Killing of Party Official Fuels Sectarian, Political Tensions in Lebanon

 Supporters of the Lebanese Forces Party block a main highway in protest over the fate of a local official, who security forces later said was killed by a group of Syrians in an attempted carjacking, in Jbeil, Lebanon April 8, 2024. (Reuters)
Supporters of the Lebanese Forces Party block a main highway in protest over the fate of a local official, who security forces later said was killed by a group of Syrians in an attempted carjacking, in Jbeil, Lebanon April 8, 2024. (Reuters)
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Killing of Party Official Fuels Sectarian, Political Tensions in Lebanon

 Supporters of the Lebanese Forces Party block a main highway in protest over the fate of a local official, who security forces later said was killed by a group of Syrians in an attempted carjacking, in Jbeil, Lebanon April 8, 2024. (Reuters)
Supporters of the Lebanese Forces Party block a main highway in protest over the fate of a local official, who security forces later said was killed by a group of Syrians in an attempted carjacking, in Jbeil, Lebanon April 8, 2024. (Reuters)

The killing of a local politician has deepened sectarian and political faultines in Lebanon, raising fears of armed clashes between rival factions in a country already beset by a deep economic crisis, and cross-border shelling linked to the Gaza War.

Government and religious officials have rushed to quell tensions after the killing of Pascal Sleiman prompted fears of renewed street brawls between rival parties and triggered beatings of Syrians. Sleiman headed the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces Party in a predominantly Christian coastal area.

Lebanon's army said on Monday a group of Syrians tried to steal Sleiman's car the previous evening but ultimately killed him and took his body to neighboring Syria. It said security forces had arrested most of those responsible.

But in a written statement to Reuters on Tuesday, the Lebanese Forces rejected the account, saying Sleiman was attacked because of the party's political views.

"The official narrative that this was a carjacking remains incoherent, and we consider Pascal Suleiman's killing to be a political assassination because of his political role. Unless proven otherwise, we tend to consider this to be a direct assault against the LF," the party said.

The Lebanese Forces have not directly fingered their main rival - Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah - but party officials pointed to a string of killings of anti-Hezbollah figures in the last two decades as similar cases.

Criticism of Hezbollah from Lebanon's Christian community has spiked in recent weeks, particularly after fighters from the group were accused of trying to fire rockets at neighboring Israel from a Christian village along Lebanon's southern border.

It reflects swelling anger among Hezbollah's critics over the group's controversial arsenal, which outguns the army.

"In this delicate and tense political, security and social circumstance, we call for calm and restraint," said Lebanon's top Christian cleric, Patriarch Beshara al-Rai. He has criticized Hezbollah indirectly in the past, saying the six-month-old war with Israel had been "imposed" on Christians.

'Collective punishment'

In a televised address on Monday, Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah said Sleiman's killing "had nothing to do with politics, and has nothing to do with Hezbollah."

"Let us not compare the crime against Pascal Sleiman to others," Lebanon's caretaker interior minister Bassam Mawlawi told reporters on Tuesday. "This country cannot tolerate more problems than it is already facing, nor can it tolerate discord."

Lebanese Forces supporters shut down main roads in northern Lebanon on Monday, and school was cancelled in Beirut on Tuesday amid fears of another round of violence between the Lebanese Forces and Hezbollah. In 2021, seven Shiites were shot dead in an attack on a protest called by Hezbollah, which blamed supporters of the Lebanese Forces for the killings.

At the weekend Lebanon marks the anniversary of the start of its civil war on April 13, 1975, which erupted after gunmen ambushed a bus carrying Palestinians in southern Beirut. The conflict ground on until 1990.

Lebanon now hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the war that erupted in their homeland in 2011. Last year, Lebanese security forces deported dozens of refugees in what rights groups called a violation of international law.

Within hours of the Lebanese army's Monday statement accusing a group of Syrians, angry crowds gathered in northern Lebanon near Sleiman's hometown and in Beirut.

Some men smashed cars with Syrian license plates, raided homes where Syrians were thought to be living or beat motorcyclists thought to be Syrians, according to witnesses and footage shared on social media.

Mohamad Hasan, of the Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR), a rights organization, said the scenes were "a dangerous and unfortunate example of the principle of collective punishment".

