Mount Lebanon shoot-out triggers fears of intra-Druze strife

Many in the country seem eager to open old wounds and settle old scores with enemies from Lebanon’s civil war.
Saturday 06/07/2019
Lebanese State Minister for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib attends a news conference in Khaldeh near Beirut, July 1.  (Reuters)
Boiling point. Lebanese State Minister for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib attends a news conference in Khaldeh near Beirut, July 1. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Throughout their long history, members of the Lebanese Druze community have rallied behind their leaders in the face of external threats, be they Christian, Muslim or Israeli. Survival of the community came first, topping personal rivalries and Druze domestics.

When its two historic leaders — Kamal Jumblatt and Emir Majid Arslan — quarrelled over the support of Lebanese President Camille Chamoun in 1958, taking up arms at the gates of the Chouf district, the dispute was immediately settled by the Sheikh Akel of the Druze community, Mohammad Abu Shaqra.

When Christian militias declared war against the Druze of Mount Lebanon in 1983, the Jumblatts and the Arslans set aside their differences and fought under one banner.

Sixty years later, however, the sons of Jumblatt and Arslan are at daggers drawn after an exchange of gunfire June 30 in the Druze city of Aley. Two bodyguards of a third Druze figure, Refugee Minister Saleh Gharib, who is the nephew of a prominent Druze religious sheikh, were killed in the shooting.

Gharib is an ally of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, two declared opponents of Walid Jumblatt. He is also a member of the Democratic Party, which is headed by Emir Talal Arslan.

Jumblatt accuses this team of trying to control the entire Lebanese state, via Bassil, who is running palace affairs in light of his father-in-law’s age — 84 — and failing health, hoping to succeed him.

Bassil has inherited Aoun’s post as president of the Free Patriotic Movement after the latter became president in 2016. Jumblatt is highly critical of Bassil’s behaviour and political alliances, given his ties to Hezbollah and commitment to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Arslan stands on the opposite side of the political spectrum, in the warm embrace of Assad, Iran and Hezbollah.

When Gharib visited Damascus in February to discuss the return of Syrian refugees, he was sharply criticised by the anti-Syrian camp in Lebanon, accused of normalising relations with the Syrian government, despite a declared policy of “distancing” Lebanon from the Syrian conflict, adopted by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Jumblatt.

The political tension turned violent June 30, as Gharib drove through Aley, joining Bassil on a tour of Mount Lebanon. Jumblatt supporters took to the streets, carrying banners saying that both men were unwelcome in Druze areas. Arslan’s supporters appeared, also in large numbers, with the opposite message. It is uncertain who fired first, Gharib’s bodyguards or the Druze demonstrators.

Arslan says Jumblatt’s men started the shooting. Pro-Hezbollah media claimed they mistakenly struck at Gharib’s motorcade, thinking that it was that of Bassil.

Gharib disputes both stories, saying he, not Bassil, was personally targeted, adding that the assailants wanted to kill him in an ambush and denying claims of wild gunfire. One of the 18 bullets that ripped through Gharib’s car ended up in the headrest of the seat in which he was sitting.

The Syrians, who favour Arslan over Jumblatt, have been surprisingly silent about the ordeal and Hezbollah’s only comment has been a call for restraint. To avoid a verbal confrontation between Druze ministers in the pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian camp, Hariri called off the cabinet meeting for the week, seeing that the timing was inappropriate.

Jumblatt settled for a brief and relatively mild comment, via Twitter, saying: “I demand a legal investigation over what happened, away from the media and hope that political newcomers (in reference to Bassil) understand the delicate balances that govern the (Druze) mountain, which is open to all political currents.”

Arslan, during a news conference at his home in Mount Lebanon, threatened: “This will not pass!” He added: “Either the state protects its people or they will start protecting themselves.” He seemed to be saying: “or else, they will take up arms and form their own militias to protect their fiefdoms.”

Judging from social media videos, in which residents of the Druze community seem to be armed to the teeth, this can happen overnight, because many in the country seem eager to open old wounds and settle old scores with enemies from Lebanon’s civil war.