Why the killing of a Lebanese party official has raised the specter of new sectarian strife

Special Why the killing of a Lebanese party official has raised the specter of new sectarian strife
Pascal’s brother holding his bloodied clothes in front of his casket. (There are indications of torture on Pascal's body). (Photo: X)
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Updated 12 April 2024
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Why the killing of a Lebanese party official has raised the specter of new sectarian strife

Why the killing of a Lebanese party official has raised the specter of new sectarian strife
  • Lebanese officials say Pascal Suleiman was killed in a carjacking by Syrian criminals, fueling anti-refugee sentiment
  • Lebanese Forces and other Christian parties have accused Hezbollah of having a hand in the party official’s death

BEIRUT: Almost five decades since the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 began, reactions to the kidnap and subsequent murder this week of Pascal Suleiman, an official of the Lebanese Forces, show the country’s fragile peace remains on a knife edge.

Suleiman, a political coordinator in the Byblos area, also known as Jbeil, north of Beirut, was killed in what the Lebanese army said was a carjacking by Syrian gang members, who then took his body to Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor of the country’s civil war, said that Suleiman’s body was dumped in a border area where Hezbollah holds sway, adding that he “was wrapped in a blanket and had been hit on the head and chest with a hard object.”

Even though a formal investigation into the circumstances of Suleiman’s death is still ongoing, the Lebanese Forces — a Christian political party and former militia opposed to the Syrian government and its ally Hezbollah — has already branded it a “political assassination.”

In a statement, the Lebanese Forces said that Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Shiite militia and political movement, “has impeded the state’s role and its effectiveness, paving the way for weapons-bearing gangs.”

The Phalange Party and the Free Patriotic Movement issued statements in solidarity with the Lebanese Forces, currently the biggest party in parliament, blaming “uncontrolled weapons and uncontrolled security” for Suleiman’s death.

“The information leaked from the investigation continues to cause more speculation,” Mona Fayad, a Lebanese academic and a prominent Shiite opponent of Hezbollah, told Arab News.

“Suleiman’s murder was initially thought to be car theft, although it took place on a remote road where cars rarely pass.




Pascal Suleiman was killed in what the Lebanese army said was a carjacking by Syrian gang members, who then took his body to Syria. (Supplied)

“Suleiman’s political affiliations also come into play, and the fact that the killers took him to an area controlled by Hezbollah on the Lebanese-Syrian border. The perpetrators were able to sneak past all official security points without anyone suspecting them.”

Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, responded to the allegations of his group’s involvement by accusing the Lebanese Forces, the Phalange Party, “and those who orbit them,” of being “owners of chaos looking for a civil war.”

Sectarian tensions are rife in Lebanon. Suleiman was from Byblos, a Christian-majority town surrounded by Shiite-majority settlements, where disputes between the communities have previously spilled over into armed clashes.

In a country already fraught with political divisions, economic woes and the prospect of another potentially devastating war with Israel, many fear the killing could provoke an escalation reminiscent of the civil war.

“The security situation in Lebanon has deteriorated since the beginning of the economic crisis,” Mohanad Hage Ali, deputy director for research at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, told Arab News.

“It is likely to deteriorate further as a result of the widespread increase in crime and the weakness of the security forces as part of the military turned into part-timers to compensate for their income after declines in salaries.”

Indeed, even if Suleiman’s death was in fact the result of a carjacking, as the Lebanese army suspect, the incident reflects Lebanon’s institutional decline, growing insecurity, and the collapse of the rule of law.

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“Crimes have increased as a result of the economic crisis and the burden of Syrian refugees and the transformation of the Lebanese economy into cash money, which encourages the exploitation of people,” Hage Ali said.

Suspicions about the genuine cause of death remain, however. Suleiman’s case has parallels with the death of Elias Al-Hasrouni, another Lebanese Forces coordinator, who was killed in what was dubbed a “planned” accident in a Hezbollah-controlled area.

Although the investigation into Suleiman’s death is still ongoing, his killing has provoked widespread condemnation across the political and religious spectrum, with parties and faith leaders branding it “unacceptable, neither legally, nor morally, nor humanely.”

Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, called on all factions to “exercise self-control, exercise wisdom, and not be drawn into rumors and emotions” while the investigation is underway.

Another example of just how fragile Lebanon’s peace has become of late was the Tayouneh incident of Oct. 14, 2021, when Hezbollah and the Amal Movement came under attack by unidentified gunmen allegedly associated with the Lebanese Forces, sparking clashes.

The violence erupted outside the Justice Palace during a protest organized by Hezbollah and its allies against Tarek Bitar, the lead judge probing the August 2020 Beirut port blast, as they accuse him of being partisan. The potential for similar clashes remains.

