from the neighbouring region of Hermel to help their kin in Baalbek in case armed clashes broke out. The Lebanese army arrested 14 of them.

“The situation is worse than it was during the civil war. There used to be more state presence than there is today,” complained Abbas Assadallah Chamas, sitting in the family home in Bouday, a 20-minute drive from Baalbek.

Between 1964 and 1998, he was the mayor of the village, a Chamas stronghold. The current mayor was elected with the support of Hezbollah.

“No one is happy with what happened. We are going back to times of ignorance, and an innocent man was killed,” said his son, Muhammad Abbas Chamas, 65, a former high-ranking official in the Ministry of Agriculture.

He said poverty was also to blame for the increase in violence. “People need to eat but cannot, so there are problems between people. This would happen anywhere in the world,” he said.

As he spoke, shots could be heard outside. He dismissed them as a “personal affair”.

“We cannot deny that there are gangs, but the state should do something about it and take away their weapons,” said Muhammad Abbas Chamas.

What if the Jaafars never follow up on their promise of delivering Moussa to the authorities?

“We hope it will not happen, but if the Jaafars don’t send their son to prison then maybe Abbas will want to avenge his brother,” said Muhammad Abbas Chamas.

The clan member who asked to remain anonymous agreed. “Moussa will lie low for a year or two, and when he comes back to Baalbek, ‘they’ will kill him.”

Since the killing of Mohammad Chamas, local media reported several occurrences of clans firing rocket-propelled grenades at each other.

The Jaafars, the Chamas’s, but also the Zeaiters, the Wehbehs and the Solhs have reportedly been involved, with deadly consequences for locals.

On December 5, Muhammad Khaled Al Shamali, 21, from Syria died after he was hit in the head by a stray bullet.
That did not stop clans – it's unclear which ones – from launching rocket-propelled grenades again days later near a popular park lined with restaurants.

This time, however, there were no casualties.

But few believe the cycle of death will come to a halt any time soon.

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