Crisis-wracked Lebanon braced for worst case scenarios as Israel-Hezbollah clashes intensify

Special Crisis-wracked Lebanon braced for worst case scenarios as Israel-Hezbollah clashes intensify
Lebanon is especially vulnerable to potential escalation in Israel-Hamas war. (AFP)
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Updated 25 October 2023
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Crisis-wracked Lebanon braced for worst case scenarios as Israel-Hezbollah clashes intensify

Crisis-wracked Lebanon braced for worst case scenarios as Israel-Hezbollah clashes intensify
  • The powerful Shiite militia is under pressure to declare war if Israel mounts a ground invasion of Gaza
  • Many Lebanese fear they must fend for themselves in the event of a full-fledged war

DUBAI: Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza is threatening to embroil neighboring Arab states in a regional conflict as militias sympathetic to the Palestinian group mount their own attacks on Israeli and American targets. One country that is especially vulnerable to this potential escalation is Lebanon.

Hezbollah, a Shiite militia that emerged from the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-90 and continues to control a formidable arsenal of weapons and share of the national economy, is under tremendous pressure to declare war if Israel mounts a ground invasion of Gaza.

The cash-strapped government in Beirut and communities along the embattled border with Israel are in no condition to mount a sustained defense in the event of all-out war amid a crippling financial crisis and years of political paralysis.

Nevertheless, government agencies, hospitals, schools, and hotels have begun preparing for evacuations, safe zones and the treatment of casualties should serious fighting break out — in a conflict that many fear will be far more destructive than the 2006 war.




Hezbollah is under tremendous pressure to declare war if Israel mounts a ground invasion of Gaza. (AFP)

“My husband works in the Gulf and is doing his best, but I won’t be able to stay in the hotel for more than a few weeks. And then where do I go?” Layal, a mother of two who fled the border area for the safety of Beirut, told Arab News.

“My kids are 11 and 9. They don’t understand the gravity of what’s taking place and they thankfully didn’t taste the bitterness of 2006. They think we’re on holiday. I am yet to explain to them what’s really happening.”

Civilians in southern Lebanon remember all too well the July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, which killed more than 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and injured over 4,400. In Israel, 160 were killed, mostly soldiers. The 30-day conflict displaced around 1 million Lebanese civilians.

Fearing a repeat of the carnage, whole communities have already evacuated their homes.

“You can easily tell how neighborhoods have turned into ghost towns now. You can see it from the lack of laundry hanging on the balconies. It’s just a few houses now,” Safi, a Lebanese media worker, told Arab News.  

“Those who remained are men who have sent their wives and children away to safety. People are scared. The word on people’s lips is the acknowledgment that the scale of destruction this time around will not be the same as 2006, but much, much worse.

“Even those who support Hezbollah are aware that the destruction will pale in comparison to 2006.”

Safi considers himself lucky to have escaped with his life after the building where he was staying in Naqoura was bombed shortly after he made his way to Beirut. “I got lucky, and now residents in neighboring Talloussa village have started to flee as well,” he said.

Not everyone has fled already, however. Small shops remain open and olive farmers in Dhayra have also decided to stay on. “You can hear the clashes ongoing, but leave to Tyre or Nabatieh and it’s a whole other vibe there. Normalcy and traffic generally prevail,” said Safi.  

Tensions remain high along the Lebanese-Israeli border with skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israeli forces prompting fears of further escalation. Heavy shelling recently targeted the disputed Shebaa Farms area alongside Bint Jbeil and Rab Al-Thalathine.  

Some 41 people have been killed on the Lebanese side, according to a tally by the AFP news agency, mostly combatants but including four civilians, one of them Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah. Four people have been killed in Israel, including three soldiers and one civilian.




The 30-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 displaced around 1 million Lebanese civilians. (AFP)

More than 4,000 Lebanese civilians have already fled their homes to neighboring areas like Tyre and to the capital, Beirut. Meanwhile, Israel has continued to expand its own evacuation plan, moving communities to state-funded temporary accommodation away from the border.

In a statement, Andrea Tenenti, spokesperson for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, which administers the Blue Line separating the two countries, said the peacekeeping force “remains fully committed to their mission represented by restoring stability in southern Lebanon and are doing their utmost to prevent the escalation of hostilities.”

However, the warring factions have continued to trade fire with a steadily increasing intensity since the conflict began on Oct. 7, when Hamas launched its unprecedented cross-border attack on Israel, prompting the bombardment of Gaza and a widely expected ground assault.

While Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has yet to address the escalations publicly, his second in command, Naim Qassem, said the group is “fully ready” and will not be intimidated by Washington to stay out of the conflict.

Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah lawmaker, also released a statement saying the militia is closely monitoring developments and directing soldiers.

Hezbollah and Sunni Muslim group Hamas both have ties with the Quds Force — the foreign operations arm of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They are also both part of the so-called “axis of resistance” made up of Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni and other Iran-backed armed groups opposed to Israel.




Some 90 percent of the Lebanese population now lives below the poverty line. (AFP)

Tehran provides Hezbollah with financial and military support, while neighboring Syria, where the group has been fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad in his country’s civil war, facilitates the transfer of weapons — including guided missiles.

If Hezbollah does choose to enter the conflict on the side of Hamas, opening up a new front against Israel from southern Lebanon, the results could be devastating for both sides.

Although the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has provoked strong support for Palestinians and hostility to Israel on the Arab street, public opinion in Lebanon is divided on whether Hezbollah should become directly involved in the war.

INNUMBERS

• 100,000 Fighters at Hezbollah’s disposal as of October 2021, according to group’s chief Hassan Nasrallah.

• $700m Hezbollah’s military budget as of 2018, according to the Wilson Center and US official estimates.

Lebanon has been in the throes of a devastating economic crisis since late 2019, while political disharmony has left the country without a stable, functioning government. Some 90 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line.

Despite staunchly opposing Israel, Walid Jumblatt, the former leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, said Lebanon might not be able to escape the possibility of a “widening circle of war.”

That is why Druze villages in the mountains “will be open to everyone, Shiite or Sunni or Christian,” said Jumblatt, whose party is making “necessary logistical efforts to accommodate those displaced from areas that could be targeted in the event of an Israeli attack.”

Hassan Dbouk, the mayor of Tyre, has said that shelters are already full and that the municipality is now looking to open more centers to host displaced families.




If Hezbollah does choose to enter the conflict on the side of Hamas the results could be devastating for both sides. (AFP)

Mortada Mohanad, director of the disaster management unit, said three public schools have been turned into makeshift shelters to house around 1,000 people. Aid agencies, meanwhile, are focused on the distribution of food and other basic necessities.

However, amid these frantic preparations, there are also those who appear to be profiting from the displacement.

Ali Tabaja, head of the Lebanese union of tourism syndicates, said hotels and landlords have taken advantage of the crisis and hiked their prices, “just because some of our people are subject to the Israeli aggression in the southern border regions and are looking for safer places.”

Tabaja urged Walid Nassar, the minister of tourism, and the hotel syndicate to “issue directions prohibiting people from increasing prices and taking advantage of displaced people.”

Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, has said that Lebanon does not want to go to war, but he “could not get assurances about the developments from any party” as the situation is constantly changing.  

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The Lebanese government has set up an emergency plan in case of an all-out war, estimating that close to 1.5 million civilians will be displaced.

The plan categorizes areas in the country into color-coded zones. Southern towns and those along the Israeli border, including Al-Hermel, Baalbek and Baabda, are considered red zones — those most likely to be targeted by Israel.

Areas such as Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, Zahle and west Bekaa, deemed as yellow zones, have been selected to provide shelter, support and aid. Green zones, including Chouf, Aley, Metn and the Bekaa, have been selected to welcome displaced households.  

Under the plan, some 75 schools across the country will be turned into makeshift shelters and 20 percent of Beirut port’s profits will be allocated for rebuilding and infrastructure in case of attacks.




Government agencies, hospitals, schools in Lebanon have begun preparing for evacuations. (AFP)

The Ministry of Health has set aside funding to ensure humanitarian aid and services. Daily governmental meetings will start taking place to tackle the issues of food and clean water supplies.

Despite the government’s initiatives, many Lebanese citizens remain skeptical about the delivery of state assistance. “I doubt we’ll see a dollar,” said Layal, the mother displaced to Beirut with her two children.

“I don’t believe the government will help. The moment international aid will arrive, it’ll fill their pockets. We had the support of Arab nations in 2006, but now who will come to our aid? God, only God.”


