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Alex Rowell

Notorious Hezbollah checkpoint removed amid internal reshuffle

Residents of Arsal relieved to see end of checkpoint at which intimidation and even beatings were reported.

Lebanese General Security forces man a checkpoint in Tripoli in October 2013.

A controversial checkpoint manned by Hezbollah militiamen in the Beqaa Valley town of Labwe, at the only exit from the border town of Arsal, has been removed more than two months after it was first established.

 

The surprise move was greeted with relief in predominantly anti-Hezbollah Arsal, according to the town’s Deputy Mayor Ahmad Fleeti, who told NOW residents were “of course [more] relaxed now the checkpoint is gone.” Reports of abuse – including serious physical beatings – at the checkpoint were numerous, often discouraging locals and the town’s more than 50,000 Syrian refugees from leaving.

 

NOW was itself stopped and searched at the checkpoint in February, though without incident. “Please excuse us,” said the eldest of four gunmen after ruffling through bags and tapping the doors of the car to check for explosives.

 

Other journalists, however, had very different experiences. A television crew from the Lebanese MTV news channel reported its members had been intimidated and threatened at the checkpoint in February. “If you stop the car one more time, you will cease to exist,” one of the gunmen allegedly told them, adding that one of their photographers’ names was “on our list now.”

 

And, as NOW first reported in February, five humanitarian NGO workers were once reportedly detained for six hours at the checkpoint, during which time some were beaten and left with “serious injuries.” The NGO subsequently ceased its activities in Arsal.

 

But perhaps most notorious were the reports of assaults of wounded people leaving Arsal in need of urgent medical care. In what local doctors said was not an isolated case, a Syrian youth with a bullet wound in his leg was allegedly beaten while comatose in an ambulance by Hezbollah’s gunmen at the checkpoint in March.

 

The official reason for the removal of the checkpoint over the weekend is the implementation of the Lebanese authorities’ new plan to bolster national security. “There will no longer be any unofficial checkpoints or armed forces along the roads in the region of Baalbek-Hermel,” said Interior Minister Nuhad al-Mashnouq Saturday, declaring that the measures taken against gunmen in Tripoli in recent days would be replicated in the Beqaa. Perhaps by way of reassuring supporters in the area – which has for weeks been targeted by both car bombings and Syrian rebel rocket fire, resulting in over a dozen civilian deaths – Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in an interview published Monday that the risk of car bombings has significantly decreased since the defeat of rebel forces in the adjacent Syrian Qalamoun region.

 

Yet the move also comes at a time when Hezbollah is said to be trying to tackle a breakdown in its once-renowned internal discipline. Recent reports claim senior Iranian military officials are assisting the party in restructuring its security apparatus, following damaging leaks to Israeli intelligence and “missteps in dealing with the sensitive security situation in Lebanon.” If the latter was part of the reason Hezbollah agreed to dismantle its Labwe checkpoint, this would be consistent with the precedent of its previous checkpoints in Beirut’s southern suburbs, abandoned in September 2013 following the killing by party gunmen of a Palestinian refugee at an entrance to the Burj al-Barajneh camp.

 

Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland specializing in Hezbollah, says it’s unsurprising that discipline is slipping when the posting of more experienced fighters to a brutal and costly war in Syria has left more junior forces manning the party’s checkpoints.

 

“On the ground, the fact that [Hezbollah’s] forces are heavily committed to the front, there have been bombings, and that this is a very polarizing conflict – particularly internally” mean that “issues like the black shirts causing problems are bound to happen,” Smyth told NOW.

 

Accordingly, with no end to the Syrian war in sight, Arsal’s more than 80,000 inhabitants are hoping the checkpoints don’t return, says Fleeti. Similarly, they’re concerned that state security forces might not necessarily make for much of an improvement. Fleeti points to the example of the Syrian woman and child shot dead by soldiers last weekend when their driver failed to stop at an Arsal checkpoint.

 

“These officers, who are representative of the Lebanese army and the state, should calm down before they start shooting at people, refugees, who don’t have their papers and are avoiding checkpoints,” Fleeti told NOW. “The rumors that are coming out on media say the people getting stopped are all [Jabhat al-]Nusra, and then it ends up being they just didn’t have their papers. So the refugees are afraid to go by the checkpoints, so they’re trying to circumvent them and then they get shot at.”

 

Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

This marks the second time Hezbollah has given up controversial checkpoints since the start of the Syrian crisis. (AFP/Ibrahim Chalhoub)

"In what local doctors said was not an isolated case, a Syrian youth with a bullet wound in his leg was allegedly beaten while comatose in an ambulance by Hezbollah’s gunmen at the checkpoint in March."