The Lebanese Forces told Reuters it condemned the violence against Syrians and did not want to see refugees being attacked.

"This is a diversion from the actual issue," it said.



Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
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Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

The soldiers came before daybreak, singling out the Syrian men without residence permits from the tattered camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. As toddlers wailed around them, Mona, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon for a decade, watched Lebanese troops shuffle her brother onto a truck headed for the Syrian border.

Thirteen years since Syria's conflict broke out, Lebanon remains home to the largest refugee population per capita in the world: roughly 1.5 million Syrians - half of whom are refugees formally registered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR - in a country of approximately 4 million Lebanese.

They are among some five million Syrian refugees who spilled out of Syria into neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within Syria. Donor countries in Brussels this week pledged fewer funds in Syria aid than last year.

With Lebanon struggling to cope with an economic meltdown that has crushed livelihoods and most public services, its chronically underfunded security forces and typically divided politicians now agree on one thing: Syrians must be sent home.

Employers have been urged to stop hiring Syrians for menial jobs. Municipalities have issued new curfews and have even evicted Syrian tenants, two humanitarian sources told Reuters. At least one township in northern Lebanon has shuttered an informal camp, sending Syrians scattering, the sources said.

Lebanese security forces issued a new directive this month shrinking the number of categories through which Syrians can apply for residency - frightening many who would no longer qualify for legal status and now face possible deportation.

Lebanon has organized voluntary returns for Syrians, through which 300 travelled home in May. But more than 400 have also been summarily deported by the Lebanese army, two humanitarian sources told Reuters, caught in camp raids or at checkpoints set up to identify Syrians without legal residency.

They are automatically driven across the border, refugees and humanitarian workers say, fueling concerns about rights violations, forced military conscription or arbitrary detention.

Mona, who asked to change her name in fear of Lebanese authorities, said her brother was told to register with Syria's army reserves upon his entry. Fearing a similar fate, the rest of the camp's men no longer venture out.

"None of the men can pick up their kids from school, or go to the market to get things for the house. They can't go to any government institutions, or hospital, or court," Mona said.

She must now care for her brother's children, who were not deported, through an informal job she has at a nearby factory. She works at night to evade checkpoints along her commute.

A sign that reads "The return of the displaced is a right and a duty", is placed along a highway in Jounieh, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

'WRONG & NOT SUSTAINABLE'

Lebanon has deported refugees in the past, and political parties have long insisted parts of Syria are safe enough for large-scale refugee returns.

But in April, the killing of a local Lebanese party official blamed on Syrians touched off a concentrated campaign of anti-refugee sentiment.

Hate speech flourished online, with more than 50% of the online conversation about refugees in Lebanon focused on deporting them and another 20% referring to Syrians as an "existential threat," said Lebanese research firm InflueAnswers.

The tensions have extended to international institutions. Lebanon's foreign minister has pressured UNHCR's representative to rescind a request to halt the new restrictions and lawmakers slammed a one billion euro aid package from the European Union as a "bribe" to keep hosting refugees.

"This money that the EU is sending to the Syrians, let them send it to Syria," said Roy Hadchiti, a media representative for the Free Patriotic Movement, speaking at an anti-refugee rally organized by the conservative Christian party.

He, like a growing number of Lebanese, complained that Syrian refugees received more aid than desperate Lebanese. "Go see them in the camps - they have solar panels, while Lebanese can't even afford a private generator subscription," he said.

The UN still considers Syria unsafe for large-scale returns and said rising anti-refugee rhetoric is alarming.

"I am very concerned because it can result in... forced returns, which are both wrong and not sustainable," UNHCR head Filippo Grandi told Reuters.

"I understand the frustrations in host countries - but please don't fuel it further."

Zeina, a Syrian refugee who also asked her name be changed, said her husband's deportation last month left her with no work or legal status in an increasingly hostile Lebanese town.

Returning has its own dangers: her children were born in Lebanon and do not have Syrian ID cards, and her home in Homs province remains in ruins since a 2012 government strike that forced her to flee.

"Even now, when I think of those days, and I think of my parents or anyone else going back, they can't. The house is flattened. What kind of return is that?" she said.