Israel army says Israeli civilian shot dead in West Bank

Israel army says Israeli civilian shot dead in West Bank
Updated 57 min 10 sec ago
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Israel army says Israeli civilian shot dead in West Bank

Israel army says Israeli civilian shot dead in West Bank
  • The military and Israeli police were investigating the circumstances of the death, the military said, without offering details

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military said on Saturday that an Israeli civilian died after being shot near the occupied West Bank city of Qalqilya and that troops had launched an operation in the area.
The military and Israeli police were investigating the circumstances of the death, the military said, without offering details.
“IDF troops are currently operating in the area of Qalqilya after an Israeli civilian was pronounced dead, shortly after being found shot in the area,” the military said in a statement.
Israeli media reported that the dead man, who was in his 60s, was a Jewish Israeli citizen.
In recent days, there have been several violent incidents in Qalqilya and its vicinity.
On Friday, Israeli and Palestinian authorities said at least two Palestinians were killed in an Israeli operation in the city.
Israeli authorities said the two were militants from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group.
Violence in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967, has been on the rise for more than a year, particularly since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7.
At least 549 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces or settlers across the West Bank since October 7, according to Palestinian officials.
Attacks by Palestinians have killed at least 14 Israelis in the West Bank over the same period, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.


Week before presidential election, Iranians divided on whether voting will address pressing problems

Week before presidential election, Iranians divided on whether voting will address pressing problems
Updated 22 June 2024
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Week before presidential election, Iranians divided on whether voting will address pressing problems

Week before presidential election, Iranians divided on whether voting will address pressing problems
  • Iranians head to the polls on June 28 to choose from six candidates, five conservatives and a relative reformist
  • Election comes as Iran grapples with economic pressures, international sanctions, compulsory headscarves for women

TEHRAN: With just a week remaining before a presidential election, Iranians are divided over whether voting will address pressing economic issues and mandatory hijab laws.
Iranians head to the polls on June 28 to choose from six candidates — five conservatives and a relative reformist — to succeed Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash last month.
The election comes as Iran grapples with economic pressures, international sanctions and enforcement of the compulsory headscarves for women.
“They promise change, but won’t do much,” said Hamid Habibi, a 54-year-old shop owner at Tehran’s bustling Grand Bazar.
“I’ve watched the debates and campaigns; they speak beautifully but need to back their words with action,” he said.
Despite his skepticism, Habibi plans to vote next week.
The candidates have held two debates, each pledging to tackle the financial challenges impacting the country’s 85 million people.
“The economic situation is deteriorating daily, and I don’t foresee any improvements,” said Fariba, a 30-year-old who runs an online store.
“Regardless of who wins, our lives won’t change,” she said.

Others, like 57-year-old baker Taghi Dodangeh, remain hopeful.
“Change is certain,” he said, viewing voting as a religious duty and national obligation.
But Jowzi, a 61-year-old housewife, expressed doubts, especially about the candidate line-up.
“There’s hardly any differences between the six,” she said. “One cannot say any of them belongs to a different group.”
Iran’s Guardian Council approved six candidates after disqualifying most moderates and reformists.
Leading contenders include conservative parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and the sole reformist candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian.
Keshvar, a 53-year-old mother, intends to vote for the candidate with the most robust economic plan.
“Young people are grappling with economic hardships,” she said.
“Raisi made efforts, but on the ground, things didn’t change much for the general public, and they were unhappy.”
In the 2021 election that brought Raisi to power, many voters stayed away, resulting in a participation rate just under 49 percent — the lowest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has urged a high voter turnout.
Yet, 26-year-old shopkeeper Mahdi Zeinali said he would only vote if a candidate proves to be “the right person.”
This election comes at a turbulent time, with the Gaza war raging between Iran’s adversary Israel and Tehran-backed Palestinian militant group Hamas, along with ongoing diplomatic tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.
Compulsory hijab laws remain contentious, particularly since mass protests triggered by the 2022 death in custody of Mahsa Amini.
Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, was detained for an alleged breach of Iran’s dress code for women, who are required to cover their heads and necks and wear modest clothing in public.
Despite increased enforcement, many women, especially in Tehran, defy the dress code.
Fariba expressed concern that after the election, “things would go back to where they were,” and young women won’t be able to remove their headscarves.
Jowzi, an undecided voter who wears a veil, regards it as a “personal” choice and opposes state interference.
“It makes no difference who becomes president,” she said.
“What’s important is what they actually do. It’s not important to me whether or not they have a turban. They need to act humanely.”


