Mohammed Hamade, a resident of this remote town in northeast Lebanon, took a great risk this week to try to drive into Syria and smuggle diesel fuel back into Lebanon. But he never made it to the border. He was killed just inside Lebanon in a Syrian Army ambush – an incident that spurred a serious armed clash between the soldiers and furious residents of this Sunni town, which has become a bedrock of support for the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
"What happened to Hamade is only the latest example of Syrian forces coming into Lebanon and killing our people," says Ali Hujairi, the mayor of Arsal.
Mr. Hamade was not the first resident of Arsal to die at the hands of Syrian forces in the past year. But amid a surge in violence along Lebanon's northern border over the past six weeks, his death snapped the patience of a people who live by rigid tribal rules and have scant respect for the authority of a Lebanese state that they claim has long ignored their needs.
The Lebanese government, which is composed mainly of allies of Damascus, has adopted a policy of disassociation with the crisis in Syria. It has been reluctant to voice strong criticism of cross-border shootings by Syrian troops, abductions of Lebanese, citizens and Syrian army incursions into Lebanese territory, especially in the unpoliced barren wilderness east and north of Arsal where only a few goat herders live in scattered dwellings.
As Syria's troubles have slipped across the border, catalyzing factional fighting in Tripoli and sending tremors of disquiet through Lebanese who fear worse is to follow, the government's policy has come under increasing pressure. Yesterday, in a rare censure of Syrian behavior, Saqr Saqr, the head of Lebanon's military court, charged unnamed Syrian soldiers with killing Ali Shaaban, a cameraman for Lebanon's Al-Jadeed television who died in a hail of gunfire along the border with Syria two months ago.
Arsal: Stronghold of support for Syrian regime
Arsal, which lies in a shallow valley surrounded by barren limestone mountains, has a long history of opposition to the Syrian regime. Since the Syrian uprising began last year, the town has emerged as the nexus of Lebanese Sunni support for opponents of the Syrian regime, whether refugees fleeing the violence, militants from the Free Syrian Army, Lebanese volunteers for the armed struggle, or arms smugglers using the rugged unpopulated mountains to transfer weapons to Syrian hotspots.
When Hamade was killed, dozens of young men grabbed their weapons and drove along the rugged tracks cutting across dried up river beds and a stony semi-desert toward a mountain range six miles east of the town, which marks the border and where Syrian troops are deployed. Clashes lasted for several hours and included heavy machine guns and Syrian tank fire.
"We were caught in the middle of the battle," says Hussein Atrash, a middle-aged goatherder who lives with his family and 400 goats in Khirbet Daoud, a tiny community of isolated farmsteads close to the border. "There were bullets flying over our house."
Mr. Atrash wore a grubby dishdasha, Syrian army camouflage jacket, and a red and white keffiyah wrapped around his head. He stroked his grizzled beard with a spade-sized hand as he sat on the carpeted floor of his tiny cinder-block home brewing a pot of tea.
"If you drive further east from here, they [Syrian soldiers] will shoot at you. This is as far as you can go," says Atrash, who has a house in Arsal. "We are very worried that in the next clash, the Syrians will come all the way to here. I want to leave ... what do I do with my goats? They are my livelihood but I can't take them with me."
Syrians: 'Terrorists' thwarted along the border
The plight of Atrash and the few remaining shepherds who stubbornly refuse to leave their homes in Khirbet Daoud appears to be of little consequence to the Lebanese government. The only security presence in the area is a couple of bored policemen manning a small checkpoint at the eastern entrance to Arsal. Lebanese troops did deploy briefly at Khirbet Daoud following Wednesday's clashes but soon left again.
The Syrian authorities accuse Lebanese factions of smuggling weapons into Syria and helping Syrian opposition militants. There have been numerous incidents of Syrian troops allegedly intercepting militants and arms smugglers along the border. Yesterday, Syria's state-run SANA news agency said that the Army had thwarted an attempted infiltration from Lebanon by "terrorists," adding that several of them were wounded before retreating back into Lebanese territory.
Last week, SANA reported that troops had foiled an attempt to smuggle weapons in four pick-up trucks from the Arsal area into Syria. The claim came four days after Naif Aoude, a resident of Arsal, had his own harrowing encounter with Syrian troops while out hunting rabbits one night with friends in the arid mountains a few miles north of the town.
Rabbit hunters caught in ambush
Mr. Aoude's friend, Abdel-Ghani Jebbawi, standing in the back of a white Chevrolet pick-up truck which bounced along a stony track, was sweeping the darkness with a spotlight to pick up rabbits while another two men in the back waiting with loaded shotguns.
The next moment, the night air was filled with the crackle and flashes of automatic weapons fire, the bullets punching holes into the vehicle – and its six occupants. Mr. Jebbawi slumped to the floor, killed instantly, while Aoude, the driver, stamped on the accelerator to escape the ambush.
"I switched off the headlights and drove as fast as I could, but they kept on shooting at the vehicle," says Aoude, lying in bed in his home on the outskirts of Arsal. He was hit by bullets in both legs, the wrist, and in the back. Another man had his jaw shot away, another was wounded in the throat and back. The pick-up truck, parked at a friend's house, was riddled with bullets on the left-hand side and the front windshield had been holed in three places.
Aoude admitted that he never saw the Syrian soldiers whom he said had set up the ambush beside the track which was some three or four miles inside Lebanese territory.
"They were waiting for anyone from Arsal to pass by so that they could shoot them," he says. "The Syrians have a big problem with us because we are helping Syrian refugees."
No one here doubts that the troubles in this remote corner of Lebanon are over, and many fear that clashes and incursions could intensify as the violence worsens in Syria. But the Arsal residents are made from hardy stock. Asked if he would still go rabbit hunting in the hills around the town, Aoude replies, "Of course. The Syrians are not going to stop me hunting nor push me off my land."