Bekaa Valley clans sign peace pact
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The leaders of rival clans in the eastern Bekaa Valley have signed an agreement to end bloody vendettas between them, in a region of Lebanon under strong Hezbollah influence.
AFP - It started with a small traffic incident and ended in yet another murderous showdown in the age-old vendetta wars between the powerful Shiite Muslim clans who rule Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley.
But unlike past feuds, this time clan elders and the militant group Hezbollah stepped in to defuse tensions, handing over to authorities the suspect accused of murdering a rival clan member and agreeing on a pact to end the revenge killings.
The "gentleman's agreement", drawn up earlier this month, marked a first step in clan efforts to do away with their reputation as outlaws who have long ruled supreme in the remote arid plain of the northern Bekaa, a Hezbollah stronghold traditionally ignored by successive Lebanese governments.
"Our customs date to pre-Islamic times and dictate that each family is responsible for the security of its members," said Moflih Allaw, a member of one of the most powerful clans in Hermel and whose relative was involved in the recent killing.
"If someone from a clan was murdered, a member of the opposing clan had to die and that was part of our tradition," added Allaw, 67, a local councillor in Hermel who helped formulate the recent pact.
"But we have evolved with the times and are now trying to raise awareness among the families that we must move beyond vendettas and become more active citizens.
"That is why we took the unusual step of handing over the clan member accused in the recent killing."
Hezbollah, which draws grassroots support from the clans and has for the most part turned a blind eye to their criminal activities, in recent years has also become more active in trying to tame them.
"Before, when someone got killed, the vendetta would target any member of the opposing clan regardless of whether he was involved or not," a local Hezbollah official who did not wish to be identified told AFP.
"In recent years, however, they have only gone after the killer himself. It has become more personal," he added.
There are an estimated 100 clans in the Bekaa, among them a handful of powerful families such as the Jaafars, the Zaayters, the Dandash and the Hamadehs, whose names have become legend and are evoked with awe and fear among the Lebanese.
Several of the families, who are well armed, live off the hashish and opium trade as well as car theft and counterfeiting.
The majority of the villages that dot the vast expanses of the northern Bekaa are poor and are controlled by the clans whose loyalties are ensured by blood relationships and arranged marriages.
The vendettas typically are over land and women.
"Clan tradition held that a girl had to marry her cousin," Allaw said. "If she eloped without her family's consent, she would be killed along with her husband and maybe other members of his family."
His own cousin eloped years back and paid the ultimate price for her action, he recalled.
Though such incidents have become rare, they still occur from time to time, clan members say.
"About 10 years ago, I was asked to intervene in a case involving a girl who eloped with a guy wanted for murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia," said Hajj Moussa Zaayter, 82, who for years has ruled over disputes between the clans.
"Her family was offered five million pounds (3,333 dollars) compensation but they wanted in addition a girl from the rival family," added Zaayter sporting a traditional head dress and abaya.
"We resolved the matter by giving them the groom's sister to prevent a showdown."
Zaayter himself is wanted over the 1974 murder of a rival clan member, an incident that forced him to flee the Bekaa with his wife and 10 children for two years before striking an agreement with the victim's family.
He said his job in recent years has been made harder by a younger generation that no longer respects its elders or clan traditions.
Sheikh Rashid Jaafar, 59, said the clans in recent years have managed to chip away at their negative image thanks to better education among their children who are now becoming lawyers, engineers, doctors and politicians, as well as efforts to respect the state's authority.
"This recent handover of the crime suspect and the pact send a message that no one is immune from the law anymore and that the clans won't harbour criminals," Jaafar said, sitting in his palatial residence near Hermel.
"But this can only work if the state, which has ignored our region for years, also begins to make its presence known through development and security measures."
Boutros Labaki, a historian and economist, said the change taking place among the clans constitutes a transition from a tribal society to a confessional one.
"The pact recently agreed is part of this slow historic transition that is weakening the clans," Labaki said. "Those intervening in the clan affairs are increasingly religious leaders or major parties -- meaning the higher Shiite council, Hezbollah or (its ally) Amal -- rather than tribal leaders.
"Before, conflicts were dealt with in a traditional way, through blood money," Labaki added. "Today you have parties such as Hezbollah and Amal trying to accelerate the integration of the clans within the larger community."