Visitors to Lebanon these days cannot help but be affected by the general sense of fear and anxiety that permeates the streets, writes Abdelbari Atwan.
In Beirut, where people hardly ever agree on anything, worries about security are the main topic of conversation in cafes frequented by writers and intellectuals. Tourists are markedly absent from the boulevards and markets.
Two events in particular have rocked Beirut in recent days: the bombing of the Iranian Embassy, and the assassination of top Hezbollah military commander, Hassan Al-Laqqis.
The embassy attack brought back terrible memories and re-introduced suicide-bombing to the capital. The Lebanese people endured a long period of this kind of suffering during their own 15 year civil war and the fighting in Syria has brought sectarian strife back to the streets of Beirut.
Hezbollah has sent fighters to help the Assad regime’s forces and Iran is their main backer. Hezbollah has blamed Saudi Arabia for the bombing which was claimed by Sunni jihadist group the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. In August dozens were killed in a spate of car bombs in Beirut.
The second event heralded a return to murder by silenced guns. This was a targeted assassination carried out with great military expertise and after a great deal of intelligence and planning. The killers had monitored al-Laqqis’s movements for days and managed to penetrate Hezbollah’s security in Hadath, the south-eastern suburb where he lived. He was killed by five shots to the head as he parked in his apartment block’s underground car park. Hezbollah have accused Israel of the crime.
The Iranian Embassy was in a southern Beirut suburb which is controlled by Hezbollah so, in a sense, both these incidents are designed to provoke the organization.
Hezbollah’s enemies are divided into two major camps, the first is Israel. Al-Laqqis was Hezbollah’s explosives expert, trained in Iran. Israel has much to fear from a heavily-armed Hezbollah, which it fought unsuccessfully for 34 days in 2006.
The second camp lined up against Hezbollah consists of salafi-jihadists. Such groups have proliferated in Syria where they are the main fighting force against the regime. They have managed to extend their influence into Lebanon where they are successfully recruiting hundreds, if not thousands, of Sunni youths inflamed by the sectarian incitement in some of the media and on religious television channels. Those who are peddling sectarian hatred include Lebanese, Syrian and Gulf speakers.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah leader, chose OTV, the satellite television channel controlled by his political ally General Michel Aoun to mount his most outspoken attack on Saudi Arabia, and to accuse it for the first time with clarity and frankness of being behind the double suicide bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
He emphasized that the Abdullah Azzam brigades, which claimed responsibility for the operation, are not “invented.” He said that not only does the group exist, but its emir is a Saudi with direct links to the Kingdom’s intelligence services.
This is the first time, to our knowledge, that Mr Nasrallah has accused Saudi Arabia directly and threatened a revenge attack against them.
We do not know if Mr Nasrallah will avenge Saudi Arabia and Israel combined or separately. According to him, one is behind the Iranian Embassy bombing and the other behind the assassination of Mr Lakis which took place one day after his accusations against Saudi Arabia were broadcast on OTV.
Hezbollah has its hands full with conflict at the moment, active in the defence of the Assad regime in Syria and facing off opposition at home from the March 14 group, led by Saad Hariri, Samir Geagea and Walid Jumblatt and, to a lesser degree, from supporters of jihadist groups inside Lebanon.
It is clear that Hassan Nasrallah is concerned by the expanding front against him at home and by attempts to drag the Palestinians into battle against Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s intelligence wing has discovered that jihadist groups are actively recruiting young Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria.
A source close to Hezbollah told me that the Palestinian who blew himself up in front of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut a week ago had previously belonged to Hamas, and had been recruited by the al-Qaeda linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades. The same source also revealed that another Palestinian was involved in bombing and is currently under arrest.
The source said that Hamas admitted that these two were previously members of the group but had left several months previously to join the jihadist group. Hamas said that it disowned them and their actions. Hezbollah intelligence has identified a new trend whereby many youths are abandoning Hamas as a result of active recruitment by jihadist groups with a more radical and violent agenda.
No wonder Beirut is quaking.