“The problem in Lebanon is that there is a lack of political horizon and there is a feeling of loss of hope from the political class, which leads to accepting that this reality will be permanent and raises the level of tensions,” Hage Ali said.

“Since the beginning of the economic collapse, we have seen manifestations of self-security. The matter has become a lived reality, meaning that hybrid security is met with armed militia forces in the regions.




The scapegoating of Syrian refugees for Lebanon’s ills has become commonplace. (AFP)

“Any crime that occurs is followed by a state of shock, which is what happened today as a result of Suleiman’s murder, but I believe that after a year, for example, crime will become a part of daily life.

“Lebanon has become a mixture of the Argentinian situation in terms of economic collapse and the Colombian situation in terms of the extent of crime which will cause more trouble for Hezbollah.”

As Suleiman was allegedly killed by Syrian nationals, some of whom have reportedly been arrested by the Lebanese security services, the incident has raised the prospect of further hostility against Lebanon’s substantial Syrian refugee community.

Just hours after Suleiman’s death was announced, the Lebanese Forces called for restraint after several of its supporters began attacking Syrians and evicting them from their homes in Beirut and other regions.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says that more than 800,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the body in Lebanon, noting registrations have been suspended since 2015 following a government ruling.

In a press conference following Suleiman’s murder, Lebanon’s acting interior minister, Bassam Mawlawi, said that security forces had been instructed “to strictly enforce Lebanese laws on Syrian refugees.

“We will become stricter in granting residency permits and dealing with those (Syrians) residing in Lebanon illegally,” he said, calling for measures “limiting the presence of Syrians” in the country, without saying how.

The scapegoating of Syrian refugees for Lebanon’s ills has become commonplace, with policies designed to hamper their integration into Lebanese society and compel them to return to Syria, even if that means facing persecution at the hands of the Bashar Assad regime.

However, in this context of exclusion and economic crisis, a section of the Syrian refugee community has resorted to criminality. Indeed, according to Mawlawi, some 35 percent of the country’s prison population is made up of Syrians.

“Everyone in Lebanon avoided addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, but was content with reactions to every incident,” Hage Ali said.

“The Syrian asylum issue has turned into a taboo, so has the issue of illegal crossings. Populist talk is of no use. There is a marginalized group within the Syrian presence in Lebanon that will grow with time and will benefit, including organized crime.”

To make matters worse, Lebanon’s economic meltdown, which began in late 2019, and its continuing political deadlock have paralyzed the criminal justice system and institutional structures designed to keep the fragile peace.

Hage Ali believes Lebanon has “accumulated crimes during the last two decades without a minimum level of justice. Its amnesty system, to turn the page on the past, has turned into a system that perpetuates violence and injustice.

“Almost 50 years have passed since the outbreak of the civil war. Time was supposed to have taught the Lebanese that the approach to war should be different from the previous ones, but Lebanon is still within the ongoing cycle of violence.”

Once considered an oasis of calm in a region otherwise fraught with turmoil, Lebanon has again been brought to the brink of conflict. Many fear an incident such as the death of Suleiman could light the touchpaper of a new period of sectarian strife.




Pascal Suleiman with his family. (Supplied)

Melhem Khalaf, an independent member of parliament and former head of the Beirut Bar Association, told Arab News that Lebanese citizens will not stand by and allow their hard won peace and unity to be broken once again.

“We are just days away from the fateful anniversary of April 13 (the start of the Lebanese civil war), a memory that is full of fear and pain, and that is something we have worked so hard for years to avoid, to solidify peace and bring about reassurance and stability,” Khalaf said.

“There is trouble that is once again rearing its head from the Byblos region, which throughout the senseless and ill-fated war maintained its national cohesion with a clear and solid will.

“It is a real warning that requires all of us to take action, to take the initiative and eliminate any strife that might take our society back to bygone and painful days. The dangers surrounding us from all sides are enough. We don’t want it, neither for our youth, nor for our people, nor for our country.”

Khalaf believes what is happening now is “the decomposition of the state and a sign of its continuing weakness.

“What we require today, with absolute speed, is to rally around each other to restore the state of truth and the rule of law. To have a state that guarantees coexistence, as well as presidential elections which will be the gateway to order.”

Although sectarian and intercommunal tensions are high, and public anger at the entrenched political elite continues to simmer, the elephant in the room today is the war in Gaza and the potential for a repeat of Lebanon’s devastating 2006 war with Israel.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack, which triggered Israel’s military assault on the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian militant group’s Hezbollah ally has traded fire with Israeli forces along the Lebanese border, raising fears of an expanding regional war.

