Al-Qasr, Lebanon – Within hours of two Grad rockets smashing into the Beirut neighbourhood of Shiyah, residents rallied behind Hezbollah, saying the Shia movement is working to protect not just their community, but the country as a whole.
Another three rockets from Syria slammed later on Sunday into the northern Lebanese area of Hermel in the Bekaa Valley, along the porous border with Syria.
“We are not worried, and we are not afraid,” Mohammad, a computer businessman and resident of Shiyah, told Al Jazeera, asking that his surname not be used. “We will not hide behind our finger. This is an open battle, it is global, and the resistance and its [Hezbollah] leadership will protect us.”
The rocket fire on Shiyah, a predominantly Shia neighbourhood located on the periphery of Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, are the first such attacks on the capital since the uprising began in Syria two years ago. Four people were wounded, three of whom were Syrian nationals.
The Free Syrian Army has been threatening to attack us, so we expect these attacks, and more ... The resistance is fighting in Syria to prevent the battle from moving to Lebanon.
The rockets came a day after Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, gave a speech to commemorate the liberation of the south from Israeli occupation in 2000. In his speech he defended Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, saying, “You can take any side you want, but Hezbollah cannot be on the side of America and Israel, or with those who dig up graves, open chests, and behead other people.”
No one has claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks. Rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army – angered by Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict on the side of the Syrian army – have issued numerous warnings against the group, threatening to hit their strongholds in Beirut, the south, and in the Bekaa.
Syrian opposition members and rebels have long accused Hezbollah of involvement in the conflict alongside the Syrian army, especially in the recent fierce battles to gain control of the city of Qusayr, which is seen by both sides as strategic.
“The Free Syrian Army has been threatening to attack us, so we expect these attacks, and more,” Mohammad said.
“The resistance is fighting in Syria to prevent the battle from moving to Lebanon, and the supporters of the resistance know this,” he said. “Anyone who watches the videos of executions and eating hearts will know that Hezbollah is doing the right thing.”
While the Shiyah attacks are the first on the Lebanese capital since the Syrian conflict started, they were not the first on the country.
Lebanon’s Hermel area, which shares a border with the suburbs of Qusayr, has fallen victim to numerous rocket attacks by Syria’s rebels who claim to be targeting Hezbollah bases.
Residents and officials say, however, many of the these strikes have hit schools, farms, and residential areas, resulting in civilian fatalities and casualties.
For residents of these border villages, the presence of Hezbollah in Syria’s Qusayr suburbs and elsewhere along the frontier allows them “to sleep better at night”.
“I want Hezbollah to protect me. They are defending me, my children, our people,” Abu Ghalib al-Jamal, a resident of the Lebanese border village Qasr, told Al Jazeera. “Right now Sayed Hassan [Nasrallah] is the only one who hears us.
|The scene where two rockets hit Beirut on May 26 [Reuters]|
“My farm has been hit from the shells of the armed gangs in Syria, and not one member of the Lebanese authorities has even come to inspect the damages,” he said.
The area between Hermel and Qusayr, considered “intersecting lands” by Lebanese and Syrians, is said to be home to at least 30,000 Lebanese who have been living there for decades.
“Lebanese have been living in the border areas since before the Sykes-Picot agreement,” Sobhi Saqr, the mayor of Hermel, told Al Jazeera, referring to the secret deal between Britain and France in 1916 to carve up the Middle East between them.
“There are people within these areas who have political affiliations to Hezbollah and its allies,” Sobhi continued. “The shells coming in from the armed opposition are to try and create tension between residents and Hezbollah.”
Historically neglected by the Lebanese state, Hermel has a strong Hezbollah presence, as the province benefited greatly from infrastructure and social welfare installed by the group, garnering overwhelming electoral support from its residents.
“Nasrallah said the Lebanese villages cannot be touched, and this makes me feel protected. As long as the Lebanese authorities are doing nothing, the resistance is who I rely on to protect me,” said Abu Ghalib.
Funerals and fighters
While Hezbollah’s role in Syria is undisputedly strategic; it is protecting its own weapons supply route within Syria, and defending the Syrian regime whom it considers to be a vital ally in the resistance axis against Israel, there is also a sense of obligation to its supporters to ensure their safety and protection.
According to Hasan Ileik, a journalist with the Lebanese daily Al Akhbar who has been following developments closely, Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria began at the end of September 2012, following increased attacks said to be carried out by the Syrian opposition in the Shia village of Haydariyeh, which is within the “intersecting lands”.
‘“They began by sending the people of the villages in the area weapons and training,” and within a few weeks they began going in to fight, Ileik told Al Jazeera.
For the Syrian opposition, claims of how many Hezbollah fighters are currently in Qusayr range between hundreds to tens of thousands.
According to Ileik, however, Hezbollah’s presence is “less than 500 fighters in Qusayr”.
“On the borders there is definitely more pressure on the group to be involved because the residents are facing daily attacks,” Ileik said. “You have families on both sides of the border pressuring Hezbollah to fight with them and to defend them.”
And as more coffins come back carrying fallen Hezbollah fighters from Syria, the sign-up sheet to go fight is filling out more quickly.
“The more martyrs coming in from Syria, the more fighters are wanting to go,” said Ileik. “Some people are asking for more training in order to be ready for the coming months.”
For Ileik, the reason behind this support is much more focused on the bigger picture. “The people are not backing Hezbollah because of something related to this moment, but rather related to a big political ideology involving the region as a whole.”
Yet others consider Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in Syria detrimental to its supporters, resulting in a shrinking base as Shia Lebanese struggle with the image forced upon them because of the association – real or perceived – with the group.
“Now, when you are a Shia from Lebanon you are tarnished as being a supporter for Hezbollah,” Sami Nader, a professor at the University of Saint Joseph and a Middle East analyst, told Al Jazeera.
|Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah|
“Today they are under pressure from the international financial industry so it is much harder for them to do transactions and open back accounts, it is much harder for them to get a job abroad, especially in the Gulf, and generally they are perceived by many as terrorists,” he said. “This is clearly a problem for the community.”
For Nader, the mass support the group once garnered across the region no longer exists today as a result of their alliance with the Syrian regime, and even its hardcore base of supporters is dwindling.
“The supporters that are still with them are doing so because they don’t have any other choice. This is the minority complex living in fear,” he said. “There is a message from the Arab community that the Shias are not welcome anymore.”
And as the attacks on their community specifically and on Lebanon in general continue, “you will witness Hezbollah support shrinking”.
Ileik disagreed, however, pointing out support for Hezbollah will remain because its supporters – including family members who are “supplying the fighters” – stand behind the group as “they know the fight in Syria would be better for Lebanon, and for them, in the long term”.
For Shiyah resident Mohammad, such rocket attacks will not deter the group’s support base, rather they will become increasingly resolute.
“This is a battle over the existence of the resistance.”
Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Nour_Samaha