Tension adds to existing wounds in Lebanon

Tension adds to existing wounds in Lebanon

The streets of Dahiya are filled with Hezbollah police dressed in black jackets and hats who don’t mind the official Lebanese police.

January 30, 2011, Sunday/ 13:30:00

A small Middle Eastern country famous for its wars, Lebanon is passing through another hard time. In Lebanon, a country frequently
depicted as the mirror of the region with its population of 4 million and 18 sectarian groups, Hezbollah-backed Najip Mikati was given the task of forming the government, but this gave rise to a series of violent incidents throughout the country.

In addition to the dispute between Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Shiite Hezbollah-backed bloc, the country also saw the panic people went into when a militia that claimed to be affiliated with Hezbollah showed up in the streets of Beirut.

Developments remind many of the violent incidents that claimed the lives of dozens of people just three years ago. Najib Hazza, 65, a retired journalist, drew attention to the possibility of a civil war. “Both sides have adopted a strict stance. Here, the logic of justice [Hariri] and the logic of power [Hezbollah] are fighting each other. A confrontation is inevitable. However, currently, only Hezbollah has weapons,” he says.

The tension is also taking its toll on the country’s economy and people’s habits. Young businessman Berj Bouloian, 24, points to a recession in the markets. “No one wants to make investments. Everyone is buying dollars,” he says, adding that there are even people who are preparing to leave the country in the event of war.

Lama, 24, working for a civil society organization, says people are not venturing far from home for entertainment because of emerging concerns. Turks who live in Lebanon, estimated at between 50,000 and 80,000, are cautious. Hıdır Önen, 44, says, “We plan to return to Turkey if war erupts.”

Developments have also brought to the agenda what Hezbollah’s ultimate goal might be. Sateh Nureddine, the managing editor of the As-Safir daily, believes a potential war will not bode well for Hezbollah, which became popular as a resistance organization. For Nureddine, Hezbollah ultimately aims to take control of the country. But, he notes, it will not be able to do this due to domestic balances and external pressures. Michel Nawfal, the foreign news director of the Al-Mustaqbal daily, cautions: “Hezbollah should use its weapons against Israel. If it uses them domestically, it will lose.”

Rached Fayed, a columnist at the An-Nahar daily, believes the purpose of the Hezbollah-induced political crisis is not to try to sideline the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is investigating the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, but to take control of the country. For Fayed, Hezbollah is controlled by Iran and is gradually taking over the country.

Another concern is a potential intervention by Israel. Nureddine says: “Israel closely monitors the developments. It is happy. It thinks it is time to take revenge. It waits for Hezbollah to transform from a resistance organization to a criminal one.” Saad Mehio, from the Carnegie Middle East Center, says, “A civil war will not benefit anyone, including Hezbollah,” and stresses that an Israeli attack may reunite the Lebanese people.

If Hezbollah starts controlling politics, it could create problems between Shiites and Sunnis, which constitute close to 70 percent of the country’s population. According to official figures, there around 300,000 intermarriages between Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon. But this could change. A taxi driver named Abdullah (45) said: “There used to be no problems between Sunnis and Shiites. They used to intermarry. My sister-in-law is Shiite and my wife is Sunni. Last week, they got into a fight over Saudi Arabia and Iran. I don’t think I’ll let my daughter or my son get married to a Shiite after this.”

The public’s perspective toward Turkey is different. Muhammad, a 53-year-old driver, said: “Iran is the country that is foreign to us. We have a common history with the Turks. But we don’t have a common history with Iranians.” As for Maher al-Farfur, a 51-year-old storeowner in Beirut, he said: “Turkey ruled this country for 400 years. I wish Turkey would come back to these lands.” Turkmen citizens in the village of Kuvashra, located in northern Lebanon, also have confidence in Turkey. Navar Naif Hıdır (52), a resident of the village, which has a Turkmen population of 3,500, said: “There is a general concern about the possibility of civil war. But we are not afraid because we know Turkey will help us.” Turkey has made important investments in the village, such as bringing water supplies and building schools.

But views are different in Dahiya, a suburb in southern Beirut under the control of Hezbollah. The streets are filled with Hezbollah police dressed in black jackets and hats. They don’t mind the Lebanese police, who are just 100 meters away, and continue on with their business. There are posters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah throughout the streets. New buildings are being constructed in places where buildings destroyed during Israel’s raid in 2006 stood.

Hezbollah officials prefer not to talk, saying, “We are in a period of constructive silence.” Hezbollah sources say the main reason behind forming “safe zones” is to ensure protection from Israel. One of the advocates of this argument is Mohammad Noureddine, a professor at the Lebanese University and director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Beirut. According to Noureddine, the STL’s investigation into Hariri’s assassination is part of the US and Israel’s plan to finish off Hezbollah. He also adds, “Regardless of whether the court blames Syria, Hezbollah or Iran, it will actually be blaming all three of them.” That is because there is a “sacred bond” between these three actors. Noting that Hariri’s decision to step down after the indictment has no significance for Hezbollah, Noureddine said he believes Hezbollah can theoretically take control of the entire country but in reality can only control part of Beirut.

Poverty-stricken Dahiya, however, has residents whose stories are the exact opposite of those told in Hamra, a neighborhood in downtown Beirut. But it remains unclear how these stories, which reveal the impact the political tension has on the public, will end.

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