‘We are afraid’: Village caught in crossfire between Israel and militants ‘could turn into battlefield’

World

There is a place in Lebanon called Alma al Shaab which clings to the sunburnt hills that rise up from the Mediterranean.

The community is surrounded by olive groves and trees with ripe oranges, yet this a nerve-shredding time to live there.

In fact, the vast majority of its 900 residents have already left for cities like the capital Beirut as the rockets and shells fly over their heads.

Their village is now situated in the warzone, as militant factions like Iran-backed Hezbollah, as well as fighters belonging to groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, launch munitions over the border into Israel.

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Alma al Shaab in Lebanon
Image:
Damage to a building in Alma al Shaab

Using the trees and hills that surround the community, their operations are increasing and the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, says he is introducing powerful new weapons to the battlefield.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Hezbollah is making a “fatal mistake”, while his defence minister Yoav Gallant has threatened to send Lebanon back “to the stone age”.

Despite the war of words – or perhaps because of them – the conflict is quickly escalating.

Those residents who remain in largely Christian Alma al Shaab have found themselves caught in the crossfire.

They gather every morning at the local shop to drink thick Lebanese coffee and talk about what happened overnight.

Anton Konsul
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Anton Konsul: ‘When you wake up… you think, thank God, we are still alive’

Anton Konsul is the headteacher at the local high school.

He said: “When I tell you we’re not afraid, we are afraid, you don’t want to know what’s going to happen. When you wake up in the morning you think, thank God, we are still alive.”

“Is this your war?” I asked. “Is this a battle you have a stake in?”

He replied: “It has nothing to do with us, this is the problem, it’s sad, but what can you do?”

On the question of blame, no one we spoke to in the village was prepared to point fingers – and that seems like a reasonable precaution.

Alma al Shaab is the only Christian village among 104 communities in southern Lebanon – the others are largely Shia Muslim.

When I asked the group at the local shop whether they have seen militants from Hezbollah operating in the district, no one seemed keen to talk.

Milad Eid
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Milad Eid points out damage to a building

“Maybe, like 20 days ago,” said Milad Eid, who runs the local guest house. “We stay in our homes. They don’t come near.”

He added: “You can’t blame anyone, well, it’s difficult to say. It’s happened, it’s happened.”

This small band of residents seems determined to stay put for as long as they possibly can.

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Monseigneur Maroun Ghaffari
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Monseigneur Maroun Ghaffari: ‘I will stay with our people’

Sipping coffee in a black shirt was the head of the local Maronite Church, called Monseigneur Maroun Ghaffari.

His friends at the shop joked that Monseigneur Ghaffari had “lost himself a lot of customers” since the conflict broke out and the church leader admitted that his once buoyant congregation has fallen to six.

“I am from the village and have (much) experience of Lebanon’s wars, so I will stay with our people, there are old people, they have nobody, we must be near them during this tragic situation,” he says.

Monseigneur Ghaffari pointed out that neither side had hit the centre of town and he hoped they would outlast the war.

He said: “I am not suicidal, but the situation is still bearable. We believe that if we leave the village it could turn into a battlefield.”

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