Tensions between Lebanon’s Druze community and Hezbollah came close to erupting into violence following a series of tit-for-tat incidents, after a mob of Druze villagers in the country’s south seized a Hezbollah missile-launching vehicle on Friday morning.
In dramatic footage published to social media, a crowd of furious Druze villagers in Chouya in the district of Hasbaya are seen stopping the launcher, and yelling at a bearded Hezbollah member, believed to have been driving it.
In the video, the man appears petrified as he cowers in the back of a vehicle. Dozens of Druze men surround and threaten him, shouting that they were fearful their village could be targeted by Israel in response to the militant group’s deployment.
The villagers subsequently handed him over to the Lebanese Army but his detainment didn't last long. In a video released late on Friday evening, he is seen receiving a hero’s welcome as he returns home.
The incident came just hours after Hezbollah launched 19 rockets at Israel, the militant group’s heaviest barrage since the war in 2006. Hezbollah said the attacks were in response to Israeli jets striking positions in Lebanon in the early hours of Friday morning.
The footage prompted supporters of Hezbollah in the southern city of Saida to expel Druze vegetable sellers from the central market.
In response to the expulsion, a group of Shiite men travelling from the Beqaa valley – a Hezbollah heartland, were stopped and threatened on a road in the town of Aley, a witness in the town told The National.
Speaking to The National on Friday evening, Druze leader Walid Jumblat said he was mediating between the community and Hezbollah.
“We need calm,” he said. “It wasn't the moment to fire rockets near a Druze village towards Israeli positions.”
The interception of the missiles was an unprecedented move in a part of the country where Hezbollah hold an unquestionable military dominance. Hanin Ghaddar, Friedmann Fellow at The Washington Institute's Geduld Program and an expert of Shia politics, said it represented a major threat to this dominance.
A challenge to Hezbollah's authority
“It’s becoming a big challenge for Hezbollah, and its more than the economic situation, there is a fundamental issue with the dynamic," she told The National.
“The level of support for these Druze people, the way that people were supporting them was unbelievable. Hezbollah used to be the heroes when they fired at Israel, now these guys who stopped them are the heroes."
"There’s a nationwide feeling that Hezbollah needs to stop doing this. The more people realise that their livelihood is more important than anything else, the more they will start standing up to Hezbollah.”
The Lebanese Army later announced they had arrested several of the individuals involved in firing the rockets, while a rare statement from Hezbollah also attempted to defuse tensions, as did a speech by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah himself on Saturday night. The group said it was careful to not expose the Lebanese people to harm from “its work".
The original confrontation in Hasbaya was the second incident in barely a week in which the Iran-backed group had clashed with one of Lebanon’s myriad other ethnic groups.
Four people were killed last Sunday, after gunfire erupted at the funeral procession of a Hezbollah member killed the day before. The dispute, with the Sunni Arab tribe, also threatened to boil over into further clashes, with the army being deployed to the area to ease tensions.