News that hasn’t hit the headlines – yet
The four Hezbollah fighters, wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying automatic rifles, motioned the vehicle to a halt on a remote road in the barren mountainous approach to Hermel. A thickly bearded man inspected the identification papers of the car’s occupants as another fighter, his face covered in a black mask, cradled his M-16 assault rifle. Two other watchful Hezbollah men sat in a parked SUV 20 yards up the road, ready to give chase to any vehicle that crashed through the checkpoint.
The unusual sight of armed and uniformed Hezbollah men checking passing traffic underlines the fear and anger that has gripped Shiite areas of Lebanon amid an unprecedented spate of suicide bomb attacks that have left at least 40 people dead and nearly 300 wounded.
It also raises the possibility of reciprocal checkpoints in Sunni areas, undermining the Lebanese army's role as guarantor of internal stability.
Hermel has been struck by suicide car bombers twice this year, and the town and surrounding areas have been targeted on more than 20 occasions in the past year with rockets fired by Syrian rebels from across the border.
The suicide bombings have been claimed by extremist Sunni groups that are either affiliated with, or inspired by, Al-Qaeda who say they are responding to Hezbollah’s armed intervention in Syria, on behalf of the regime. But Hezbollah remains unrepentant, insisting it will not withdraw its forces from Syria.
“We will continue our work and remain in the field committed to our political stances,” said Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, in a speech on Sunday. “We will remain fighting where we are fighting. We are a resistance wherever we are: a resistance against Israel and its agents and a resistance fighting in Syria to defend the resistance.”
Still, the suicide bombings have cast a pall over Shiite areas of Lebanon. Two of them this year targeted the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah exerts strong influence. The streets have emptied and businesses are suffering. Residents are looking to sell their properties and move out or rent elsewhere in Beirut. Hezbollah snipers have reportedly taken to the rooftops and more explosive detection kits have been disbursed to the party’s cadres.
Sheikh Qassem called on supporters to remain steadfast. “This war they are waging on us requires sacrifices and we are working with all our might to lessen its repercussions and pains,” he said.
Hezbollah is the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon, but its combatants are rarely seen carrying weapons in public. Plainclothes and unarmed Hezbollah men took to the streets of southern Beirut to man checkpoints last summer after a powerful car bomb on Aug. 15 killed 30 people. Within a few weeks, however, Hezbollah had handed over the checkpoints to the Lebanese army and security forces.
On Monday the Lebanese army ordered the closure of the Hezbollah checkpoint at the main eastern entrance of Hermel, one of several mounted in the area. Infuriated local residents blocked the roads with burning tires and demanded the reinstatement of the checkpoints, which they say are essential for their security.
According to a source close to Hezbollah, the army told the local party leaders that establishing autonomous checkpoints would encourage other groups to follow suit, weakening the authority of the state in a part of Lebanon where the government holds little sway in the first place.
“The army said that if they allowed us to have checkpoints in Hermel they would have to allow the Sunnis to have checkpoints in Arsal,” the source says, referring to a Sunni town in the northeast Bekaa Valley which is a bedrock of support for the Syrian opposition.
Tensions between Shiite Hermel and Sunni Arsal have been running high for more than a year, marked by tit-for-tat kidnappings and shootings. Hezbollah officials have repeatedly accused Arsal of being a conduit for the car bombs, which are assembled in the rebel-held town of Yabroud in Syria to reach Shiite areas of Lebanon. In November, the Lebanese army intercepted a vehicle carrying 770 pounds of a type of explosive commonly used in the quarries around Yabroud. It entered Lebanon via Arsal, according to a senior security source.
Arsal is separated from the Syrian border by some six miles of desolate, rugged mountains laced with smuggling trails that the Syrian rebels and their Lebanese supporters use to cross the border. Recent press reports and comments from sources close to Hezbollah suggest that Hezbollah is planning an imminent assault on Yabroud in an attempt to halt the car bomb production and seal the border adjacent to Arsal.