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November 19, 2013 Special Dispatch No. 5527

Lebanon's March 14 Forces: Beirut Airport Is Occupied By Hizbullah And Iran

November 19, 2013
Lebanon, Iran | Special Dispatch No. 5527

Hizbullah's ongoing control of security at Beirut–Rafic Hariri International Airport has again been in the headlines, following the August 9, 2013 kidnapping of two Turkish Airlines pilots near the airport. Several foreign airlines have since changed their landing schedules out of fear that the same might happen to their employees.[1]

The Turkish pilots' abduction was apparently in retaliation for the May 2012 kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shi'ites by an armed Syrian opposition group in northern Syria.[2] Negotiations to free these 11 hostages were conducted between Lebanon and the Syrian kidnappers via various intermediaries; they were released on October 19, 2013 and returned to Lebanon in the framework of a wider deal brokered by the Turks and Qataris that also included the release of the two Turkish pilots.[3]

The abduction of the pilots very shortly after they left the airport grounds, and the location of the abduction, near the Dahiya suburb south of Beirut, a Hizbullah stronghold, prompted speculation in Lebanon that the organization had played a role in it. Numerous March 14 Forces supporters contended, following the abduction, that Hizbullah had infiltrated the airport's security apparatus.[4]

The March 14 Forces have been critical of Hizbullah's control of various aspects of the airports' operation for years, beginning in May 2008, when they claimed that the organization had set up its own security cameras there to monitor passenger movements.[5] At the time, Druze leader MP and former March 14 Forces member Walid Jumblatt claimed that Hizbullah was receiving weapons shipments via the airport, and was plotting to kill Lebanese citizens there. Because of these contentions, the government of Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, a senior member of the Al-Mustaqbal stream and the March 14 Forces, dismissed airport security chief and Hizbullah associate Gen. Wafiq Shukair. The March 14 Forces' criticism and the dismissal of Shukair, paired with additional government measures against Hizbullah's private communications network, led to a Hizbullah backlash and its takeover of western Beirut and other areas in Lebanon,[6] fueling fears of civil war.

Then, as now, the claim that Hizbullah had infiltrated the airport's security apparatus prompted harsh reactions by March 14 Forces activists and politicians and by the newspapers identified with them; among these reactions were various proposals and initiatives for resolving the problem.

This paper will review the March 14 Forces' claims regarding a Hizbullah takeover of security at Beirut–Rafic Hariri International Airport as well as the March 14 Forces' failed attempt to use another airport as an alternative to the Beirut airport.

March 14 Forces: The Airport Is Hizbullah's Hostage

Rafic Al-Hariri Airport Has Become Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei Airport

Various elements belonging to the March 14 Forces and their supporters have argued since the pilots' kidnapping that Hizbullah and Iran are controlling security at the airport. An August 11 editorial in the daily Al-Mustaqbal, which is identified with the March 14 Forces, noted that the kidnapping "again focuses the spotlight on the fact that Lebanon is a hostage and its airport is a hostage [to Hizbullah and Iran]. And just in case we forgot this for a spell, the axis of evil [i.e. Hizbullah, Syria and Iran] reminds us of it."[7]

'Ali Hamada, a columnist for the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar which is likewise identified with the March 14 Forces, wrote the same day that "the kidnapping serves as a reminder that Beirut airport is also [i.e. in addition to the airport-Beirut highway] under Hizbullah occupation, and anyone who [passes] through it submits himself for a few hours to the mercies of an organization that most Arab countries, Europe, and the U.S. have defined as a terrorist organization... The Rafic Al-Hariri International Airport has in effect become [Iranian Supreme Leader] Khamenei International Airport. This is the truth."[8]

Fatma Hoho, an Al-Mustaqbal columnist, wrote, "Iranian intelligence is overseeing traffic at the airport with the [help of] Hizbullah activists... who have [now] completed their takeover of it [that began] following the incidents of May 7, 2008."[9]

Hizbullah Knows About Everyone Who Enters The Country

Al-Mustaqbal MP and chairman of the parliamentary Public Works, Transport, Energy and Water Committee Muhammad Qabbani explained: "Hizbullah's influence is not limited to the security apparatuses [operating] within the Beirut airport. The organization's eyes and arms [may] appear simple but are [highly] effective – [they include] hundreds of porters who are politically loyal to the organization as well as taxi drivers at the airport entrances."[10] The writer 'Ali Al-Husseini argued in an October 24, 2013 article in Al-Mustaqbal that Hizbullah controls all the country's air, land, and sea border crossings, and has information on everyone who enters the country: "Hizbullah welcomes you on the airport's tarmac, but this [welcome] begins not when you set foot on the ground but when you are still on board the plane. Usually, Hizbullah gets visitors' names and details even before they board the plane, and the same is true regarding [the border crossings] by sea and by land. Its informants are everywhere, making it easy for their leadership to know about anyone entering the country, and particularly if there are any question marks or suspicions about him."[11]

Weapons From Iran Are Funneled Through Airport To Hizbullah

The Saudi Alarabiya.net reported, citing anti-Hizbullah Lebanese sources, that Hizbullah has infiltrated the airport security apparatus and that it maintains contacts with it on an informational exchange basis. According to the report, Hizbullah receives vital information from the airport security apparatus and in return provides information of its own to the state security apparatus. The sources added that "weapons from Iran and other places pass through the airport to Hizbullah."[12]

