In South Beirut, A Funeral and Fighters at the Ready

Friday was a day of funerals in Lebanon in the wake of a deadly car bombing that struck the southern suburbs of Beirut, or Dahiyeh, a bastion of support for the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

The repercussions for the country, and for the conflict in neighboring Syria, could be numerous.  

Hamed Muqdad, 44, was a generous community leader, a father figure to all and a fighter. He survived being shot at by the Lebanese Army in 2008, during political upheaval. He was not as lucky last Thursday, when a car bomb ripped through the densely populated Dahiyeh, killing him and 26 others, including women and children, with more than 300 wounded.

“He was a great man. He didn’t care about money. He gave it away to friends and family like it was nothing,” said Eissa, a self-described coffee shop owner. But his khaki trousers and walkie-talkie — and stance, amid a group of gunmen — belied his second profession in this neighborhood, where clan ties and loyalty to Hezbollah intersect.

Muqdad was not an average community figure, and his funeral was no subdued affair. Men dressed in black shirts and cargo pants cordoned off the area with layers of checkpoints. Some wore bright yellow arm bands, the color of the Hezbollah flag.  Local teens emulated the adults with green khakis and serious faces.

Hezbollah has been on high alert since a July 9 car bombing in southern Beirut left dozens wounded. The atmosphere in the wake of the fresh attack was tense.

It was muggy and hot as a procession of female relatives in chadors marched down a street here amid a sea of men carrying automatic rifles. The elderly sobbed in the rear and younger mourners carried a gold-framed portrait of the deceased.

Sources close to Hezbollah said that men on guard in the area had noticed a suspicious black BMW enter the district.  When the driver realized he was encircled, he detonated his cargo, estimated to have been at least 100 kg of TNT.

Muqdad’s immediate family kept quiet in the wake of the bombing, unwilling to point fingers. Many in Lebanon assumed that the attack came in retaliation for Hezbollah’s decision to send men into Syria to fight alongside the troops of President Bashar al-Assad.

A Sunni Islamist group calling itself the Aisha Brigades claimed the attack in a video statement.

But when asked who could have been responsible, Eissa gave a different reply: “In our opinion, Israel.”

Hezbollah, in a possible attempt to stave off discord at home, has blamed previous attacks on its southern neighbor. When the southern suburbs were targeted by twin rocket attacks on May 26 – a day after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah publicly admitted his group was fighting across the border in Qusayr – the blame was deflected to Israel.

Supporters have fallen in line, unwilling to blame Syrian rebels before Hezbollah officials give the final say on who they think carried out the attacks.

But Eissa eventually admitted that not everyone was in agreement.

“Of course there are a lot of people who don’t believe it was Israel,” he said, finally relenting, red-faced: “It was definitely not Israel. It was that Free Syrian Army.”

*

As the mourners passed, a 4×4 pulled alongside. It was burly Abu Rida, a relative of the deceased and a leader in the powerful Muqdad clan. He made no secret of his role, carrying an enormous automatic weapon for all to see.

“This is not the first time they hit us, and it won’t be the last,” he said. He said there would be a response to the bloodshed only if Hezbollah’s leader gave the word.

“Blood isn’t worthless. We will all wait to hear what the general says … Hassan Nasrallah,” Eissa agreed.

For Hezbollah, which has painstakingly worked its way into the Lebanese political system over the years, discipline among its membership is crucial to its success. Each member knows his place and defers to the leadership.

In the hours between the funeral and the awaited Nasrallah speech, all was quiet in the neighborhood, save for the rounds of gunfire shot in the air – a signal of respect for the passing of a martyr.

*

At a nearby home, a local commander, known by his nickname, Captain, dropped by to watch the speech on the big screen.

A little girl launched a pop rock at the floor to make a crackling noise. Her father, the head of the house, rose to his feet to do the real thing—fire a live round in the air outside to amuse the children.

As the speech began, rounds of approving gunfire sounded from surrounding streets. Nasrallah spoke to an audience in the thousands near in Ayta as-Shaab, a village in southern Lebanon. The Iranian ambassador sat in the front row.

“These are not Sunnis who did this; they are takfiris,” Nasrallah said, referring to extreme Islamists who believe non-Muslims — and even Shiites — are nonbelievers.

“We know the names of everyone who carried out the previous attack,” he said, referring to the July 9 car bombing. I am sorry to say, but among them were Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians. But those people are not to be judged on their nationality –they are just killers,” he said.

“There will be no reprisals against Syrian refugees. Whoever did this attack is looking for a reaction from us and further chaos and division. They would do this against Christians and Sunnis too, as they have in Iraq.”

“Aywaaa (exactly)!” Captain said.  “I have Druze friends, Christian friends. They are afraid to come to my neighborhood, but we are just like everyone else. It is these takfiris of Jabhat al-Nusra – they will kidnap and kill you.”

His host agreed. “The problem is that they have to nerve to hang their Free Syrian Army flags in Tariq Jedideh,” he said, referring to a mainly Sunni district of Beirut. “Jabhat al-Nusra, FSA – it’s all the same for us.”

As the evening wore on, there were more fighting words from Nasrallah. “If we had 1,000 fighters in Syria before, now I’ll send 2,000. If it takes all of Hezbollah to win, I will go there and fight myself!” he said, to a crescendo of automatic gunfire in Captain’s neighborhood.

“It’s not the beginning of the battle and it’s not the end,” Nasrallah concluded.

“The problem is that these guys – Jabhat al-Nusra, the FSA – they don’t know who they’re messing with,” Captain said. “They don’t know what we are capable of.”

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