BEIRUT (AP) – Returning to the base after firing rockets at Israeli positions from a border area last month, a group of Hezbollah fighters were accosted by angry villagers who smashed their windshields. vehicles and detained them briefly.
It was a rare incident of defiance that suggested that many in Lebanon would not tolerate provocations from the powerful group that risk starting a new war with Israel.
As Lebanon sinks deeper into poverty, many Lebanese are more openly critical of Iran-backed Hezbollah. They blame the group – as well as the ruling class – for the multiple devastating crises plaguing the country, including a dramatic currency crash and severe drug and fuel shortages.
“Hezbollah faces its biggest challenge in maintaining control of the Lebanese system and what is called the ‘protective environment of resistance’ against Israel,” said Joe Macaron, a Middle East-based analyst. in Washington.
The incident along the border and other clashes – including a fatal shooting at the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter and rare indirect criticism from the country’s top Christian religious leader – have left the group on the defensive.
Anger has spread in recent months, even in Hezbollah strongholds where many have protested over power cuts and fuel shortages as well as the currency crash that plunged more than half of the 6 million people. of the country in misery.
In its strongholds, mostly inhabited by Shia Muslims, it is not uncommon today for people to speak out against the group. They note that Hezbollah is paying salaries in US dollars at a time when most Lebanese are paid in Lebanese currency, which has lost more than 90% of its value in nearly two years.
Protests and scuffles erupted at petrol stations in Lebanon and in some Hezbollah strongholds. In rare demonstrations of defiance, groups of protesters have also closed key roads in these areas south of Beirut and southern Lebanon.
In recent speeches, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has appeared angry, attributing the shortages to what he describes as an undeclared Western siege. The chaos in Lebanon, he said, is being wrought from a “dark room” inside the United States Embassy.
Critics say that instead of pushing for reform, Hezbollah has backed its political allies who resist change. They say the group is increasingly drawing Lebanon into Iran’s orbit by bidding on it, and that US sanctions against Iran and Hezbollah have made things more difficult.
Where Hezbollah was once seen as an almost sacred and untouchable force fighting for a noble cause – the fight against the Israeli enemy – it is now seen by many simply as part of the corrupt political clique responsible for the epic collapse of the country. country. Yet when it comes to combating Israel, the group enjoys unwavering support within its support base.
Often criticized for functioning as a state within a state, Hezbollah has attempted to mitigate the effects of the crisis on its supporters in the same way.
While the government has been working for months to issue ration cards to poor families, Hezbollah is way ahead. He issued two such cards to poor families living in Hezbollah strongholds, one called Sajjad after a Shiite imam, and a second called Nour, or light, for his fighters and employees of his institutions who are around 80,000.
“We will serve you with our eyelashes,” is Hezbollah’s slogan for serving the poorest in its communities – a Lebanese term meaning that they are willing to sacrifice everything to help others.
The tens of thousands of people with Sajjad cards can not only buy highly subsidized goods from dozens of stores across Lebanon – mostly staples made in Lebanon, Iran and Syria – but can also get medical treatment. medical and counseling services in 48 clinics and medical centers run by Hezbollah. Lebanon.
Nasrallah is also organizing a sea corridor carrying oil from Iran to Lebanon to help alleviate fuel shortages, with the first tanker supposed to be on its way. The move has been hailed by supporters of Hezbollah and heavily criticized by its opponents, who say it risks imposing more sanctions on Lebanon.
During the border incident, villagers from the Druze minority sect intercepted Hezbollah fighters on their way home after firing rockets at a disputed area held by Israel. Villagers briefly detained them and the mobile rocket launcher they used after accusing them of endangering them if Israel retaliated.
The fighters and the launcher were then handed over to Lebanese troops, who released them the same day.
Hezbollah later angered many Christians after supporters launched a social media campaign against the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Church, the country’s largest, accusing him of treason after criticizing the group for firing rockets at Israeli positions.
The dreaded group has been hammered by accusations from its local opponents. These include silencing opponents, facilitating the smuggling of fuel and other subsidized items to neighboring Syria, and alienating oil-rich Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, which has made them alienate. led to suspend financial aid due to Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon.
The most serious accusation was the claim by opponents at home that the group brought the hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate that exploded in the port of Beirut last year, killing at least 214 people, injuring thousands and destroying parts of the capital.
No direct connection to Hezbollah has emerged, but unsubstantiated theories linking the group to the stock abound. One claim is that Hezbollah imported the chemicals on behalf of the Syrian government, which used them in barrels of explosives against rebel-held areas during the 10-year conflict in the neighboring country.
“Hezbollah agencies are active in the port and this is known to the security agencies and to all Lebanese. Why is Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah above questions? Samy Gemayel, leader of the right-wing Christian Kataeb party, asked recently.
Hezbollah has repeatedly denied any connection to ammonium nitrate. But Nasrallah recently angered the families of the victims and other Lebanese by criticizing the judge who was leading the blast investigation, suggesting he should be replaced. Nasrallah called Judge Tarek Bitar “politicized” after he brought charges against some lawmakers and former ministers allied with Hezbollah.
“There is an attempt to satanize Hezbollah and tarnish its image,” said Sadek Naboulsi, professor of political science at the Lebanese University. The professor, who has ties to the group, accused foreign powers including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and the United States of seeking to incite internal conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslim communities in Lebanon. in order to weaken Hezbollah. He added that Hezbollah had overcome such pressures in the past and had become more powerful.
A serious test for Hezbollah came in early August when an activist’s funeral came under fire from suspected Sunni gunmen at the southern entrance to Beirut. Three Hezbollah supporters were killed and 16 were injured in the shooting in the town of Khaldeh.
Hezbollah did not retaliate and instead called on the Lebanese authorities to investigate the case.
“A growing number of Lebanese are realizing that the concept of the Lebanese state cannot coexist with a powerful armed militia in the service of an outside power,” wrote Michael Young, editor-in-chief of Diwan, the Carnegie Middle East blog. Center.
Macaron said Hezbollah will not be the same after the crisis and will have to adapt to ensure its long-term political survival.
“What they can do at this point is limit the losses as much as possible,” he said.