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Lebanese environmental group accused of being Hezbollah’s armed wing

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

The men belong to 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 an arm of Hezbollah to hide its military activities. They say the organization has set up outposts for the militant group along the border with Israel. Last month, residents of the Christian village of Rmaych, in the south of the country, near the border, said they encountered armed men at an outpost of the organization which prevented them from accessing agricultural land.

Vert sans frontières denies any connection with Hezbollah, which also claims that it is not linked to the environmental group.

“We’re not an arm for anyone,” Green Without Borders chief Zouher Nahli told The Associated Press. “As an environmental association, we work for everyone and we are not politicized.” He spoke in the Bassam Tabaja nature reserve, named after a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria in 2014, where the NGO has planted hundreds of trees.

He said funding for the organization came from the ministries of environment and agriculture as well as wealthy environmentally conscious Lebanese and municipalities, mainly in the eastern Bekaa Valley and southern from Lebanon. He said he is an employee of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Since it began operations in 2009, the group has helped plant around 2 million trees, Nahli said.

Israel and Hezbollah are sworn enemies and have fought several wars over the past 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 the border area should be free of ‘all armed personnel, property and weapons’, other than those of the government and peacekeepers of ONU. After the war, thousands of Lebanese soldiers were deployed in the border area and the UN peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, which has been present there since 1978, was reinforced.

In a November report, UNIFIL said shipping containers and prefabricated buildings, some of which bore visible Green Without Borders markings, had been installed at 16 sites along the border. In several cases, UNIFIL patrols were prevented from approaching the scene, he added.

The IDF says Green Without Borders outposts on the border are being used by Hezbollah to gather information.

At a Security Council meeting in September, US Deputy Ambassador to the UN Richard Mills said the group’s proliferation of outposts along the border is hampering access to the UNIFIL and “exacerbates tensions in the region, demonstrating once again that this so-called environmental group is acting on behalf of Hezbollah.

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

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

Nahli said he was not aware of any shipping containers or buildings set up by his organization. “All we do along the border is protect the forests and all the claims are illogical and baseless,” he said.

Residents of border Shia villages that support Hezbollah praise the organization. It’s “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 border village of Odaisseh.

However, residents of the Christian village of Rmaych have been complaining for years about a post set up by Vert sans frontières on farmland belonging to village families in a nearby valley. They say the organization did not plant any trees there and in fact felled trees and cut a 1.5 kilometer (1 mile) dirt road on their land.

“It’s a cover for Hezbollah to have positions. We have no problem with Hezbollah, but it should be out of our lands,” said Bassam al-Haj, an Rmaych teacher.

In December, al-Haj and other locals went to the outpost and confronted the men there. Al-Haj said some of the men at the site were masked and armed, and the outpost consisted of several rooms, a tent and a fence that blocked the village’s farmland.

Residents and men argued, he said. A resident who was filming the encounter was told by one of the men: “We will crush you if you don’t delete the photos you took,” al-Haj said.

A few days after the confrontation, a Hezbollah official and members of the organization went to the village and met the residents at the mayor’s office, said Father Najib al-Ameel, a priest from Rmaych who attended the meetings. talks.

The mayor and residents asked that the post be taken down, he said. Al-Ameel said he told the Hezbollah official, “We won’t accept anyone but the Lebanese army to protect us.” A few days later, Vert Sans Frontières removed the post and residents can now freely access their land, he said.

Nahli said the media exaggerated the Rmaych incident and refused to discuss the details. In the past, Hezbollah has blamed friction in Rmaych on members of the Lebanese Christian Forces party, which is among Hezbollah’s most vocal critics.

When asked if peacekeepers could visit the organization’s sites, UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said: “Of course we had the possibility to monitor the whole area of operations as well as the areas and places where Vert Sans Frontières operated.

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

Nahli argued that the work of Green Without Border was badly needed. In recent decades, Lebanon has seen one of the worst rates of deforestation in the world, which it says has accelerated since the collapse of the economy, starting in late 2019, as the poor cut trees to use the wood for heating. The forest area has shrunk from 25% of the country’s territory to only about 3% now, he said.

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

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