Yesterday I watched a report on Future TV in which residents of southern Lebanon were interviewed vowing to stay put, war or not. The report contradicted reports of intending Shia migration to "safer" areas in the north, especially Sunni, Christian and Druze areas. Foreign media had also reported an increase in the number of passport and visa applications. This state of panic that the Future TV report tried to hide, had reached Nabih Berri and Hizbullah leaders, who reportedly instructed their media not to cover statements predicting an outbreak of war in the near future.
Al-Quds Al-Arabi said that Shia leaders in Lebanon, especially Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, have been trying to assure residents of the South that a war similar to the one in July 2006 will not take place. The daily said that these Lebanese leaders have demanded their media outlets not to over cover statements predicting the outbreak of a war in the coming months, and the fact that Hezbollah has taken intensive security measures to protect its leaders.
According to the paper, this has come about due to the recent large-scale movement of southerners to Beirut and North Lebanon for fear of vulnerability in the event of another war. “A number of Shia families have left the South and headed to Christian areas in Kesrouan, Jbeil and the Metn, and to Sunni and Druze areas in Mount Lebanon, looking for places to rent,” the daily said.
“Families with foreign passports have been making contacts with their respective embassies and the Lebanese General Security to obtain visas to be able to leave Lebanon,” the paper reported. (Now Lebanon)
It all started when Nasrallah declared an open war on Israel. The deployment of the US war ships off the coast of Lebanon, and the Hizbullah-linked Jerusalem attack fueled rumors that a war similar to the July 2006 war was being planned.
Below are excerpts from a Now Lebanon report:
Although politicians are downplaying fears of a renewed war, the As-Safir newspaper, which is close to the opposition, summed up the general feeling in a commentary Tuesday.
"The Lebanese are worried about the situation and are acting as if war was imminent as they set up emergency plans: getting their passports ready, seeking visas, renting apartments far from what they believe will be the battle front and changing their whole way of life," the newspaper said.
Mohammed, 43, is a resident of the southern village of al-Qlayle, which was heavily bombed during the 2006 war. He said he was looking to rent an apartment in Aley, west of Beirut, for the coming months out of fear the crisis will escalate into a full-blown war.
Several residents in the eastern Bekaa region, which has a strong Hezbollah presence, said they were looking for housing in Christian villages in the area, where they believe they would be safer in the event of Israeli air strikes.
"I rented a house in a Christian village near Baalbek for me and my five children in case we have a new war," 70-year old Abu Ali Balluk said.
Baalbek resident Mona, 40, has three children and a husband who works in Saudi Arabia. She is stocking up on food.
"I live alone with the kids and far from the main market," she said, as she held 10 bags of bread outside a bakery. "I am putting food in the freezer and stocking up just in case war erupts."
An official at the passport office in Baalbek said he has seen a 30% surge in the number of passports issued in recent weeks. In Tyre, a security official said his office was receiving up to 400 requests a day for passport renewals, compared to 75 previously.
"Demand has peaked since Nasrallah's speech on February 14 threatening Israel with a new war," said the official, who requested anonymity.
Mohammed Issa, a mechanic who lives with his five children and his parents and sisters near a Hezbollah position in the Bekaa said he has readied passports for the entire family and visas to Turkey.
"We'll head there via Syria," he said.
Mohammed Jaafar, 54, says he is taking no chances.
"My nerves are shattered, especially when I think of what we went through in 2006," he said, standing outside the passport office in Tyre. "Tomorrow, me and my family are boarding a plane to Abidjan (Ivory Coast), and it won't be for tourism.”
"I'll be starting fresh there, working with my son." (Now Lebanon)
If war does break out, I don't expect the Shia to receive the same welcome they found in 2006. You have Nasrallah's occupation of downtown Beirut and the ensuing sectarian tensions to thank for this. The fear of a Shia exodus might have fueled the Future TV report, a telling sign that no one can in Lebanon can afford another "divine victory".