BEIRUT: Mohammad Haysoun, a business owner in Beirut’s southern suburbs, has been feeling much safer of late. Since the recent start of an Army crackdown that has seen several high-profile wanted men arrested, he said it is rare for quarrels to descend into armed clashes.
“There are fewer fights now ... they used to break out every day between clans and gangs. They don’t dare do so anymore,” he said.
Sitting in his computer shop on the Hadi Nasrallah Highway, a street that borders Rweis – stronghold of the much-feared Meqdad clan – Haysoun argued that the recent arrests of several clan members have restored the state’s standing.
“Members of the Meqdad clan, which dominates an entire neighborhood ... were arrested in 15 minutes.
“Now anyone who plans to cause trouble or open fire will take this into consideration,” he explained.
“[Causing] trouble is costly now ... this is very good for us.”
Early this month Army units surprised many when they raided Beirut’s southern suburbs, arresting several members of the Meqdad clan on terrorism charges and releasing the hostages in their custody.
The clan had abducted Syrians and a Turkish citizen in August after Syrian rebels snatched one of their relatives in Damascus. In a show of force, members of the clan’s “military wing” deployed publicly in the suburbs, armed to the teeth.
The Turkish national was later released under Army pressure, along with another Turkish hostage who had been held by different group.
State authorities are widely believed to have a weak presence in the suburbs. Hezbollah, which holds sway in the area, takes its own security measures to protect its leaders, which have been targets of Israel.
A security source said the Army’s crackdown in the suburbs heralds a security “tsunami,” which may extend across the country to members of the Free Syrian Army, wanted Salafists in the north and gangs who have been engaged in kidnappings and carjackings in the Bekaa.
“This is very likely to happen because the Army cannot impose the state’s authority in one part of the country and hesitate to do so in other parts,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Both Hezbollah and Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement – influential in the southern suburbs – gave their full backing for the Army’s mission there. “Speaker Berri called on the Army to enter all areas and similar support was expressed by [Hezbollah] leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah,” the security source said.
Inside Haysoun’s shop, Hasan Sharara blamed lawlessness in some parts of the suburbs on the state’s previous inaction. “What made people carry arms and initiate fights? When the state can’t protect a person from a thug the state fears, the person will form a gang to protect himself,” Sharara said,
“Had there been a state, no one would have carried weapons or caused problems,” he added.
Hezbollah’s armed security apparatus has likely deterred state security bodies from becoming fully functional in the southern suburbs, the security source said. “Security measures [by Hezbollah] in the suburbs must be taken into consideration,” when the state acts.
However, the source said, that it is not in Hezbollah’s interest to allow lawlessness to thrive in the areas it controls.
“Lawlessness and crimes have nothing to do with the resistance ... They form a burden for the resistance – which was established to fight Israel,” he said, saying protecting the Meqdad clan is not in its interests.
When contacted by The Daily Star, Hezbollah MP Ali Meqdad refused to comment on the matter.
It is widely known among locals that the Meqdads forced shop owners in their neighborhood to pay protection fees. In an infamous incident, clan members opened fire on a restaurant after its owner refused to pay.
None of the shop owners on Hadi Nasrallah Highway acknowledged that they had personally been asked to shell out protection money, but they all said they were aware of the practice.
“No one came and asked us for a protection fee,” said Bassam Saqr, who works at a local shop.
“I hear that the Meqdad and Zeaiter clans take protection fees, but nothing happened to us.”
Saqr said recent Army measures have definitely been a comfort to suburb residents. “Any owner of a big business who paid them a protection fee is definitely happy now,” he said.
Last week, Army personnel arrested Hasan Karaki in the Beirut southern suburb of Ghobeiri. Karaki, who shot dead an Army major during an attempt to arrest him days earlier, is wanted on several criminal charges.
This spate of arrests, the source said, indicates that if there is enough political will, the Lebanese security forces can be effective.
He added a lack of accountability within the political culture likely delayed the crackdown, pointing to the release of several wanted men under pressure from political groups and the warm welcome those men received from politicians.
But if the Army is to successfully extend its efforts to the north, he said, the support of influential political groups there will be essential.
“Politicians there should definitely provide support. Although they might not have the influence on the ground, politicians in other areas do.
“If politicians refrain from protecting these groups, 50 percent of the job is done,” the security source said.
The source was adamant that beefing up security in the suburbs is not a temporary measure. “The Army has a green light, Speaker Berri told [Army Cmdr.] General [Jean] Kahwagi this in a recent meeting, “he said.
“I think the Army will fulfill its mission to the maximum.”