After the car bomb attack last month in southern Beirut which left 30 people dead and hundreds injured, Hezbollah now finds itself in a position similar to its enemies in Israel and the West in the post-September 11, 2001 era — trying to maintain security without causing too much disruption to people’s lives.
Hezbollah men wearing rubber surgical gloves can be found manning checkpoints at the entrances to Dahiyeh — Beirut’s southern suburbs — searching all vehicles entering the area. Hoods are popped open, trunks are inspected and doors patted to see if they sound hollow or potentially packed with explosives. The process is thorough. Not only are the cars searched but in some cases the license plates are read and cross-checked against lists of suspect vehicles. At night, armed Hezbollah men man checkpoints and patrol the streets with bomb-sniffing dogs.
Smaller access points into Dahiyeh have been closed off which is likely to increase the traffic congestion at the larger entrances. The security restrictions are having an impact on business in the southern suburbs. Residents say that many families have travelled to their hometowns or villages in the south and the Bekaa Valley. Outsiders are avoiding the area and residents are choosing to limit their movements as much as possible. Despite the procedures, stopping another attack is all but impossible, a grim fact to which Hezbollah members admit. Indeed, once a suicide bomber or car bomb is en route to its target it is more a matter of luck if it can be intercepted before detonation. With security having tightened in Dahiyeh, Hezbollah’s enemies may choose more vulnerable locations such as Nabatiyeh, Tyre, Bint Jbeil or Baalbek. The most effective way Hezbollah can halt future attacks is through diligent intelligence work. Hezbollah has powerful intelligence capabilities and works closely with the army’s military intelligence bureau. Other security agencies, including the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces — once considered suspect by Hezbollah — also appear to be working hard to roll up militant cells. The attacks against Hezbollah and Shia areas are seen as retaliation for the Shiite party’s military intervention in Syria on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah has deployed thousands of its battle-hardened fighters as well as new recruits to serve 30-day tours in some of the most bitterly contested fronts in the Syrian war, including Damascus, Deraa province in the south, the central western city of Homs and Aleppo province in the north, according to sources close to the group.
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It remains to be seen for how long the local residents will tolerate the security restrictions. For now, residents accept that the inconvenience is the price that must be paid to prevent further devastating attacks in the area, especially as the threat remains high and in light of looming events that draw crowds.
In November, Shias will mark the holy month of Muharram, which includes daily gatherings culminating in the Ashura ceremony, a public commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was killed in Karbala in Iraq in 680 AD. In 2004, Sunni jihadist suicide bombers killed at least 178 Shias gathered for Ashura ceremonies in Karbala and Baghdad.
Hezbollah justifies its military presence in Syria as necessary to prevent the Assad regime falling and being replaced with a radical takfiri successor which could destabilize Lebanon. The party’s support base generally subscribes to this rationale for the time being, especially in the wake of the Rweiss bombing, roadside bomb attacks in the Bekaa, cross-border rocket fire from Syria and frequent blood-curdling threats from extremist groups in Syria. However, it remains to be seen for how long that tolerance will prevail given that there is no end in sight to the Syrian conflict and the security situation in Lebanon will surely worsen in the weeks and months ahead. Some supporters may begin to question the wisdom of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and the backlash it is having on Lebanon.
On the other hand, as the rift between Lebanon’s Shia and Sunni communities continues to widen, the support base may well seek refuge in the sectarian trench, thankful for Hezbollah as a powerful protector rather than blaming it as the cause of their woes.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London