Beirut – The issue of the border town of al-Tufail came back into the spotlight in Lebanon after “Hezbollah” took the decision for the residents to go back to their homes.
The decision was made after the militant group completed its operation to seize control of the surrounding towns on the Syrian side of the border, in the al-Qalamoun region.
The development sparked a dispute with Interior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq, who had informed head of the Islamic authority Sheikh Mohammed Yazbek that the return of the residents should take place in coordination with security forces.
The minister denied the issue, saying that the “ministry and its agencies did not cooperate with ‘Hezbollah’ or any other political or security side.”
The Interior Ministry distanced itself from Yazbek’s statements, saying that “it knows its national and security responsibilities and know how to practice them.”
Mashnouq stressed however that the residents have the right to return to their town “under the protection and supervision of the state should the conditions for their safe return be available.”
Meanwhile, Mufti of the eastern Bekaa region Bakr al-Rifai, who is following up on the al-Tufail issue, stressed the need to tackle the case away from politics.
He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Coordination with ‘Hezbollah’ has been imposed on us due to the nature of the region and the location of the town on the border with Syria and in areas controlled by the party.”
“Is the Lebanese state prepared to coordinate with the Syrian regime to protect the residents of al-Tufail if they returned to the town that also passes through the town of Brital, which is also under the party’s influence?” he asked.
“At this point, we obtained a guarantee from ‘Hezbollah’ that the residents will be able to return without being harassed. They also received guarantees that they will be able to return to their homes without being targeted by the Syrian regime forces,” explained al-Rifai.
He revealed the return of the residents is being coordinated by the Lebanese army, especially since many of them own cars with Syrian license plates.
The situation has created confusion among al-Tufail’s locals, who despite having waited three years to return to their home after “Hezbollah” entered it, will wait how developments will unfold before taking the decision to make a final return to their town.
A resident, Abdul Nasser Daqo told Asharq Al-Awsat that it is likely that the men will first head to the town to check on their property. Once the situation is clear, women and children will be asked to follow.
“There is no doubt that we are afraid to return. Who guarantees our lives? We are on the border with the Syrian regime and therefore can be arrested at any moment,” he said.
“We will return no matter the price. We have been displaced from our land for three years and our houses have been occupied. We were forced to take our children out of schools in order to later find out that our land and crops have fallen in the hands of strangers,” Daqo added.
Al-Tufail had in 2014 been emptied of its residents in wake of battles that erupted between “Hezbollah” and Syrian opposition factions. The group soon entered the town, which saw the displacement of hundreds of Lebanese and Syrian families that have been living there for dozens of years.
Some 12 families decided to stay, including Daqo’s brother.
“My brother, his wife and two girls decided to remain, while we brought with us to Lebanon his two sons,” he explained.
Al-Tufail mayor Ali al-Shoum told Asharq Al-Awsat that he received information that indicates that the Lebanese army will enter the town for the first time after “Hezbollah” members leave it towards their positions on the outskirts of the area.
“The party informed us that all who want to return can do so,” he added, predicting that the return of the residents will take place in phases, especially after the end of the academic year.
The return will include Syrian families as well. There are about 4,200 Lebanese who hail from al-Tufail, but many of them left it years ago. Syrian families have taken their place, said the mayor.
Al-Tufail is located in the eastern most outskirts of Lebanon’s eastern mountain range that borders Syria. Al-Tufail can be clearly seen as “finger” that extends into Syria and disputes had erupted between Beirut and Damascus over it until it was officially included as part of Lebanon in 1925 even though it still suffers from the neglect of the Lebanese state. It residents even lead more of a “Syrian life” than a Lebanese one.
In April 2014, Lebanese security agencies entered al-Tufail for the first time since Lebanon’s independence. The agencies at the time had delivered aid to families that were under siege for three months by Syrian regime forces and “Hezbollah”.