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Patrick Galey

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Beirut Burns as Lebanon's Violent Habits Die Hard

Posted: 05/29/2012 11:35 am

The context in which the recent deadly clashes in Beirut and Tripoli has been presented is that of the inevitable result of Syria's ongoing crisis infecting neighboring Lebanon.

In many ways, this makes sense, given the two countries' shared history and given the large influence Damascus still exerts over the political scene in Lebanon; Beirut currently has a government assembled along a pro-Syrian axis and the opposition is vocally supporting its Syrian counterpart.

But the fighting I witnessed first hand last week was not caused by Syrian contagion. These were very much Lebanese grievances boiling to the surface.

When the first pot shots echoed through the near-deserted streets of central Beirut last Sunday evening, the air was already thick with smoke.

A prominent Sheikh had earlier been gunned down by members of the Lebanese Army as he passed through a routine checkpoint. All the previous week, fierce clashes had hit the northern city of Tripoli, following the apparently unlawful arrest of a Salafi activist.

Supporters of the slayed Sheikh had rounded on the suburb of Tariq al-Jdeideh, home to rival Sunni political groups, and burned tires and trash at major intersections. Then the fighting began.

Gunmen stormed through the alleyways close to the Arab University, mobilizing with speed and coordination. From my street level viewpoint, I could see fighters enter into residential buildings, before returning to the fray with additional armed personnel.

With shots ringing through the acrid air, I approached a corner position occupied by fighters brandishing M-16s and bedecked in black, security issue waistcoats. All were partisans of the Future Movement, a major Sunni political body. None of them could have been more than 20 years-old.

"Who are you shooting at?" I asked a heavy set man who was yelling instructions into a walkie-talkie to fighters across the block.

"[Arab Movement leader] Shaker [al-Berjawi]," he replied. Berjawi is a controversial figure among Sunnis, many of who accuse him of saddling up to the Shiite Hezbollah.

"There is going to be big trouble tonight. If you stay here, 100 percent you will get shot," the man added. "This time, this is a serious fight."

As he was speaking, a gunman cocked his weapon and ripped off a string of rounds towards the general area of Berjawi's last known address, which turned out, in fact, to be housing seven university students, who barely escaped with their lives.

The carnage continued with youths crossing the street with fresh ammunition for fighters as a sniper took aim from above a clothes store. Two RPG rounds boomed into the building adjacent to our shelter.

At one point, a child, no older than 12 years old, could be seen darting towards fighting positions with a machine gun slung across his back, weighing down his small frame. At this point, it might be useful to point out that the fighting in Tariq al-Jdeideh was between two Sunni factions.

The clashes were the worst suffered by Beirut since May 2008, when dozens of fighters died in violence between Hezbollah and pro-government militias. But they didn't end there.

On Wednesday evening, four gunmen were cornered by security forces in Ras Beirut, close to the cosmopolitan area of Hamra, where most of the city's universities (and journalists) are located. Two died and four army soldiers were wounded in a standoff, the details of which remain murky.

The clashes closely followed the politicized nature of those occurring Tripoli, where up to ten were killed and dozens others wounded in the violence in Lebanon's second city last week.

A look at Lebanon's recent history, from the Doha Accord that ended May 2008's mini-civil war, shows that such sporadic fighting between sectarian groups is far from rare.

In 2009, violence shook the Beirut suburb of Aisha Bakkar, after a civilian woman had been killed by celebratory gunfire. A year later, three fighters were killed in the Burj Abi Haidar district in a dispute that began over a parking space.

A pattern emerges from the clashes. Far from being a result of the Syrian mess, they are a product of two recent Lebanese epochs: Its vicious Civil War and the subsequent refusal by groups to disarm.

The Ta'ef Agreement of 1989, which is generally associated -- although prematurely -- with the end of Lebanon's 15-year Civil War, stipulated each protagonist must hand in its weapons. In return, amnesties against prosecution for war crimes were liberally distributed to political leaders, many of whom still have a seat in parliament today.

There were several holes in the agreement, but the most gaping has proven to be the lack of judicial recourse the Lebanese state has over groups that have refused to disarm. Hezbollah, the Party of God, which fought a month-long war against Israel in 2006, is only the most famous -- and well-equipped -- militia in Lebanon that insists on sticking to its guns, so to speak.

There have been numerous aborted political campaigns to rid Beirut and other major cities of the arms that so terrorized Lebanon during the 1980s. None have gained traction, nor are they likely to. The very politicians that claim to support a general arms amnesty are the same leaders who proliferate parties' arsenals. Whether that is for reasons of protection, influence or some twisted nostalgia, the leaders of Lebanon are not to be trusted when they claim they want to disarm.

I saw with my own eyes gunmen emerging from a street block that houses Future Movement office, who then pumped round after round towards Arab Movement headquarters. Fighters there returned fire. The Wednesday fighting centered around the headquarters of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, or SSNP, an outfit sympathetic to the administration in Damascus.

All three (and others) keep their weapons only loosely hidden. Be they in the back rooms of "offices" across the country, or in the homes of their henchmen, the sudden resumption of violence in Lebanon should come as no surprise given the blatant maintenance of arsenals behind the facade of politics.

No, the reality is that Lebanon's vacillating security rests on a patchwork of deadly weapons possessed by political parties, most of whom were born out of militias and all of whom still maintain militias.

Those who engage in fighting are not party 'supporters' as is often supposed. They are trained gunmen. Killers. And as long as they continue receiving tacit instructions from leaders to remain so, don't expect Lebanon to have picked its last fight with itself.

 

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