Hizbullah's Control Over Airport Security Facilitated Political Assassinations

Lebanese activist Qarim Al-Rifa'i, who headed a campaign to secure Beirut airport and to begin using another airport as an alternative, argued that Hizbullah's control of airport security had led to the assassination of Lebanese leaders who were outspoken critics of the Hizbullah-Syria-Iran resistance axis. Al-Rifa'i said: "Everybody knows that the assassination of the martyrs Gebran Tueni,[13] Antoine Ghanem,[14] and Gen. Wissam Al-Hassan[15] came after their entry into Beirut airport was monitored."[16] It should be noted that as early as May 2008, MP Walid Jumblatt had warned that Hizbullah controlled the airport, was operating surveillance cameras there, and was planning to assassinate Lebanese political leaders.[17]

Hizbullah Sabotages Campaign To Begin Using Alternate Airport

Along with leveling these accusations against Hizbullah, senior Lebanese politicians and officials urged the state to ensure the security of Lebanese citizens passing through Beirut airport, and to begin using another airport as an alternative. Al-Mustaqbal MP Muhammad Kabbara said, appealing to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman: "If you cannot protect the Lebanese people from the malevolence of a terrorist party [namely, Hizbullah], then at least provide them, and visitors to Lebanon, with a secure airport that is not Rafic Al-Hariri Airport."[18]

A few days after the Turkish pilots' abduction in August, Lebanese activists launched a social media campaign called "Secure Beirut Airport and Begin Using Al-Klayaat Airport."[19]


"The People Want Al-Klayaat Airport Opened" (source: Facebook.com/AirportKlayaat, August 14, 2013)

The campaign called upon citizens to be passengers on an August 16 showcase flight by several airlines from Beirut to Al-Klayaat; however, after it was postponed to August 21, the event never got off the ground because of pressure from Hizbullah. Campaign initiator Qarim Rifa'i told a press conference that due to this pressure, all the airlines that had agreed to participate in the event had backed out.[20]

One post on the campaign's Facebook page stated: "How long will we continue to fly via Rafic Al-Hariri Airport, which has become a den of terror and kidnapping... How long will Lebanon remain a hostage of... Hizbullah?"


Facebook.com/klayaatairport, October 5, 2013.

While Hizbullah itself has not officially responded to the accusations regarding its control of Beirut airport security, the daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, argued that the demand to begin using an alternative airport stemmed from sectarian Sunni interests. Al-Akhbar columnist Muhammad Nazzal wrote: "The talk about this airport [Al-Klayaat] in the Akkar region in the north is nothing new. But recently [this talk] has increased for 'sectarian' reasons, [and is calling for] the establishment of additional airports far from 'Hizbullah control' – that is, 'Shi'ite' [control]... Therefore, what they are demanding today is the opening of the 'Sunni' Al-Klayaat Airport to counter the 'Shi'ite' Beirut airport."[21]


Al-Klayaat Airport (Al-Mustaqbal, Lebanon, August 18, 2013)

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Mustaqbal; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 30, 2013.

[2] The 11 Lebanese Shi'ites were kidnapped on the pretext that they were senior Hizbullah officials who had come to spy on these armed Syrian opposition groups. Their kidnapping, which came just after they had crossed the Turkey-Syria border while en route from Iran to Lebanon, prompted their relatives to accuse the Turkish intelligence apparatuses of involvement in the kidnapping and to claim that the kidnappers were backed by these apparatuses. Over the months, relatives of the kidnapped Lebanese Shi'ites had threatened to harm Turkish interests in Lebanon, as indeed happened when the Turkish pilots were abducted.

[3] The deal also included the release of several female Syrian prisoners from prisons of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

[4] Western intelligence sources claim that Lebanese businessmen in western Africa are smuggling funds to Hizbullah via passengers flying to Beirut, and that this is made possible by Hizbullah's control of the airport's security apparatus. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), September 21, 2013.

[6] In these Hizbullah-initiated riots, which took place on May 7, 2008 in Beirut, in Mount Lebanon and in the north of the country, Hizbullah forces took control of extensive parts of these regions, closed Rafic Al-Hariri airport and the Beirut seaport, burned down the studios of media companies associated with the parties comprising the government, and surrounded public buildings and the private residences of anti-Syria Lebanese figures. At least 81 were killed and 250 wounded in the unrest. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 436, "A Clean Sweep: Amal, Hizbullah Take Much of Beirut in Redux of Hamas' Gaza Takeover, May 9,2008.

[7] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 11, 2013.

[8] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), August 11, 2013. Al-Mustaqbal MP Ahmad Fatfat said: "Hizbullah holds hostage the Beirut airport and the road to it… and uses this hold to extort the world and Lebanon as it wills." Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 13, 2013.

[9] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 13, 2013

[10] Alarabiya.net, August 12, 2013.

[11] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 24, 2013.

[12] Alarabiya.net, August 12, 2013.

[13] Tueni was a former member of the Lebanese parliament and the grandson of the founder of the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar; he was a frequent critic of Syria and its involvement in Lebanon. He was killed December 12, 2005, when his car was blown up, just after his return from Paris, where he had lived for his own safety.

[14] Ghanem, an anti-Syria member of the Lebanese parliament, a member of the Phalange party and a presidential candidate, was assassinated on September 19, 2007, in a car bomb attack. He too had just returned to Lebanon after living abroad for his own safety.

[15] Al-Hassan headed the information branch of Lebanese internal security and had uncovered a Syrian intelligence plot to set off bombs in various regions of Lebanon. He was assassinated October 19, 2012, also with a bomb; he too had just returned to Lebanon, from Germany.

[16] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 15, 2013.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 4, 2008; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 3, 2008.

[18] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 11, 2013.

[19] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 13, 2013.

[20] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 22, 2013.

[21] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 14, 2013.

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