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A Wild Day in Beirut

Street Notes from the Hamra District

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Beirut.

"Where did they come from?", the desk clerk at the Royal Plaza Hotel in Rauche by the sea near Hamra wondered out loud. "I have been on duty all night and saw nothing. Suddenly they are everywhere!"

Of course this observer wondered the same thing. The time was around 8:30 am, having ducked into the Hotel to escape a flash shower before the sunny morning returned.

This observer left Haret Hreik neighborhood in Dahiyeh by motorcycle around 6:45 am this morning and headed toward the airport road near the Jnah/Ouzai round-about. Dahiyeh is quiet. Essentially normal. (Around 1 pm returning from Hamra I did notice that none of the Haret Hreik guys were playing football at the local athletic fields—it dawned on me where they were).

After some Hezbollah guys cut a path for me through one of the earthen berms which block the airport road I decided to see how far I could get to Hamra along the sea road past the Coral Beach Hotel, Ramlet el Baida and to the Corniche below the American University of Beirut. No traffic all the way and few signs of life along the sea. When I returned nearly four hours later by the same route, Hezbollah and Amal were all along this route.

According to the Hezbollah people manning the berms on airport road, the airport will stayed closed until the ‘three conditions" are met;  i.e the pro-US government pledges to keep its hands off the optic fiber telecommunication network of the Resistance; the Government reinstates head of Beirut Airport Security General Wafiq Shouqair; and the Majority agrees to a dialogue. Until that happens, West Beirut and the airport will stay closed.

Just opposite the Movenpick Hotel on the water I cut up a side street leading into Hamra. Unbeknownst to me at the time I nearly drove through this morning’s fire fight near Saad Hariri’s mansion. The very loud noise and the rain forced me back to the Royal Plaza where I bumped into two Middle East Airline crew who said MEA told them no flights will leave until at least Saturday. "The company is negotiating with their insurance people who insist they do not fly. If someone fires a single rocket at the airport it will stay closed".
For the next nearly four hours I toured Hamra (on one of a dozen moving vehicles I saw the whole time).

What I learned was that all of West Beirut is occupied and shut down by Hezbollah and Amal forces. One of the benefits of living in Dahiyeh is that one becomes recognized and so I was given relatively free passage. Fairly candid conversation was assured because of the roughly 70 groups of Hezbollah fighters I saw nearly every third one had someone who recognized me.

Stopping in front of Robert Fisk’s third floor Corniche flat and noticing his veranda door open I knew he was in town. I shouted, "Yala Robert?" "Robert?" No answer. His landlord, who runs the snack shop below appeared and told me Fisk had left a few minutes before and headed east. That guy is never around when you need to see him! No doubt reporting from somewhere at the center of the action. Just like in 1982 during the siege of Beirut the only journalists I encounter actually on the streets when things are ‘hot’ are French reporters from Agence France Press with crash helmets and flak jackets. "Just watch out for snipers", they advised, "Geagea’s men killed a woman and her son last night." How they knew is was Geagea’s men in the dark, I don’t know.

The AFP fellows also reported that Hariri’s Al-Mustaqbal newspaper and his radio station Al Sharq were closed by Hezbollah fighters.

The situation as of 1 p.m. May 9:

Hezbollah and their Amal allies control the geography from the airport up to Hamra and around the Corniche sea road at far as the Beirut Port near Phalange HQ in East Beirut. It appears secured including Verdun, Karolol Druze (Bristol Hotel area), Zaendaniyeh, Ras-al-Nabaa, Basta, and Neweiri. They do not appear to be meeting much opposition although some arms are fired periodically.

Hezbollah appears in complete control of West Beirut.

According to the guys manning the Berms on airport road the airport will stayed closed until the ‘three conditions’ are met i.e the pro-US government pledges to keep its hands off the optic fiber telecommunication network of the Resistance, the Government reinstates head of Airport Security Wafiq Shouqair, and agrees to a dialogue. Until that happens, West Beirut and the Airport will stay closed. 
This observer was amazed to see and learn that Hezbollah/Amal also are deployed all over Mt. Lebanon. Approaching a Druze area, near the Kamal Jumblatt Hospital in Choufeit close to 1 p.m. today I turned down a side road to make a telephone call at one of the phone shops. I was shocked to see approximately 80 heavily armed fighters. "Oh”, I thought to myself, “finally I see Jumblatt’s militia." As I pulled up to the phone store several fighters approached my motorcycle—which is well known in Dahiyeh. "Habibee!", one young man called as he put his free arm around me. Turns out he is a neighbor of mine from Harek Hreik. "What are you doing here with PSP (Druze militia?)", I lamely ask. "No, no, we are all Hezbollah and Amal here! 