UAE contributes $5 million to United Nations OCHA for humanitarian efforts in Sudan

UAE contributes $5 million to United Nations OCHA for humanitarian efforts in Sudan
Updated 22 June 2024
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UAE contributes $5 million to United Nations OCHA for humanitarian efforts in Sudan

UAE contributes $5 million to United Nations OCHA for humanitarian efforts in Sudan

DUBAI: The UAE will allocate $5 million to support the Sudan Humanitarian Fund (SHF) that would be managed by the United Nations, state-run WAM news agency reported. 
In an agreement with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UAE contribution to the Sudan Humanitarian Fund will be managed by OCHA, in order to “facilitate access to funds to address the most critical humanitarian needs and emergencies on the ground,” WAM reported. 
Martin Griffiths, Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, in a statement said: “We are deeply grateful to the Government and the people of the United Arab Emirates for your generous support of $70 million to help bring relief to the people of Sudan through the United Nations. With this allocation, we can bolster our lifesaving support to families and communities caught up in Sudan's unprecedented humanitarian crisis.”
“The UAE’s long-term support to Sudan is a testament to our dedication to fostering a prosperous Sudan and promoting stability in the region. We are pleased to partner with OCHA and other UN agencies to deliver vital aid to those most impacted,” according to Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s Assistant Minister for Political Affairs and Envoy of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
“I reiterate the UAE’s unwavering position is to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, and a peaceful solution to the crisis,” she added.

Meanwhile, Emirati officials also signed an agreement with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) to address the humanitarian crisis in Sudan and prevent the imminent risk of famine. 

FAO has received US$5 million in funding from the UAE, which will be directed towards the project titled ‘Mitigating Famine in Sudan – Support to Conflict-Affected Vulnerable Smallholder Farming and Pastoralist Households’.

The FAO project, set to run for one year, aims to provide emergency crop, livestock, and veterinary assistance to 275,000 vulnerable smallholder farmer and pastoralist households, benefiting approximately 1,375,000 individuals.

The UAE contributions to OCHA and FAO are part of a broader commitment of $70 million dedicated to addressing urgent humanitarian needs in Sudan, through UN agencies and humanitarian organizations.

This funding is a substantial portion of the $100 million pledge made by the UAE in April at a global humanitarian conference for Sudan and its neighboring countries.
This contribution takes the total amount of UAE aid to Sudan in the past 10 years to more than $3.5 billion.


Red Cross says 22 killed in shelling near Gaza office

Red Cross says 22 killed in shelling near Gaza office
Updated 22 June 2024
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Red Cross says 22 killed in shelling near Gaza office

Red Cross says 22 killed in shelling near Gaza office
  • “This grave security incident is one of several in recent days,” Red Cross says
  • Humanitarian organization says Gaza office was ‘damaged’ in a shell attack Friday 

GENEVA: The International Committee of the Red Cross said its Gaza office was ‘damaged’ by in a shell attack Friday that killed at least 22 people who had taken shelter around the compound.
The ICRC did not say who fired the “heavy calibre projectiles” but in a statement on the X platform said they “damaged the structure of the ICRC office,” which is surrounded by hundreds of displaced persons living in tents.
It said 22 bodies and 45 wounded had been taken to a nearby Red Cross field hospital after the shelling, and there were “reports of additional casualties.”
“Heavy-calibre projectiles landed within meters of the office and residences of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday afternoon,” the statement said.
“Firing so dangerously close to humanitarian structures, of whose locations the parties to the conflict are aware and which are clearly marked with the Red Cross emblem, puts the lives of civilians and Red Cross staff at risk,” said the body.
“This grave security incident is one of several in recent days,” it added.
“Previously stray bullets have reached ICRC structures. We decry these incidents that put the lives of humanitarians and civilians at risk.”

 


Fighting rages in Gaza as Red Cross says 22 killed in shelling near office

Fighting rages in Gaza as Red Cross says 22 killed in shelling near office
Updated 17 min 27 sec ago
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Fighting rages in Gaza as Red Cross says 22 killed in shelling near office

Fighting rages in Gaza as Red Cross says 22 killed in shelling near office
  • Israel steps up strikes in the Gaza Strip, where one hospital in Gaza City reported at least 30 dead on Friday

The Israeli army on Saturday continued to pound Gaza, after the International Committee of the Red Cross said 22 people were killed in shelling that damaged its office in the besieged Palestinian territory.

