Christian villagers in the Bekaa Valley are arming themselves against the approach of Islamic State (ISIS) as it seeks to grab territory outside the abandoned farms and caves it controls in the mountain range between Lebanon and Syria.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 militants, mainly drawn from Isis andthe Nusra Front, are holding at least 21 Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage in the mountains east of the Sunni-populated town of Arsal.
The US has speeded up the delivery of weapons to the Lebanese army, and Christians have formed village defence forces.
“We are a minority and we are under threat by the jihadists,” said Rifaat Nasrallah, who commands volunteer guards in Ras Baalbek.
“Imagine if Islamic State makes it into Ras Baalbek and they crucify a Christian. It will set Lebanon alight,” said a western diplomat in Beirut, who declined to be named.
The conflict in Lebanon, which has left several dozen dead so far, represents the western periphery of the broader war against ISIS. Three of the hostages have been executed; two of them were beheaded on video.
Fighters from Hezbollah, the Shia organisation supported by Iran, are also on the battlefield, building outposts and laying landmines along the border with Syria. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, this week denounced the US-led coalition against ISIS, but cannot escape the irony that he is in the same trench as the Americans in fighting it.
Mohammed Hamiyah, a Lebanese soldier held by the Nusra Front, became the third victim of the kidnappers when he was shot in the head in a videotaped execution.
“These people have no sect, no religion,” said Maarouf Hamiyah, Mohammed’s father.
Tribal traditions of honour and revenge run deep among the Shia clans of the Bekaa Valley and each new execution by the Sunni jihadists stokes the spectre of violence. “If it takes us even 40 years, we will have our vengeance,” Mr Hamiyah said. The hostages were snatched when several hundred ISIS, Nusra Front and other militants stormed Arsal in early August, over-running army positions and seizing weapons before retreating to the mountains.
The Lebanese army is building new defences around Arsal, the population of which has tripled in three years with the influx of Syrian refugees. Dozens of Syrians have been arrested in the past week in Arsal and across Lebanon on suspicion of belonging to militant groups. On Thursday, a Syrian suspect was killed and several others wounded when Lebanese troops opened fire during a sweep through a refugee camp in Arsal. Sunnis say the army is acting on Hezbollah’s orders.
The kidnapping crisis has left the government in a quandary. A rescue mission is too risky and a prisoner exchange has been ruled out.
The hostages’ families have mounted demonstrations. “We are sick and tired of waiting for our kids to be slaughtered,” said Ramez Bazzal, the father of Ali Bazzal, a police corporal held by the Nusra Front.