As a result, Lebanese academic Fayad believes a return to the civil strife of decades past will likely be tempered by Hezbollah’s need to concentrate on the far greater existential threat of war with Israel.

“There are different definitions of strife in Lebanon,” Fayad said. “There is a vertical political division and sectarian polarization, but so far it has not turned into an armed war because the strong party in it is Hezbollah, and it is not in its interest to frighten others.

“Rather it must convince them to stand by its side, especially in its war in southern Lebanon against Israel.”

 


Arab Parliament welcomes move to recognize Palestinian state

Arab Parliament welcomes move to recognize Palestinian state
Updated 23 May 2024
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Arab Parliament welcomes move to recognize Palestinian state

Arab Parliament welcomes move to recognize Palestinian state
  • The parliament described the move as a victory for justice and the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent state
  • Growing international recognition of a Palestinian state represented a practical response to Israel’s plans to “liquidate the Palestinian cause, which will not succeed”

CAIRO: The Arab Parliament has welcomed a decision by the governments of Spain, Norway and Ireland to recognize the state of Palestine.
The prime ministers of the three countries said on Wednesday that they would formally recognize Palestine as a state on May 28.
All three said they hoped the decision would accelerate efforts toward securing a ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, now in its eighth month.
The parliament described the move as a victory for justice and the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent state.
It said the decision was a “new victory for the Palestinian cause and Palestinian diplomacy,” and an important step toward recognition by many countries worldwide.
The parliament said the recognition supported the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, foremost of which is the establishment of an independent state with the city of Jerusalem as its capital.
It said that the announcements come at a time when Israel is working to destroy the Palestinian cause through “ethnic cleansing and forced displacement against civilians, including children, women, and the elderly, against whom war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed.”
Growing international recognition of a Palestinian state represented a practical response to Israel’s plans to “liquidate the Palestinian cause, which will not succeed,” it added.
The parliament called on countries that have not yet recognized the state of Palestine to take a step toward “ending the historical injustice to which the Palestinian people have been exposed for decades of occupation and per the internationally recognized two-state solution based on international legitimacy resolutions.”
It called on the international community and all countries to stand with the Palestinian people and their just cause.
Ireland has said it will upgrade its representative office in the West Bank to a full embassy, while the Palestinian mission in Ireland will also be offered full embassy status.


Egyptians held nearly a year over deadly shipwreck are released from Greek jail after case dismissed

Egyptians held nearly a year over deadly shipwreck are released from Greek jail after case dismissed
Updated 23 May 2024
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Egyptians held nearly a year over deadly shipwreck are released from Greek jail after case dismissed

Egyptians held nearly a year over deadly shipwreck are released from Greek jail after case dismissed
  • The Egyptians’ defense team had argued that the nine were not crew members of the ill-fated trawler
  • Eight of the nine were released from a jail outside the southern city of Nafplio on Wednesday evening

NAFPLIO, Greece: A group of Egyptians jailed for nearly a year pending trial for a deadly shipwreck were released from jail Wednesday, a day after a Greek court threw out the case against them on grounds that it had no jurisdiction to try it.
Nine Egyptians had been charged with being part of the crew of the Adriana, a massively overcrowded trawler that capsized and sank near Greece last June with an estimated 700 people on board while sailing from Libya to Italy. Only 104 people survived – all men, mostly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan — and 82 bodies were recovered.
The nine, who have been in pretrial custody since their rescue last year, had been charged with being members of a migrant smuggling ring and were accused of having caused the shipwreck. They had faced several life sentences if convicted.
But a court in the southern Greek city of Kalamata on Tuesday ruled it had no jurisdiction to try the case, as the shipwreck occurred in international waters, none of those involved had been trying to enter Greece, the ship was not Greek flagged and no Greek citizens were on board.
The Egyptians’ defense team had argued that the nine were not crew members of the ill-fated trawler but had been paying passengers who were mistakenly identified as crew by nine other survivors, and that they were being used as scapegoats by authorities eager to put all the blame for the tragedy on the trawler’s crew.
Eight of the nine were released from a jail outside the southern city of Nafplio on Wednesday evening. They were transferred to a police station in the city, where they were to remain in custody overnight pending further procedures. It was not immediately clear when they would be fully released from custody.
The ninth defendant was to be released from a different jail.
The massive loss of life in the sinking of the Adriana in the early hours of June 14, 2023, renewed pressure on European governments to protect the lives of migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach the continent. The European border protection agency Frontex says illegal border detections at EU frontiers increased for three consecutive years through 2023, reaching the highest level since the 2015-2016 migration crisis, driven largely by arrivals by sea.
The exact circumstances of how the Adriana sank remain unclear. The trawler was sailing in international waters but within Greece’s search and rescue area of operations, and a coast guard patrol boat and passing merchant ships were near the vessel for several hours. Greek authorities have said the trawler’s crew repeatedly refused offers of help, insisting it wanted to continue to Italy.
Several survivors have said the boat capsized after the Greek coast guard attempted to tow it, an accusation Greek authorities have vehemently denied. A Naval Court investigation into the sinking is still underway.
Speaking at the courthouse after the case was dismissed on Tuesday, Dimitris Choulis, one of the lawyers in the defense team for the nine Egyptians, said attention should turn to how the Adriana sank.
“The court today had to be very brave to issue this decision, and to say that these people are not the smugglers,” Choulis said.
The lawyer blamed the tragedy on the Greek coast guard and Europe’s migration policies, and said it was essential to “make sure that nothing like that would happen again.”


