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Hezbollah phone network spat sparks Beirut street war

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Thursday that the pro-Western government has declared 'war' on his militant group.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 2008

Tense: People walked past Shiite opposition gunmen Thursday on a street in Beirut as Iranian-backed Hizbullah militants tightened their grip on the Beirut airport.

Fadi Ghalioum/Reuters

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Beirut, Lebanon

A sudden flare-up of street violence in Beirut appears to have broken an 18-month political impasse between the Western-backed government and the opposition, led by the militant Shiite Hezbollah

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With armed gunmen roaming the streets of the Lebanese capital, districts sealed by burning barricades, and Beirut airport blockaded, a potentially climactic struggle has begun over the future identity of this tiny Mediterranean country.

"This is a turning point. There can be no more cohabitation between the government and the opposition. All trust is gone," says Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a Lebanese political analyst and expert on Hezbollah "The state is going to be the focus of the struggle, symbolically and practically as well."

The showdown was triggered by a dispute over Hezbollah's private telephone network, with the government declaring the network illegal earlier this week.

"The decision is tantamount to a declaration of war ... on the resistance and its weapons in the interest of America and Israel," said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a news conference aired live on television Thursday. "Those who try to arrest us, we will arrest them. Those who shoot at us, we will shoot at them. The hand raised against us, we will cut it off."

Coming days are crucial

The coming days could decide which vision of Lebanon ultimately triumphs – a liberal, Western-friendly, free-market economy and tourist hub catering to wealthy Arabs; or a key component of a regional alliance that seeks to confront Israel and thwart Western influence in the Middle East.

Lebanon has been mired in a deep political crisis for 18 months and without a president since November.

Many analysts predicted that the stalemate would continue for many more months as neither side could afford a confrontation that could lead to civil war. Furthermore, the politics of Lebanon often are shaped by the broader interests of external powers – such as the US, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and France – all of which have invested political capital here in the struggle for dominance in the Middle East.

"The variables of the big players have not changed. So on one level nothing much has changed," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center. But, he adds, the risk lies in the deliberate "testing of wills" and "drumming up the public" spilling out of control, leading to an unwanted escalation that the leaders on both sides are no longer able to control.

On Wednesday, Sheikh Rashid Qabbani, the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon, used unusually harsh words to denounce Hezbollah as a "gang of outlaws," warning that Sunnis "have had enough."

Tensions in Lebanon have erupted on the streets before, but each time the rival leaderships have pulled back from the brink. This time, however, both sides appear determined to proceed along their perilous paths.

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