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You fear for your family’: Hezbollah pays price for supporting Assad in Syria

A Shiite gunman fires his AK-47 during a funeral procession for one of the victims of a massive car bomb in a Hezbollah stronghold in a southern suburb of Beirut on August 16. Hussein Malla / AP

BEIRUT – Lebanon’s powerful Shiite political party and militia Hezbollah is on high alert in the southern Beirut suburb of Rweiss.

Checkpoints, sometimes two to a street, dot the neighborhood. Men wearing yellow Hezbollah armbands and equipped with radios and TSA-style blue gloves search car trunks and truck beds. Residents say the checkpoints are necessary to guard against what some say is an Israeli plot designed to sew discord between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites, who are fighting on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war. 

Hezbollah, founded after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and a major backer of neighboring Syrian President Bashar Assad, has also installed hundreds of barriers so cars can't park directly in front of buildings. If visitors, residents or customers want to park they either need to have a key or ask the shop owner to let them park. Unattended cars and suspicious strangers are swiftly approached and inspected.

Hezbollah members even searched a Saudi Arabian diplomatic vehicle and detained two Saudi citizens for what the Saudi ambassador said was hours last week. 

The heightened security comes as Hezbollah supporters pay a high price for the group’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. Freshly printed posters of Hezbollah fighters killed in action dot light poles and walls. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to send more troops if needed.

“If the battle with those terrorists requires it, I and all of Hezbollah will go to Syria,” he said in a speech last month.

He gave the speech one day after a car bomb gutted a dense urban street in the Hezbollah-dominated neighborhood of Rweiss, destroying apartments and shops and killing 27. Many residents believe the attack was direct retaliation for Hezbollah’s support for Assad.

Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon's powerful Shiite political party and militia Hezbollah, delivers a televised address from an undisclosed location on August 16. Al-Manar TV via AFP - Getty Images

“This was done by Sunni jihadist groups that were created by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but the head of financing was by the United States,” said a 51-year-old locksmith named Mohammad, who didn’t want his full name printed.

And as the White House makes its case for bombing Syria, many residents in Hezbollah-dominated neighborhoods like Rweiss are worried that the violence will only get worse. The looming danger these days isn’t Israeli warplanes or American cruise missiles, but Iraq-style car bombs and suicide bombers targeting these narrow, busy streets.

Mohammad’s shop was destroyed in the August 15 bombing. In the explosion’s aftermath, he sifted through a pile of broken glass and dirt on the floor, picking out keys.

Mohammad is from Taybeh in South Lebanon, and like many people here, fled his village and moved to Beirut’s southern suburbs during the 1980’s, when Lebanon’s south was a war zone.

Originally home to refugees, Rweiss and other neighborhoods here are now solidly middle class, filled with seven to ten story apartment blocks marked by shops, hair salons and a fair share of Land Rovers and BMWs. 

But, during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, the residents became refugees once again, as Israeli airstrikes leveled entire blocks. Residents returned to a devastated neighborhood that has since been rebuilt with the help of Hezbollah’s organizational skills and Iran’s funding.

These experiences have made residents here averse to complaining, and quick to reference their reliance on God in the face of adversity.

“We are used to this now,” said Alaa, a 28-year-old who owns a clothing and shoe store and didn’t want to give his full name. “It’s normal. When you die, you will die. We have religion.”

Alaa said he doesn’t want to see another bomb go off in his neighborhood. He was only about 100 feet away when the August 15 blast tore through his store, shattering the glass.

“It was something terrible,” he said. “I came out and saw fire all around. There were people burned.” 

Hezbollah is also intent on preventing another bombing. On most street corners, two to three men lounge in plastic lawn chairs smoking and surveying who is coming and going. 

“If [our enemies] would come to the front of the fight, we wouldn’t have any fear,” said Mohammad, the locksmith. “But of course when you have women and children, and the attackers use car bombs and rockets, and bring down buildings, you fear for your family.”

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