Lebanon’s sectarian balance on the line as Hezbollah-Israeli conflict drags on


Variables in play: Hezbollah began launching rockets at Israel from hilltops and villages in Lebanon in support of its ally Hamas after their cross-border attack triggered a fierce Israeli offensive in Gaza.
| Photo Credit: AP

As the Lebanese Christian village of Rmeish marks its first Easter since the Gaza war erupted, residents say a parallel confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel is dragging them into a conflict they did not choose.

Like many Christians elsewhere in southern Lebanon, residents are angry and fearful their homes could be caught in the cross-fire and their families forced to flee — permanently — from their ancestral villages near the Lebanon-Israel border.

Earlier this week, a Rmeish resident confronted a group of armed men trying to launch rockets at Israel from within the village. Some villagers rang church bells to sound the alarm, and the armed men moved off to fire rockets from another neighbourhood, according to Mayor Milad al-Alam and Rmeish residents. “What we have been saying for the last six months is: among our own homes, keep us neutral. Any strike in return would have brought huge losses,” Mr. Alam said.

Hezbollah began launching rockets from hilltops and villages in southern Lebanon at Israel on October 8 in support of its Palestinian ally Hamas, which carried out a cross-border attack into Israel the previous day that triggered a fierce Israeli land, air and sea offensive on the Gaza Strip.

Christian criticism

The villagers’ resentment reflects criticism from Christian clerics and politicians opposed to Hezbollah, who have long accused the group of undermining the state through its possession of a controversial arsenal that outguns the national Army, and of monopolising decisions of war and peace.

“We have nothing to do with this war. Do they (Hezbollah) want to displace us?” said a 40-year-old resident of Rmeish who asked not to be identified, fearing that criticising Hezbollah could bring reprisals. Iran-backed Hezbollah, which holds sway over much of the Lebanese state, denied its fighters had tried to launch rockets from Rmeish.

More than a dozen sects coexist in a precarious balancing act in tiny Lebanon, reflected in a power-sharing system that reserves government posts by religion. The presidency and central bank governor — two top posts reserved for Maronite Christians — have been vacant since October 2022 and July 2023 respectively due to divisions over choosing successors.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have been displaced both internally and to foreign countries by conflict and hardship over the last century, with the 15-year civil war seeing killings and kidnappings according to sect. Some 90,000 people have been displaced from southern Lebanon since the conflict broke out in October.

Christian lawmaker Ghada Ayoub, who represents a constituency in the south and hails from the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces party, said that Christians were standing up to Hezbollah “because it is encroaching on their presence,” and that the war was deepening fissures in Lebanese politics.

“The question is now: are there even any shared points left that we can carry on with — that we can build a state with?” she said.

The area most impacted by the shelling is the border strip, home to about a dozen Christian villages including Rmeish. They are nestled in rolling hills of olive groves, pine trees and tobacco fields — now too dangerous to plant or harvest due to shelling.

“The areas around us were really affected — there have been strikes 500, 600 metres away. Our harvests have been ruined,” said Joseph Salameh, a local official in the town of Klayaa, about 4 km from Lebanon’s southern border.

‘Imminent exodus’

Lebanon was already hit hard by a financial meltdown that began in 2019. With tourists staying away due to bombing, shops closed and schools shuttered or began sheltering thousands displaced by the fighting, villages across the predominantly Shia Muslim south have been dealt another severe economic blow, prompting fears among locals of a Christian exodus. “Now the war has added to it and is encouraging our children to leave… Christians are no longer able to take on more than others because the problems of this country have become too many,” Mr. Salameh said.

Lebanon’s top Christian clerics have also sounded the alarm in weekly sermons. Maronite Patriarch Boutros al-Rai called early on in the Gaza war for Lebanon to stay on the sidelines and more recently said war had been “imposed” on Christians.

Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Beirut Elias Audi asked earlier this month if it was fair for “one faction of Lebanese to decide on behalf of everyone, and take unilateral decisions that not all Lebanese agree on”. With outcry mounting, Hezbollah’s main Christian ally the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) has even ramped up criticism, saying its nearly two-decade alliance with Hezbollah had been “shaken”.

“The main problem that arose recently was crossing the limits of defending Lebanon and getting involved in a conflict in which we cannot make decisions,” FPM head Gebran Bassil said.

Their alliance had provided Hezbollah with supporters from a religious community outside its traditional base, but the pair have split over several issues in the last two years — including who should be Lebanon’s next President.

Michael Young at the Carnegie Middle East Center said Mr. Bassil’s comments were an attempt to gain some leverage over Hezbollah by signalling a rift — but also reflected Christian unease with the status quo.

“The mood among the Christian community is almost a psychological divorce from the system. They don’t feel that they have a say in the system and in a way it’s true — Hezbollah is in control of much of the system,” Mr. Young said.



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