Beirut braces itself as Hezbollah-Israel clashes intensify in south

Some foreign staff have already been pre-emptively evacuated ahead of potential escalation

Lebanese lift Palestinian flags during a solidarity vigil in Beirut. AFP
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Time has stopped in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, as its inhabitants wait for a war that has yet to begin.

Following Hamas's attack in Israel on October 7 that kicked off a massive escalation of violence in Gaza, the southern border of Lebanon has been the site of tit-for-tat clashes between Iran-backed Hezbollah and an ally of the Palestinian militant group on one side, and Israel on the other.

Beirut residents told The National they are fearful of what could come next, as some governments, including Canada and the US, have advised their citizens to leave.

The skirmishes Israel and Hezbollah, which have resulted in dozens of fatalities, including civilians, have been contained so far, as the two sides loosely follow the so-called rules of engagement, which have prevented escalation since a full-blown war in 2006.

However, the situation could shift in an instant: a ground invasion of Gaza – which could potentially lead to Hezbollah and its primary backer, Iran, coming to the rescue of Hamas – or miscalculation by either side could lead the entire nation to be pulled into the conflict.

The national mood is sombre as Lebanon's almost ruined economy teeters on the edge of collapse, with many fearing another war will be the final straw

In Beirut, the line between war and peace already seems blurred. The usual vibrant streets are quieter, with many events being cancelled in solidarity with Gaza, where Israeli air strikes have so far killed more than 5,000.

Faced with uncertainty, many in Beirut are preparing for the worst.

Some have already begun stockpiling food and emergency provisions as they recall the 2006 war, a month-long conflict that pitted Hezbollah against Israel and claimed the lives of more than 1,200 Lebanese – mostly civilians – and 165 Israelis, mainly soldiers.

Mariam, a 35-year-old mother of two living in Beirut’s southern suburb of Dahieh, which was heavily affected during the 2006 conflict, told The National she had packed suitcases in case she needs to quickly evacuate her family.

“Each bag has several changes of clothes, water, food and medicine in case of emergencies,” she said. “Because who knows where we’d end up if we had to leave suddenly.”

She and her husband Mohammad own a small chain of accessory shops in Dahieh.

Last weekend, the couple packed up all their merchandise and stored it in a nearby warehouse for safekeeping.

“If the area gets hit, we can’t afford to lose all our merchandise,” she said. “We need to make sure our capital is protected.”

Unfortunately, that means the couple are out of work for the time being. They sell the occasional accessory online but it is not the same revenue stream as having an active storefront.

“The worst part is that we don’t know when or if things are going to get worse. And in the meantime, we can’t do much besides sitting and waiting for something to happen.”

UN Security Council holds meeting to discuss Israel-Gaza war

UN Security Council holds meeting to discuss Israel-Gaza war

While many Lebanese find themselves with no alternative but to wait, some foreign residents, among them staff from NGOs and international organisations, have already initiated the process of evacuation.

Many embassies, including those of the US and Britain, have advised their citizens to leave Lebanon while flights remain available. The primary concern is that the airport could become a target, as was the case during the 2006 war.

Lebanon's Middle East Airlines has cancelled half of its flights due to changes in insurance coverage. the airline has also transferred a significant portion of its fleet from Beirut–Rafic Hariri International Airport due to the security risks in the region.

Several other airlines, such as Swiss International Air Lines and Germany's Lufthansa, have already temporarily suspended flights to Beirut.

Updated: October 25, 2023, 7:00 AM