Lebanese environmental group accused of being an arm of Hezbollah

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

The men are from Green Without Borders, a non-governmental organization that says it aims to protect Lebanon’s green spaces and plant trees.

But Israel, the United States and some in Lebanon accuse the NGO of being a branch of Hezbollah for hiding its military activities. They say that the group has been establishing outposts for the militant group next to the border with Israel. Last month, residents in the southern Christian town of Rmaych near the border said they encountered armed men at the group’s site who were blocking them from agricultural land.

Green Without Borders denies any connection to Hezbollah, which also says it is not affiliated with the environmental group.

“We are not an arm for anyone,” the head of Green Without Borders, Zouher Nahli, told The Associated Press. “We as an environmental society work for all the people and we are not political.” He spoke at the Bassam Tabaja Nature Reserve, named for a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria in 2014, where the NGO has planted hundreds of trees.

He said that the organization’s funding comes from the ministry of environment and agriculture as well as from wealthy Lebanon that cares about the environment and the municipalities, especially in the eastern part of the Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon. He said he is an employee of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Since they started working in 2009, the group has helped plant about 2 million trees, said Nahli.

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

The UN Security Council resolution that ended that war said the border area should be free of “armed personnel, assets and any weapons,” other than those of the government and UN peacekeeping. After the war, thousands of Lebanese soldiers were sent into the border area and the UN peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, which has been present since 1978, was fed.

In a report in November, UNIFIL said shipping containers and prefabricated buildings, some with prominent Green Without Borders markings, were set up at 16 sites along the border. In several instances, UNIFIL patrols were prevented from approaching the locations, he said.

The Israeli military says Hezbollah is using Green Without Borders outposts on the border to gather intelligence.

At a meeting of the Security Council in September, the US deputy ambassador, Richard Mills, said that the proliferation of the group’s posts along the border is hindering UNIFIL’s access and “raising tensions in the region, further demonstrate that this so-called environmental organization is working. for Hezbollah.”

At the meeting, the council unanimously approved a resolution condemning harassment, intimidation, attacks and restrictions on UNIFIL.

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

Nahli said he was not aware of any shipping vessels or buildings that his group was setting up. “All we do on the border is to protect forests and all the claims are ignorant and baseless,” he said.

Residents of Shiite towns on the border who support Hezbollah are praising the group. He is “doing good for the environment and planting trees along the border. We are very happy with their work,” said Salah Rammal, a shop owner in the village of Odaisseh.

Residents of the Christian village of Rmaych, however, have been complaining for years about the situation established by Green Without Borders on farmland that belonged to village families in a nearby valley. They say the group did not plant trees there and in fact cut down trees and cut a 1.5-kilometer (1-mile) dirt road on their land.

“It is a cover for Hezbollah to have positions. We have no problem with Hezbollah, but it should be outside our territory,” said Bassam al-Haj, a Rmaych schoolteacher.

In December, al-Haj and other residents went to the platform and confronted the men there. Al-Haj said that some of the men at the site were hidden and armed, and that the outpost included several rooms, a tent and a fence that blocked the farmland. town.

The residents and the men were arguing, he said. One of the men told one resident who was videotaping the meeting, “We will frame you if you don’t delete the pictures you took,” al-Haj said.

Days after the conflict, a Hezbollah official and members of the group visited the town and met with residents in the mayor’s office, said Father Najib al-Ameel, a priest from Rmaych who was present. at the talks.

The mayor and residents asked for the post to be removed, he said. Al-Ameel said he told a Hezbollah official, “We will not accept anyone but the Lebanese army to protect us.” A few days later, Green Without Borders removed the post and now residents can access their land freely, he said.

Nahli said that the media had blown the event in Rmaych out of proportion and refused to discuss details. In the past, Hezbollah has blamed violations in Rmaych on members of the Lebanese Christian Forces party, which is among Hezbollah’s harshest critics.

When asked if peacekeepers could visit the group’s sites, UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said, “We had the ability, of course, to monitor the entire area of ​​operations and also areas and places where Green Without Borders worked.”

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

Nahli argued that the work of Green Without Border is badly needed. Over the past few decades, Lebanon has experienced one of the worst rates of deforestation in the world, which he said has accelerated since the collapse of the economy, starting in late 2019, as poor people cutting down trees to use the wood for heating. The forested area has fallen from 25% of the country’s land to only about 3% now, he said.

“We are trying with all our means, in coordination with all the relevant authorities, to prevent further deforestation,” he said.

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