How is that possible in Jumblatt territory? "Khalas, there is no Jumblatt territory! We and our friends are all throughout the mountains. We are ready to fight both the Zionists and anyone else who wants to fight us. But we are told that in four or five days there may be a solution without violence." Thinking the kid might be hungry and homesick for our ‘hood’, I offered him a sandwich I purchased from our neighborhood Halifee Restaurant. He declines and points toward a stack of boxed supplies, presumably including military rations.

The four or five day estimation of stalemate and status quo I was to hear several times today from various Hezbollah and Amal military leaders.

Riding around West Beirut from roughly 8:30 to close to one pm one sees mainly Hezbollah and Amal. Around Hariri’s mansion, the Quoreitim which was hit by a RPG– there is an assortment of fighters who appear to be "contractors". There was a gun battle around 10:30 am near it. Some of Hariri’s guys expressed disgust that some of their fellow Mustaqbal militiamen surrendered to Hezbollah without a fight and also told of their contempt with about 60 or more "fighters" who came down as ‘reinforcements’ from North Lebanon to receive $400 monthly payments for "security work". Apparently when the young men arrived yesterday day they were informed by Hariri people that they would be fighters. As one told a local TV station, "That is not our job. I am not a fighter and I am not going to fight Hezbollah!" This morning those who did not leave last night are heading north this morning.

Little sign of the Lebanese army except by Lina’s Restaurant near Bliss St. in front of AUB and below AUB. Others are laying low under awnings of some Hamra shops. I am told they are near the port and staying out of deep Hamra.

Virtually all shops in Hamra are shuttered

After a while, one is able to distinguish in Hamra the difference between Amal and Hezbollah fighters from a block away. The former tend to be smaller, more thin, randomly dressed and sometimes hooded, a bit unkempt, fun-loving and happy to pose for photos and joke. Hezbollah by contrast are polite but all business with an obvious command structure and a tested professionalism. Several this morning look surprised at seeing someone riding around the area and advised: "Please go to your home. We don’t know what will happen".

As in the July 2006 war, one gets the impression that Hezbollah fighters prefer to depend on each other and fight in small groups and not hang around with Palestinians, Marxists etc. or even Amal fighters in close proximity. (There are no Palestinians to my knowledge involved in the current ‘situation’).

Around 10:30 am I came upon some fighters who said they were from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. (Frankly I had not realized they were still around). They appeared to keep to themselves.

Hezbollah guys’ attitude is sort of: "Excuse us but could you take up positions a little distance from us, maybe down over there somewhere?" The message is clear: "Look, we know what we are dong and we are not sure that you do. You can endanger us by hanging around us. We would be grateful if you would do your thing somewhere removed from our location!"

Jumblatt has not just been humiliated in the mountains but also in his Beirut residence at Clemenceau near AUB. When I drove by en route to Hamra Street I saw about 75 fighters outside his home. I was surprised to learn they were not Jumblatt’s protectors but once more Hezbollah/Amal. "Maybe he will invite us to lunch. We have orders not to harm him." I was later to learn that the Army rescued Jumblatt around 11:30 am, and he is said to be rethinking his options. Hassan Nasrallah was tough on Jumblatt at his news conference yesterday and predicted that Jumblatt would switch sides yet again if Hezbollah would pay the price. The young men showed me some of the weapons they collected from what was said to be surrendering or fleeing Hariri mercenaries.

Word on the Street near Saad Hariri’s house is that Geagea may attempt a coup and take the leadership of March 14 for a return of the Lebanese Forces and Kateib. This I find difficult to believe but during this period the rumors are flying like 20th floor broadcast confetti on a windy day!

It is difficult to avoid the tentative conclusion as of the moment that Hezbollah owns Lebanon and will not be dislodged by force. Again they insist that all they want is a fair share of the government and have no interest in "owning" Lebanon. They just are not willing to accept interference with their resistance activities against Israel.

While Michael Young, opinion editor of Beirut’s Daily Star and one of Lebanon’s best political analysts argues today that Hezbollah wants a Shia state within the Lebanese State, Hezbollah denies this.

It appears in order to calm the atmosphere in Lebanon right now and remove the berms of July 2006 rubble blocking the airport road as well as the evacuation of fighters from West Beirut and the Mountains, the Bush administration must order the reversal of Monday’s Lebanese Cabinet decisions. It is widely believed that they ordered them and are responsible to reverse them and to accept a dialogue with the Opposition.

FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and can be reached at fplamb@gmail.com