From wedding photographer to water queue: Gaza mother mourns lost dream life

From wedding photographer to water queue: Gaza mother mourns lost dream life
Updated 23 May 2024
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From wedding photographer to water queue: Gaza mother mourns lost dream life

From wedding photographer to water queue: Gaza mother mourns lost dream life
  • The mother of seven is one of over two million Gazans who struggle to survive in the eighth month of an Israeli siege
  • "I'm a wedding photographer. Someone like me should be going out and living well and spending money on their children," Abdulati said

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip: Falasteen Abdulati mourns her vanished good life as a wedding photographer as she wearily queues day after day for scarce drinking water in a rubble-strewn street in south Gaza, fearing for the future of her children.
The mother of seven is one of over two million Gazans who struggle to survive in the eighth month of an Israeli siege and invasion triggered by a cross-border Hamas attack, with food, drinking water, medical care and safe shelter hard to find.
"I'm a wedding photographer. Someone like me should be going out and living well and spending money on their children," Abdulati, 35, said, laboriously filling a few buckets with water from a battered barrel in the city of Khan Younis.
"Our life has (been reduced) to the simplest needs. It is work and exhaustion. Nothing else. The dream that I had as a wedding photographer to open a studio and to get cameras and to make people happy, is lost. My dream is lost."
She continued: "Every morning we wake up at 7 o’clock and of course the first thing we think about is water," she said. "We come here and wait in the long queue, just to fill up four buckets with water. Other than that, our shoulders hurt. There are no men to carry it for us. There is no one but us. Women are the ones working these days."
Israel's assault on the tiny, heavily urbanised coastal enclave has displaced over three-quarters of the 2.3 million Palestinian population and demolished its infrastructure.
"The future of my children that I worked tirelessly for is lost. There are no schools (functioning), no education. There is no more comfort in life," said Abdulati.
"No safety," she added, referring to the threat of shelling or raids that Israel says target Hamas militants holed up in densely-packed residential neighbourhoods.
Abdulati, dressed in a body-length robe and head-covering, said the upheaval of war had turned the lives of Gaza women upside down. "Women are now like men. They work hard just like men. They're no longer comfortable at home."
Her husband is hospitalised with war injuries.
Breathing heavily, she lugged her buckets along a shattered, sand-covered street and up a dingy flight of cement stairs into the family flat. There she heated up the fresh water over a makeshift fire stove in a cluttered, cramped room dark for lack of electricity, watched intently by her young children.
"We are suffering due to a lack of gas because the border crossings are shut," she said, referring to Israel's siege that has severely restricted humanitarian aid shipments into Gaza.
"The water that I filled up must be rationed. I heat it up so I can wash the children, in addition to doing the dishes and washing clothes. The four buckets I can get per day are just not enough. I have to go back again and again."


Poverty in Lebanon tripled over a decade, World Bank says

Poverty in Lebanon tripled over a decade, World Bank says
Updated 23 May 2024
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Poverty in Lebanon tripled over a decade, World Bank says

Poverty in Lebanon tripled over a decade, World Bank says
  • The findings showed stark differences in poverty levels between different areas of the country
  • Among Lebanese surveyed, the poverty rate in 2022 was 33 percent, while among Syrians it reached 87 percent

