The conflict that nearly everyone now calls the “Lebanese Disease,” a seemingly endless cycle of strife between Christians and Muslims, appears to be finally overtaking this isolated corner of Lebanon.
For more than a decade, the city and environs of Jubayl, which is also known as Byblos, have been a Lebanese anomaly. As civil war swirled through other parts of the country, Jubayl’s 100,000 Christians continued to enjoy harmonious relations with the area’s 20,000 Muslims, most of whom are members of the Shia sect.
Jubayl’s special status was perhaps fitting. It has been described by historians as the world’s oldest town (it was known as Gebal in the Old Testament). A walled seaport, it was already 3,000 years old when the crusader Ugo the Lame handed the town as ransom to the Muslim leader Saladin in 1187.
Since the beginning of this year, the conflicts of the outside world have begun to intrude on Jubayl, 25 miles north of Beirut. Despite the earnest efforts of leaders of both communities to avoid conflict, tensions between Christians and Muslims have risen dramatically.
“Before, we were all brothers, in good times and bad,” said Ali M. Kanaan, a Shia who lives in the tiny village of Bishtlida in the mountains overlooking Jubayl. “Lately, however, we are beginning to feel oppressed. I am afraid to go to work, lest someone come and steal my home while I am away.”
Forests Were Bulldozed
Kamal Awwad, the mayor of the nearby village of Aalmat, which is also entirely Shia, complained that militiamen of the Christian Lebanese Forces bulldozed forests nearby and then sought to buy the land from its Shia owners.
Awwad said Christian roadblocks in the last month had prevented his brother from visiting and had stopped the weekly visits of the local doctor.
Paul Andari, the regional commander of the Lebanese Forces, said his militia was not interested in driving the Shias out of Jubayl. The militia was protecting many Shia homes, he said, while the roadblocks were designed to protect everyone from car bombs and the like.
“The Muslims here have enjoyed special treatment from the Christians,” Andari said. “We have treated the Muslims better than the Muslims have treated the Christians.” This was a reference to the seizure of Christian villages in areas of the Shouf mountains and in the hills east of the southern port of Sidon.
So far, the conflict appears to be concentrated in the sparsely populated villages above Jubayl rather than in the city itself, where Shia, Sunni Muslim and Christian shops operate side by side on cobbled streets, a sad reminder of what the rest of Lebanon was like before the civil war began in 1975.
‘A City of Business’
“Jubayl for 400 years has been a city of business,” remarked Ghassan Rais, a Sunni Muslim who for the past year has been the only Muslim clergyman in the region. “Traders don’t like war. They like to make money.”
Part of Jubayl’s problem has been an influx of Christians in recent weeks. The Christian population has swollen by 30,000 people, including many refugees from villages taken over by Druze and Shia militias.
Hundreds of the poorest refugees are still living in temporary shelters in schools, but there is increasing pressure to allow the homeless families to move into homes owned by Shias. Many of the homes are vacant because their owners, who work in the predominantly Muslim part of the capital, have been unable to travel north through Christian areas to reach their villages.
“All of the people of this area, both Christians and Muslims, want to keep the Shias here,” said Kamal Kordahi, the leader of the Christian Falangist party of Jubayl. “It’s the refugees who may feel differently.”
Kordahi acknowledged that six or eight Shia houses have been seized by the Lebanese Forces for refugees in the last two weeks, but he maintained that many Christian summer homes had been taken similarly in recent years.
10,000 Muslims Have Moved
Kordahi said that because of the combined difficulty in finding work in the area and the rising tension, about 10,000 Muslims have moved from the region.
“Many prefer to go to West Beirut because they are freer there to do what they want,” he said.
Another reason for the latest strains is an apparent buildup by the Shia militia known as Amal in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon.
Amal shelling of the Christian region, including villages in the Jubayl area, from positions ostensibly held by Syrian troops has prompted the Lebanese Forces leadership to bolster their positions above Jubayl.
Andari, the regional Lebanese Forces chief, said that caches of arms were found recently in forests near Aalmat but that the greatest concern is Amal’s front lines in the hills above.
A Military Solution
“There was never any problem until Christian areas came under Amal shelling and Nabih Berri (the Amal leader), said he needed to have a military solution in Lebanon,” Andari said.
One theory gaining currency is that the Lebanese Forces are attempting to pressure Jubayl’s Muslims as a counterbalance to recent Shia pressure on the Christian town of Zahlah on the edge of the Bekaa Valley.
At the Byblos Fishing Club, the area’s toniest restaurant, the tables are rarely filled with tourists any more. “The Byblos people are different from other Lebanese,” said Roger Abed-Gali, the son of the proprietor. “I pray the Lebanese disease will pass us by.”