Friday, February 7, 2014

As bombs mount, Hezbollah edges back toward 'self-security'

[Originally posted at NOW]

The Party is struggling to stem a new wave of deadly attacks at home.

When on Tuesday a group of humanitarian NGO workers were leaving the remote northeastern border town of Arsal, the target of frequent, sometimes fatal shelling by Syrian regime air and land forces where the team had been aiding Syrian refugees, they might well have imagined they were putting the day’s danger behind them and heading for safer terrain.

If so, however, that illusion was dispelled when their van – clearly marked with the logo of their organization, the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (“LIFE”) – encountered an ad hoc checkpoint manned by plain-clothed gunmen near the town of al-Labwe, between Arsal and the highway that would reconnect them to the rest of Lebanon.

Ordered out of the vehicle, the five of them were detained for six hours, according to Nabil al-Halabi, LIFE’s director and a human rights lawyer, who told NOW they were subjected to hostile interrogation and even beating. Some, indeed, were left with “serious injuries,” according to a statement issued online. As a consequence, LIFE has decided to suspend all activities in Arsal for the time being, on account of the “chaotic insecurity” in the area and the “absence of control by the [state] security forces and army.”

Asked who he believed was manning the checkpoint, Halabi told NOW it was “obvious” it was Hezbollah, the party-cum-militia which has long maintained a significant presence in the wider Beqaa Valley region surrounding Arsal. The Party routinely crosses the Syrian border to do battle with Syrian rebels who, in turn, are largely supported by Arsal residents.

While Halabi’s claim could not be independently verified, recent appearances of temporary Hezbollah checkpoints in the same area have also been reported by NOW’s Beqaa correspondent, Abdallah al-Hojeiry. For around a month, wrote Hojeiry, Hezbollah gunmen have deployed on the Baalbek-Labwe highway, stopping and searching cars from Arsal and generating local resentment in the process.

Such measures, which come as the country’s security agencies struggle to stem a wave of deadly bomb attacks in predominantly pro-Hezbollah neighborhoods (including two in Hermel, the nearest large town to Arsal), are reminiscent of the abortive “self-security” program implemented in the wake of the August 2013 car bomb in the south Beirut suburb of Ruwais. For weeks, Hezbollah erected checkpoints at the entrances to the southern suburbs, a move that became increasingly unpopular, particularly after a dispute at one checkpoint led to the killing of a Palestinian refugee. In late September, the Party abandoned its program, handing over its checkpoints to the army, which maintains control of them to this day.

But with attacks now coming much faster – there have been five in 2014 alone – Hezbollah appears to be quietly edging toward taking security into its own hands once again. In the suburbs themselves (collectively known as “Dahiyeh”), the Party has markedly bolstered its street presence, according to local resident and political analyst Qassem Qassir.

“We noticed […] many of Hezbollah’s men are always on the ground – unarmed, but observing anything suspicious,” Qassir told NOW. “There is also talk of Hezbollah getting new tools and materials to check for explosives around the entrances to Dahiyeh. And many of the main roads leading to Hezbollah headquarters have been closed.”

In tandem with its own campaigns, the Party is also said to be pressing state security agencies to redouble their efforts. A forthcoming security plan for the south of the country, involving the erection of new checkpoints and increased surveillance of Palestinian refugee camps, reportedly comes at the request of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.

Above and beyond mere security-related decisions, however, a broader political or strategic response from Hezbollah to the recent spike in deadly bombings has been more difficult to discern. While Party officials continue to describe the attacks in terms of an international campaign of “takfiri terrorism” that underscores the necessity of its continued military intervention in Syria, there has been no word from General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah since a televised address in December 2013 – an uncharacteristic silence which, some observers say, may indicate uncertainty within the Party regarding its next steps.

“There have been [six] explosions since [Nasrallah’s] last appearance, which raises a lot of questions,” said Ali al-Amin, a political analyst and Dahiyeh resident. “Doesn’t he have anything to say? Or is he unable to reassure people that everything will be okay this time?”

“Many among Hezbollah’s supporters are asking themselves these same questions, and maybe this time the leadership has no answers. Hezbollah has no means of predicting or preventing the explosions now.”

Luna Safwan and Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

No comments:

Post a Comment