'A declaration of war': tensions in Lebanon's Khalde after Hezbollah clashes

Residents fear renewed violence after funeral procession turned into sectarian confrontation

A military checkpoint and five armoured vehicles guarded Khalde, a residential suburb south of Beirut on Monday morning, where gunmen opened fire on a Hezbollah funeral procession the day before in a deadly vendetta.

The soldiers stood on a dormant front line, with the Chebli Centre — a burnt-out building riddled with bullet holes and a Hezbollah flag — behind them.

A few metres away are the homes of the group's sworn enemies: the Sunni Arab clansmen of Khalde.

Close to the Chebli Centre, the Arabs have erected a huge photograph of a young man killed last August in a turf battle between the two groups.

The revenge killing of Hassan Ghosn’s alleged murderer on Saturday, whose funeral procession was the target of violence on Sunday, reignited tensions between local Sunni Arab clansmen and Shiite supporters of the Iran-backed group.

Khalde residents now fear renewed sectarian violence in a country already struck by political paralysis and economic collapse.

“We are preparing for the worst. We told our women and children to stay indoors,” Lawrence Chahine, an Arab clan member said from his family home, metres away from the scene of the fighting.

“If Hezbollah decides to have another big procession for those who died yesterday we will consider it a declaration of war.

It is going to be a massacre.”

Sunni Arab clansmen said that one their own killed Ali Chebli, the Hezbollah member whose procession was attacked, to avenge the killing of the Sunni boy, Hassan Ghosn, last year.

Chebli’s funeral procession ended in bloodshed.

As many as four people are believed to have been killed. Hezbollah confirmed that two people were dead. The Red Cross, which was deployed at the scene, said it will not release a death toll.

Mr Chahine, a cafe owner in his 50s, said the clansmen attacked Chibli’s procession because some people attempted to tear away the image of Ghosn and fired in the direction of the photograph.

He also said that the sight of a huge convoy waving Hezbollah flags and chanting Shiite slogans was a provocation to local clansmen, many of whom live at the corner between the picture and Chebli’s villa.

“When I saw the convoy, I knew there was going to be blood,” he said.

Hezbollah said on Sunday that the procession was “ambushed” by local gunmen and denies wrongdoing.

Khalde is located south of Hezbollah's security complex in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Banners of the slain Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani line the Beirut motorway to Khalde.

The coastal town separates Hezbollah's Beirut stronghold from south Lebanon, where the armed group holds great influence.

Mr Chahine traces enmities between clan members and the Shiite group back to the killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. An international court found last year that Hariri was killed by a Hezbollah operative.

“Wherever there is a force standing in their way they will strike,” Mr Chahine said, accusing the group of “waging war on Sunnis".

Lebanon was at war with itself for 15 years as sect leaders competed for territorial control. An arrangement dividing political portfolios by sect ended the war in 1990.

Lebanon’s sect leaders called for calm on Sunday after the clashes in a rare show of unity.

Quote
Blood begets blood. My brother was shot dead last year in Syria. If we had killed his killer, there would be endless bloodshed
Syrian resident of Khalde

They have been embroiled in a year-long fight over their share of ministerial portfolios in the next government. The Cabinet of premier Hassan Diab resigned last August after the devastating blast at Beirut's port.

President Michel Aoun called on “all sides to co-operate” to restore calm to Khalde.

An army spokesperson told The National that military intelligence arrested a local salafist clergyman and his son on suspicion that he "incited the men to shoot at the procession."

The army said on Monday it had also arrested one gunman who shot at Chibli’s procession and that Khalde had returned to normal.

Alone in his empty decor shop by the sea, a local resident said he still fears for his business and his life.

“I am against all forms of violence, especially during a funeral procession. This is simply not right”, Omar, 24, said in a low soft voice.

The Syrian man said that so long as the vendetta remains unresolved bloodshed was inevitable.

“Blood begets blood. My brother was shot dead last year in Syria. If we had killed his killer, there would be endless bloodshed.”

Updated: August 2nd 2021, 5:00 PM
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