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The politics behind Lebanon's big hash bust

There's more to the recent clean out of drug gangs and the destruction of their hash crop in the lawless Bekaa Valley than meets the eye.

The first incident was the reported carjacking of the son of Hezbollah’s slain military commander, Imad Mugneeyah, earlier this year, by criminal elements of one clan, the Jafaars. The other incident came after one of the same clans’ biggest drug baron, Ali Abbas Jaafar, was shot and killed by Lebanese soldiers at a checkpoint near his hometown in March. Jaafar had 172 warrants for his arrest. A month later, the Jafaar clan retaliated by ambushing and killing four Lebanese soldiers.

Attacking the army, one of the few state institutions that has worked over the last three years and which is respected by all Lebanese political parties, is not acceptable to most Lebanese. At the time, Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said that the army was a “red line.” He vowed “to strike with an iron fist” against those responsible.

The next day, hundreds of troops accompanied by armored personnel carriers and helicopters rolled into the Bekaa and begun conducting raids. Shakkour says the raids on drug storage houses resulted in the seizure of tons of hashish. The army established checkpoints in the Bekaa, and the usually untouchable drug barons fled to hideouts deep in Lebanon’s rugged eastern mountains near the Syrian border.

Catching the drug barons is easier said than done. One of the most famous and flamboyant is Noah Zaayter. Shakkour said the army raided Zaayter’s home in February, seized more than a ton of hashish, and is now occupying it.

“Before the operation, Zaayter was living in his house, and the army or the police were, I don’t want to say afraid, but they took care in approaching him,” he said. “Now, that’s changed.” Zaayter is now in hiding.

The Lebanese security forces know where he is, but Shakkour says they’re not going after him any time soon, because the drug lord is protected by dozens, if not hundreds, of heavily armed family members.

“To go and fight him there will create a lot of problems between the families, and as a result, maybe we’ll get 100 people injured, or dead,” Shakkour said. “So we think, we’ll give [it some] time to get the good opportunity to get him in the right way, without making a lot of people injured or killed.”

But it’s been far less dangerous for the army and ISF to focus on the source of the drug baron’s income: the hashish crop. Still, the eradication wasn’t completely free of violence. On the third day, an army truck rolled over a booby trapped hand grenade in one field. No one was injured.

But those who have been harmed by the eradication efforts are the Bekaa Valley’s poor farmers. They lost this season’s crop, just two weeks before harvest time. “The situation of the farmers is bad,” said Talal Shrif, the mayor of Yamouni. “It’s the most important crop for farmers that they can get money from. Now, for sure, they don’t have the money, because they don’t have the plant anymore.”