In June 2020, a Hezbollah commander informed residents of a handful of Syrian and Lebanese towns along the border between the two countries that this year’s harvest would be their last before their lands were confiscated.
Since 2014, the Lebanese Hezbollah group has been deployed along both sides of the Syrian-Lebanese border in the western Qalamoun region where the towns with confiscated lands lie. Hezbollah is accompanied on the Syrian side by Damascus’s Fourth Division, which is led by Bashar Al-Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad.
Hassan Diqqo, a Hezbollah commander, toured the Syrian towns of Rankous and Asaal Al-Ward, as well as the Lebanese town of Tufeil, under protection from Fourth Division and Hezbollah personnel. He ordered owners of agricultural lands along the stretch of borderland to harvest their crops for the last time and told them their lands would be confiscated.
According to The Syria Report’s correspondent, the area of land to be confiscated extends over 600 hectares of land cultivated with cherry, peach and apple trees and straddles the border between Syria and Lebanon. However, the largest portion of the confiscated land is within Syria’s borders and is under the Asaal Al-Ward and Rankous municipalities. Although the Lebanese town of Tufeil belongs administratively to Lebanon’s Breital district, the town’s very mountainous terrain makes it impossible to reach by land except through Syria. Accessing the town via Lebanon requires a helicopter.
According to The Syria Report’s correspondent, Diqqo, who holds both Lebanese and Syrian citizenship, claimed that he had purchased the lands for his personal benefit, and did not mention any relation to Hezbollah. He added that the lands were mortgaged to Banque du Liban (BdL), Lebanon’s central bank, and that he paid USD 350 million to the bank to release the mortgage and purchase the properties. Diqqo also claimed that the land originally belonged to the late Agha Assem Zeydan, a notable local figure from the nearby Syrian town of Yabroud.
For its part, BdL said in a statement published by Lebanon’s state-owned National News Agency (NNA) on July 21 that it had not sold these lands. Meanwhile, sources familiar with the situation told The Syria Report that Zeydan’s lands amounted to only 60 hectares, while the remaining confiscated properties belonged to local residents. In other words, it appears that Diqqo’s claims could be aimed at concealing that the land confiscations are for Hezbollah’s benefit.
Local residents and landowners also rejected the Hezbollah commander’s statements and staged small demonstrations in Asaal Al-Ward and Rankous. Fourth Division forces quickly arrested several protesters, and their relatives outside Syria received threats, according to The Syria Report correspondent.
Before residents finished harvesting their crops in July, construction vehicles believed to belong to Hezbollah entered the area from the Lebanese side and began building an earthen berm around the confiscated lands before erecting a Lebanese flag. Diqqo was present during the construction, as well as the mukhtar of Tufeil, Abu Sami Al-Shoum. After building the berm, construction vehicles were seen levelling the farmland and removing trees, and then building fortifications such as trenches.
When residents approached municipal authorities to complain, they were sent away with threats that the Fourth Division could get involved in the issue.
Residents told The Syria Report that they were angry over the confiscation of their lands, and feared that their former properties could be used to bury toxic substances due to the apparent secrecy surrounding recent construction work in the area as authorities bar residents from approaching the worksite. Residents also said they feared the area could be turned into a new Hezbollah military base, and that current construction was aimed at building underground fortifications suitable for weapons storage.