Rockets have been criss-crossing Lebanon's northern Bekaa Valley in the past week, striking Sunni and Shiite areas and inflaming sectarian tensions in an area adjacent to Syria's bloody battlefields.
In retaliation for a deadly rocket attack on a Sunni town in the Bekaa, a suicide car bomber blew himself up today in the Shiite-populated southern suburbs of Beirut, about two hours away, killing at least four in the third such attack since the start of the year in a Shiite neighborhood.
The incidents illustrate how Lebanon is descending further into Shiite vs. Sunni, tit-for-tat violence in a country that knows well the horrors of all-out civil war.
“Lebanon has entered a circle of madness and we expect more bombings in the country,” said Walid Jumblatt, paramount leader of Lebanon’s Druze community who has sought to straddle the Shiite-Sunni divide.
The Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been fighting alongside Syrian armed rebels, claimed responsibility for Tuesday's car bombing, which occurred a few dozen yards from a previous suicide attack on Jan. 2. The group said the attack was retaliation for the death of five children on Jan. 17, when rockets struck the Sunni town of Arsal in the northern Bekaa, a bastion of support for Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Jabhat al-Nusra also claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack in the Shiite town of Hermel in the northern Bekaa on Jan. 16, which killed three people, and for a cross-border rocket attack, also against Hermel, in December.
“Thanks to God, a response was made to the massacres of the party of Iran against the children of Syria and Arsal,” Jabhat al-Nusra said in a statement on Twitter, referring to the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has dispatched several thousand fighters to Syria to assist the Assad regime, provoking deep anger among the Syrian opposition and its largely Sunni support base in Lebanon. Shiite-populated areas of Lebanon have been struck repeatedly by car bomb attacks since Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, confirmed last May that his party was fighting in Syria, and the phenomenon of Lebanese Sunni suicide bombers began appearing for the first time in November.
On Jan. 17, a day after the suicide bomb attack on Hermel, 11 grad-style rockets, at least some fitted with warheads designed for maximum casualties, struck Arsal, 14 miles to the south, killing seven people, including five children.
Relatives of the slain children said the blast from the first rocket on the edge of Arsal prompted six children from one family to run outside to see what had happened.
“The second rocket landed among them, killing five of them,” says Derard Hujairy, the children’s uncle, standing by the small impact crater a few yards from the house. The sixth child was critically injured and is in hospital.
A Lebanese army checkpoint controls the only road from the Bekaa into Arsal. Lebanese troops also man other checkpoints on some of the dirt tracks on the outskirts of the town that wind toward the border with Syria. But the rugged, barren mountains to the north and east of the town have become bases for Syrian rebels and their Lebanese allies.
The anger of residents at the rocket strike was palpable and manifested itself in slurs against Shiites. "This is the scud of that pig Nasrallah, who used to boast about hitting Israel," said one relative of the dead children.
Others were more philosophical.
"There's nothing we can do," says Salah Hojeiri, another uncle of the children. "A massacre has been committed against children and sadly all the politicians do is talk about sectarianism while we who support the [Syrian] revolution are paying the price."
After inspecting the site of the rocket attacks, the Lebanese army declared that the missiles had been fired from somewhere east of Arsal. The distinction is important. The border with Syria lies eight miles east of Arsal, across mountainous terrain. The assertion that the rockets were fired from the east suggests that the perpetrators were Syrian rebels, rather than Hezbollah.
However, residents are unconvinced. They ask why Syrian rebels would fire rockets into Arsal, a base of support whose population has more than doubled with the influx of nearly 40,000 mostly Sunni Syrian refugees. Furthermore, Syrian rebels have repeatedly fired rockets at Hermel and surrounding Shiite villages in the northern Bekaa from mountains north of Arsal, making it unlikely that the attack was a result of an aiming accident.
Local residents say the Lebanese army deliberately covered up the true source of the rocket fire in an attempt to defuse tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the Bekaa. They maintain that the rockets were fired from west of Arsal, in Shiite-populated territory where Hezbollah has a strong influence.
“We had people examine the impact sites and we are certain that the rockets were fired somewhere between Zabboud and Hermel,” says Abu Omar, a resident of Arsal who provides logistical support for Syrian rebel factions.
Hezbollah denied it fired rockets into Arsal, saying such accusations were “dangerous.” Adding to the speculation was a claim of responsibility from the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The group said on Facebook and other forms of social media that it had attacked the Arsal headquarters of the Free Syrian Army, a moderate Syrian rebel group, with which it is locked into three weeks of fierce fighting in northern Syria.
Convictions trump facts
Several Shiite villages near Hermel also were struck by rockets on Friday, without causing casualties. On Saturday, four people were wounded when more rockets hit Arsal and Ras Baalbek, a Christian village five miles north of Arsal.
The rockets that hit Ras Baalbek on Jan. 18 and Arsal on Jan. 17 were fitted with anti-personnel warheads consisting of hundreds of 6mm diameter steel ball bearings. Hezbollah is known to possess Chinese-manufactured 122mm Katyusha rockets carrying the same type of warhead and fired some into northern Israel during the month-long war in 2006.
Hezbollah is believed to have acquired the Chinese rockets from Syria. That means that the rocket is probably in the Syrian Army’s inventory and, therefore, possibly being used by the rebels who in many cases have armed themselves with weapons looted from military bases.
Still, the truth behind the attack on Arsal has been overshadowed by the perception of local residents that Hezbollah was responsible. In this fiercely tribal corner of north Lebanon, retaliation seems only to be a matter of time.
“It’s not over,” says Abu Omar. “There will be repercussions.”
In Hermel, workmen were repairing the damage caused by Thursday’s suicide car bombing outside the municipality offices. The Shiite residents here say they expect more car bombings and rocket attacks in the area and are taking precautions.
“The time is coming when we will have checkpoints on all the roads around here and we won’t let in anyone who is a Sunni,” says a local prominent businessman.