BEIRUT: Poverty in Lebanon tripled over the course of a decade during which the small Mediterranean country slid into a protracted financial crisis, the World Bank said Thursday.
The percentage of people in Lebanon living below the poverty line rose from 12 percent in 2012 to 44 percent in 2022, the bank said in a report based on surveys conducted in five of the country’s eight governorates.
The data provided the most detailed snapshot to date on the economic circumstances of the country’s population since the crisis that began in late 2019, although World Bank officials acknowledged it was incomplete as surveyors were not given access to three governates in the south and east of the country.
The findings showed stark differences in poverty levels between different areas of the country and between Lebanese citizens and the country’s large population of Syrian refugees.
In the Beirut governate, in contrast to the rest of the country, poverty actually declined from 4 percent to 2 percent of the population during the decade surveyed, while in the largely neglected Akkar region in the north, the rate increased from 22 percent to 62 percent.
Among Lebanese surveyed, the poverty rate in 2022 was 33 percent, while among Syrians it reached 87 percent. While the survey found an increase in the percentage of Lebanese citizens working in unskilled jobs like agriculture and construction, it found that most Lebanese still work in skilled jobs while the majority of Syrians do unskilled labor.
The report also measured “multidimensional poverty,” which takes into account access to services like electricity and education as well as income, finding that some 73 percent of Lebanese and 100 percent of non-Lebanese residents of the country qualify as poor under this metric.
Beginning in late 2019, Lebanon’s currency collapsed, while inflation skyrocketed and the country’s GDP plummeted. Many Lebanese found that the value of their life savings had evaporated.
Initially, many saw an International Monetary Fund bailout as the only path out of the crisis, but since reaching a preliminary agreement with the IMF in 2022, Lebanese officials have made limited progress on reforms required to clinch the deal, including restructuring the ailing banking sector.
An IMF delegation visiting Beirut this week found that “some progress has been made on monetary and fiscal reforms,” the international financial institution said in a statement, including on “lowering inflation and stabilizing the exchange rate,” but it added that the measures “fall short of what is needed to enable a recovery from the crisis.”
It noted that reforms to “governance, transparency and accountability” remain “limited” and that without an overhaul of the banking sector, the “cash and informal economy will continue to grow, raising significant regulatory and supervisory concerns.”
The World Bank has estimated that the cash economy makes up 46 percent of the country’s GDP, as Lebanese distrustful of banks in the wake of the crisis have sought to deal in hard currency.
The flourishing cash economy has created fertile ground for money laundering and led to concerns that Lebanon could be placed on the Paris-based watchdog Financial Action Task Force’s “grey list” of countries with a high risk of money laundering and terrorism financing.


Two-day Israeli raid on West Bank city leaves 12 Palestinians dead

Two-day Israeli raid on West Bank city leaves 12 Palestinians dead
Updated 23 May 2024
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Two-day Israeli raid on West Bank city leaves 12 Palestinians dead

Two-day Israeli raid on West Bank city leaves 12 Palestinians dead
  • Israeli troops withdrew from the city after carrying out raids in the city’s refugee camp and exchanging fire with masked gunmen
  • Four children among the dead, and 25 wounded during the fighting

JeNIN: A two-day Israeli raid on the occupied West Bank city of Jenin killed at least 12 Palestinians, health authorities and an AFP correspondent said Thursday.
Israeli troops withdrew from the city early Thursday, the correspondent said, after carrying out raids in the city’s refugee camp and exchanging fire with masked gunmen in a nearby neighborhood in the city center.
The Palestinian health ministry in Ramallah said Israeli forces had killed 12 people including four children, and wounded 25 during the fighting which began on Tuesday morning.
The official Palestinian news agency Wafa and medical charity Doctors Without Borders reported that surgeon Usaeed Jabareen, from Jenin’s Khalil Suleiman government hospital, was among those killed on Tuesday.
An AFP correspondent on Thursday saw five bodies at the hospital morgue, including Jabareen’s.
A schoolteacher and a student were also among the dead, Wafa reported, quoting hospital director Wissam Bakr.
Several of the bodies were draped in flags and carried among crowds of Palestinians, including armed militants, through the streets as gunfire rang out.
Both Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Palestinian militant group Hamas condemned the raid.
Israel’s army said on Wednesday troops had “exchanged fire with armed men and killed a number of terrorists, including two terrorists who threw explosives at the forces.”
The army said it had raided the house of Ahmed Barakat, who was suspected of involvement in an attack on an Israeli civilian last year.
Meir Tamari, 32, was killed in May 2023 at the entrance to a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, medics and military officials said at the time.
Jenin has long been a stronghold of Palestinian militant groups, and the Israeli army routinely carries out raids in the city and adjacent camp.
The West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967, has seen a surge in violence for more than a year, but especially so since the Israel-Hamas war erupted on October 7.
At least 518 Palestinians have been killed in the territory by Israeli troops or settlers since the Gaza war broke out, according to Palestinian officials.
Attacks by Palestinians have killed at least 12 Israelis in the West Bank over the same period, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
The Gaza Strip has been gripped by more than seven months of war since Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,709 people in Gaza, most of them civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.