Lebanon Tension Rises As UN Probe Eyes Hezbollah

The spectre of strife looms ahead of UN indictments in 2005 Hariri murder

Monuments have risen to honor slain leader Rafiq Hariri (Steven Damron)


Lebanon is an edgy place these days, as a UN-backed special tribunal prepares to charge suspects in the February 2005 bombing assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. If members of the Shiite militia and political party Hezbollah are among those indicted, some worry that this strategic, violence-prone country of 4.2 million could descend again into civil war.

Political assassinations were hardly new to Lebanon, often targeting influential journalists and politicians who'd spoken out against Syria's interference in their country. But the car bomb that killed Hariri and 22 others was on a different order of magnitude, requiring the smuggling of two tons of explosives into Lebanon and intimate knowledge of one of the Arab world's richest, and most well-protected, political leaders.

A recent, devastating Canadian Broadcasting Channel investigation brought out into the open an accusation of what had long been rumored in journalistic and political circles: members of Hezbollah – which has since entered mainstream politics -- carried out the assassination.

With suspicions originally focused on Syrian operators, the earliest hints of Hezbollah involvement emerged in August 2007 when the government announced the discovery of a private, parallel phone network operated by Hezbollah outside the realm of the government. Nine months later, the government announced its own investigation into the telecom network. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, now allied with Hariri's son and current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, stated at the time that Hezbollah was using the private network to plan assassinations of senior political figures in Lebanon. Hezbollah said it required the network to protect the country from Israeli encroachment.

The probe of the bombing has had victims of its own. One of the investigators, a Lebanese army captain named Wissam Eid, had traced a short phone call from a Hezbollah member to his girlfriend, which led to a chain of cell phones used to coordinate the 2005 explosion. During a meeting with Hezbollah members to discuss the phone issue, Eid was warned that the matter involved national security and should drop his line of inquiry. In January 2008, two days after he approached the UN to share the breakthrough, Eid was killed in a car bombing.

As the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon pressed on with its task, Hezbollah went public with its denunciation of the international court. The rhetoric continues to rise, as members just this week issued a typically ambiguous yet ominous warning that targeting Hezbollah "will only backfire for the parties behind it."

Hezbollah ("Party of God") is more than simply a heavily armed militia that rules parts of Beirut and south Lebanon with almost no interference from the state. Not only could its one million followers effectively shut down Lebanon in a matter of hours, which it demonstrated in 2008, it is also a major opposition party with a decisive vote in the Cabinet. And with Saad Hariri currently ruling without a clear popular majority, the standoff over the pending indictments has left his government deadlocked.

The Party of God insists that the investigation into the Hariri assassination is actually an Israeli plot that should be handled internally, preferably by Hezbollah itself. Hariri's March 14th coalition supports the tribunal, with the Prime Minister telling Newsweek this week that there can be no stability in Lebanon without justice.

For now, there is "total paralysis of state institutions, including the government, which is incapable of taking any decision," Sami Salhab, a law professor at the Lebanese University, told AFP on Wednesday.

No one knows exactly how Hezbollah will respond to the likely indictments of its members. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said that his party would "cut the hand off" anyone indicting them. Coming from an Arab leader known for making literal statements, the remark has Beirut worried about a return to civil war. How far will it go to block arrests? Would Hezbollah turn its guns on the Lebanese army? On civilians?

Hezbollah's main backer, Iran, stepped into the fray this week, with Ayatollah Ali Khamanei echoing word for word Nasrallah's comments that any tribunal verdict would be "null and void" as "this tribunal is receiving orders from elsewhere." Hariri answered simply: "We in Lebanon, as a government, have our own views of the tribunal."

Lebanon has always been strong enough to withstand wars, but too weak to avoid manipulation by regional powers. In his quest for justice, both for his country and his family, Hariri finds himself staring down the barrel of Hezbollah's Iranian-bought, Syria-imported gun, one which may or may not be loaded.

Kristen Gillespie


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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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