Exchanges of fire across the Lebanese border between Israel and the powerful Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah have also escalated in recent weeks, raising fears of an even wider war.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Friday that the cross-border hostilities must not turn Lebanon into “another Gaza,” warning of the risk of triggering a catastrophe “beyond imagination.”

His warning came as Israel stepped up its strikes in the Gaza Strip, where one hospital in Gaza City reported at least 30 dead on Friday.

Fighting continued Saturday morning, with witnesses reporting gunbattles between militants and Israeli forces in Gaza City.

And in the city’s Zeitun neighborhood, Israeli helicopters fired at militants, witnesses said.

The Israeli military meanwhile said troops continued to carry out operations in central Gaza “eliminating several armed terrorists and dismantling terrorist infrastructure in the area.”

“Fighter jets and additional aircraft struck numerous terror targets in the Gaza Strip, including armed terrorists, weapons storage facilities, and additional terrorist infrastructure,” it added.

In southern Gaza, the ICRC on Friday said 22 dead and 45 wounded people were taken to a Red Cross field hospital after shelling with “heavy calibre projectiles” near its Gaza office.

“Firing so dangerously close to humanitarian structures puts the lives of civilians and humanitarians at risk,” the ICRC said on X.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run territory blamed the shelling on Israel, saying there were 25 killed and 50 wounded in the southern coastal Al-Mawasi area, where thousands of displaced people have been sheltering in tents.

An Israeli military spokesman did not acknowledge any role in the incident but said it was “under review.”

In the north of the Strip, the director of Gaza City’s Al-Ahli hospital was quoted by the territory’s health ministry as reporting 30 dead in strikes.

“It has been a difficult and brutal day in Gaza City. So far, around 30 martyrs have arrived at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital,” doctor Fadel Naeem was quoted as saying.

Civil defense agency spokesman Mahmud Basal said five municipal workers died when a garage in the city was bombed.

Lebanon-based Hamas ally Hezbollah meanwhile claimed a number of attacks on Israeli troops and positions near the border on Friday, including two using drones.

The Israeli army said it had carried out multiple retaliatory strikes on both days.

Israeli jets on Friday struck a “Hezbollah military structure in the area of Khiam, a Hezbollah military post in the area of Mais Al-Jabal, and Hezbollah terrorist infrastructure in the areas of Taybeh and Tallouseh in southern Lebanon,” the army said in a statement.

Experts are divided on the prospect of a wider war, almost nine months into Israel’s campaign to eradicate Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Amid the escalating exchanges between Israel and Hezbollah, Israel’s military said Tuesday that plans for an offensive in Lebanon had been “approved and validated.”

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said “no place” in Israel would “be spared our rockets” in a wider war, and also threatened nearby European Union member Cyprus.

Citing the “bellicose rhetoric” on both sides, UN chief Guterres warned Friday that the risk of all-out war was real.

“One rash move — one miscalculation — could trigger a catastrophe that goes far beyond the border, and frankly, beyond imagination,” he said.

Israel’s ally the United States has appealed for de-escalation.

The violence on the Lebanon border began after the October 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas militants from Gaza. That attack resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza although the army says 41 are dead.

As of Thursday, Israel’s retaliatory offensive had killed at least 37,431 people, also mostly civilians, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Months of negotiations toward a truce and a hostage release have failed to make headway, but mediator Qatar insisted Friday it was still working to “bridge the gap” between Israel and Hamas.

The war has destroyed much of Gaza’s infrastructure and left residents short of food, fuel and other essentials.

On June 16 the army said it would implement a daily “tactical pause of military activity” in a southern Gaza corridor to facilitate aid delivery.

But on Friday Richard Peeperkorn of the World Health Organization said “we did not see an impact on the humanitarian supplies coming in.”

Hisham Salem in Jabalia camp said: “The markets... used to be full, but now there is nothing left. I go around the entire market and I can’t find a kilo of onions, and if I do... it costs 140 shekels ($37).”

Doctor Thanos Gargavanis, a WHO trauma surgeon and emergency officer, said the UN in Gaza was trying to “operate in an unworkable environment.”

According to the WHO, 17 of the 36 hospitals in Gaza are operational, but only partially.

Israel’s military on Friday identified two more soldiers killed in Gaza, bringing the death toll since ground operations began to at least 312.

The war has revived a global push for Palestinians to be given a state of their own.

Armenia on Friday declared its recognition of “the State of Palestine,” prompting Israel to summon its ambassador for “a severe reprimand.”