Lebanon News

Zahle MPs protest Hezbollah phone grid

Lebanese soldiers patrol the eastern town of Zahle, Monday, Sept. 16, 2013. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

HERMEL, Lebanon: Zahle MPs lashed out at Hezbollah Monday after alleged members of the party were spotted installing a telecommunications network in the area, saying the move was part of Hezbollah’s attempt to tighten its grip over Lebanon.

The MPs also asked President Michel Sleiman and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati to dismantle the network, saying the people of Zahle would remove it themselves if the state failed to do so.

“Installing this network is part of Hezbollah’s efforts to control the security of Lebanese society through eavesdropping on phone calls, and have its own network illegally overlap with that of the state,” MP Tony Abu Khater said.

He was speaking at a news conference he held in Zahle alongside local MPs Elie Marouni, Shant Janjanian and Joseph Maalouf.

“We look to President Michel Sleiman and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati to apply the law immediately and ask Hezbollah to dismantle the network, or we will be forced to say that Hezbollah’s network cannot be installed in Zahle” he said.

A group of residents from the predominantly Christian town protested the work Sunday night, taking to the streets on the highway connecting Zahle to Baalbek and demanding the party dismantle the grid at once.

Speaking to The Daily Star, the protesters said a minibus with Hezbollah members arrived near St. Charbel Church on the eastern outskirts of Zahle at 5 a.m. Sunday to install the party’s own “telecoms grid.” The protesters said other Hezbollah members were seen guarding the vehicle.

“We first figured out that they were members of Hezbollah from their black cars with tinted windows. ... We tried to tell them to stop working, but they ignored it,” one protester said.

“We took action at night while they were still working.”

An Army unit was deployed Sunday night to restore calm.

The protesters said the alleged Hezbollah members continued their work despite Army and ISF units arriving at the scene. “This means they are challenging us along with Zahle,” another protester said.

Marouni, Maalouf and Janjanian headed to the scene of the protest and worked to calm down the demonstrators. The MPs contacted security officials in the area, who promised to work on halting the works. Shortly after, demonstrators and the alleged Hezbollah members left the area.

In their statement, the MPs detail the incident and say the Hezbollah members, who arrived with some workers, were installing cables inside cement blocks they had placed along the highway two years ago.

Hezbollah did not comment on the issue and a party spokesperson could not immediately be reached.

Abu Khater told reporters that the MPs exerted efforts to calm the residents down and prevent a clash, questioning the purpose behind installation of the alleged network in Zahle.

“I ask Hezbollah’s political, military and security officials: What do you want from Zahle, the city of peace?” he asked.

“If we were to believe the logic of resistance which we oppose, can you tell us what is the military goal served by installing this network in Zahle?”

Hezbollah has its own private telecommunications network which it argues is necessary to preserve the secrecy of the resistance’s operations and protect its personnel.

In May 2008, Hezbollah gunmen took over large swathes of west Beirut after the government of then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora decided to dismantle the party’s telecommunications network, prompting the Cabinet to go back on its decision.

In 2011, residents of the Metn town of Tarshish said they stopped engineers who, according to local officials, were engaged in the construction of a telecoms grid for Hezbollah in the town.

Speaking during the news conference, Marouni warned that the people of Zahle would remove the telecoms network if Hezbollah did not do so.

“If the party has members who wear black shirts, we also have people who wear black shirts and if they have people who install cables, we have people who can remove them,” Marouni said.

The March 14 coalition says Hezbollah members and supporters hit Beirut’s streets during Jan. 2011 wearing black shirts in a bid to intimidate people into supporting the Mikati’s nomination for the premiership.

In earlier remarks, Marouni said the installation of a Hezbollah network in Zahle was “prohibited.”

He said local officials worked hard all night to defuse tensions among Zahle residents and supporters of the Kataeb Party and the Lebanese Forces.

“We stayed on the ground until the gunmen, not technicians, withdrew,” Marouni told the Voice of Lebanon radio station.

Janjanian, speaking to the Voice of Free Lebanon, warned Zahle residents “will take to the streets and prevent any new attempt to install the network.”

Marouni said they received assurances from security and political leaders that the issue would be resolved later Monday.

Speaking to a local television station, former Zahle MP Salim Aoun, from Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, called on relevant groups and security bodies to investigate what had happened in the town.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 17, 2013, on page 3.

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