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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Lebanese environmental group accused of being Hezbollah arm – Stars Info City


KFAR TIBNIT, Lebanon — On the outskirts of this southern Lebanese village, workers in a pickup parked at a nature reserve named after a fallen fighter from the militant Hezbollah group. They took two large eucalyptus seedlings out of the truck and planted them.

The men are from Green Without Borders, an NGO that says it aims to protect Lebanon’s green spaces and plant trees.

But some in Israel, the United States and Lebanon have accused the NGO of being an affiliate of Hezbollah to cover up its military activities. The group has been setting up outposts for militant groups along the border with Israel, they said. Last month, residents of the southern Christian village of Rmaych, near the border, said they encountered armed men at one of the group’s outposts who were preventing them from accessing farmland.

Green Without Borders denies any links to Hezbollah, which also says it has nothing to do with environmental groups.

“We are not anyone’s arm,” Zouher Nahli, head of Green Without Borders, told The Associated Press. “As an environmental association we serve everyone, we are not politicized,” he said in a speech at the Bassam Tabaja Nature Reserve, named after a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria in 2014. Hundreds of trees were planted there.

Funding for the group comes from the ministries of environment and agriculture, as well as wealthy Lebanese concerned about the environment and municipalities, the group is concentrated in the eastern Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon, he said. He said he was an employee of the Department of Agriculture.

The group has helped plant about 2 million trees since it started operations in 2009, Nahli said.

Israel and Hezbollah are bitter rivals and have fought several wars over the decades, the last of which ended in August 2006. The 34-day conflict has killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

The UN Security Council resolution that ended that war said there should be no “armed personnel, assets and weapons of any kind” in the border area other than the government and UN peacekeepers. After the war, thousands of Lebanese troops were deployed in the border area, and the United Nations peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, which had been stationed there since 1978, was reinforced.

In a November report, UNIFIL said it had erected containers and prefabricated buildings at 16 locations along the border, some with the prominent green No Borders sign. In some cases, it said, UNIFIL patrols were unable to approach the sites.

The Israeli military said Hezbollah used Green Without Borders on the border to gather intelligence information.

At a Security Council meeting in September, U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Mills said the proliferation of the group’s outposts along the border has hindered UNIFIL’s access and “is raising tensions in the region, further Shows that this so-called environmental group is acting on behalf of Hezbollah.”

At the meeting, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution strongly condemning the harassment, intimidation, attacks and restrictions on UNIFIL.

Last month, an Irish UN peacekeeper was killed and several others were wounded when attackers opened fire on a UNIFIL convoy in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has denied any link to the attack.

Nahli said he was not aware of any containers or buildings his group was erecting. “Everything we’re doing at the border is about protecting the forest and all the claims are illogical and baseless,” he said.

Residents of border Shiite villages that support Hezbollah have praised the group. It’s “good for the environment and planting trees along the border. We’re very happy with their work,” says Salah Rammal, a shopkeeper in the border village of Odaisseh.

For years, however, residents of the Christian village of Rmaych have complained about Greens Without Borders’ positions on farmland belonging to village families in a nearby valley. They said the group did not plant any trees there and actually felled them and cut a 1.5-kilometer (1-mile) dirt road on their land.

“This is a cover for Hezbollah to have a position. We have no problem with Hezbollah, but it should be outside our land,” said Bassam al-Haj, a teacher at the Rmaych school.

In December, al-Haj and other residents traveled to the outpost to confront those there. Some at the scene wore masks and carried weapons, Al-Haj said, and the outpost included several rooms, a tent and a fence separating the village’s farmland.

Residents argued with the men, he said. One of the men told a resident who was filming the encounter, “If you don’t delete the pictures you took, we’re going to crush you,” al-Haj said.

Rmaych priest Najib al-Ameel, who attended the talks, said a Hezbollah official and members of the group visited the village a few days after the confrontation and met residents at the mayor’s office.

The mayor and residents demanded that the post be removed, he said. Al-Ameel said he told Hezbollah officials, “We will not accept anyone to protect us except the Lebanese army.” A few days later, Green Without Borders deleted the post, and residents are now free to enter their land, he said.

Nahli said the media had exaggerated events in Rmaych and declined to discuss details. In the past, Hezbollah has blamed Rmaych’s friction on members of the Christian Forsa Lebanese party, one of Hezbollah’s harshest critics.

Asked if peacekeepers could visit the group’s sites, UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tennanti said: “Of course, we have the possibility to monitor the entire area of ​​operation and the areas and sites of Operation Green Without Borders.”

He said there was no “violation of Resolution 1701,” the Security Council resolution that ended the 2006 war.

According to Nahli, there is an urgent need for green jobs without borders. Lebanon has experienced one of the world’s worst rates of deforestation over the past few decades, he said, which has accelerated since the economy collapsed in late 2019 as poor people cut down trees to use wood for heating. He said the forest area has declined from 25 percent of the country’s territory to about 3 percent now.

“We are doing everything we can to prevent further deforestation in coordination with all relevant authorities,” he said.

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