Hizbullah Shifts Attention from Syria Fight to Battle Virus
In the streets of Beirut's southern suburbs, Hizbullah paramedics and volunteers on trucks and on foot sprayed disinfectants on shops and buildings. At a hospital where it once treated its wounded fighters, the group's medical staff set up beds for a center to deal with coronavirus patients.
Hizbullah says it is turning the organizational might it once deployed to fight Israel or in the civil war in neighboring Syria to battle the spread of the virus pandemic in Lebanon.
It wants to send a clear message to its supporters in Lebanon's Shiite community that it is a force to rely on in a crisis. The Iranian-backed guerrilla group and political powerhouse is under pressure to send that message after a series of blows to its prestige.
Opponents have angrily accused Hizbullah of helping bring coronavirus to Lebanon. It took more than three weeks for the country to halt flights from Iran after a woman who had just returned from Iran emerged as Lebanon's first confirmed case on Feb. 20. Critics claim Hizbullah was behind the delay, ostensibly to give its members and supporters time to return home, an accusation it denies.
Since then, Lebanon has recorded 479 cases and 14 deaths.
"Until when are we going to remain the victims of Hizbullah's bullying?" former Cabinet minister May Chidiac said in a tweet during the weeks before flights were stopped. "This is new proof they control the fate of the nation," added Chidiac, who later tested positive for the virus after returning from Paris.
In the past few years, Hizbullah angered many in Lebanon for intervening in Syria's civil war to back the Iranian-allied government in Damascus. During Lebanon's wave of protests late last year, some protesters denounced Hizbullah as part of a ruling elite they wanted removed. The U.S. increased sanctions on the group, and Lebanon's financial meltdown has left the government, dominated by Hizbullah and its allies, flailing for solutions.
Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has been giving regular televised speeches on the pandemic, a sign the group feels it must show it is stepping up.
"We should feel that we are in a battle and we should fight this battle," he said in a recent hour-long speech.
Hizbullah has an advantage in that, along with being Lebanon's strongest military force, it boasts the greatest organizational and services might in the country.
The group has mobilized 24,500 members and volunteers for an anti-virus campaign aimed at helping the government and the Health Ministry, said Sayyed Hashem Safieddine, a senior official in the group. The ministry is run by a minister chosen by Hizbullah.
During a tour for journalists in Dahiyeh, the densely-populated southern Beirut suburb that is Hizbullah's stronghold, members of the group's civil defense department, wearing uniforms, masks and gloves, sprayed streets. Volunteers delivered boxes of food to low-income residents.
At Saint George Hospital, which Hizbullah is turning into a center for coronavirus patients, staff were setting up the first floor with new beds.
Safieddine said Hizbullah is bringing to bear some of the capabilities it had prepared in case of a new war with Israel. That includes thousands of doctors, nurses and field staff, as well as 100 ambulances. The group's Islamic Health Society plans to set up testing centers.
"We are soldiers at the service of the Health Ministry," Bilal Assaf, an official with Hizbullah's Civil Defense, told the Associated Press.
The campaign, heavily touted on Hizbullah's al-Manar TV, is so far limited to its traditional areas of support.
In Lebanon's fragmented, sectarian political scene, Sunnis and some Christians sharply oppose Hizbullah's political power and ties to Iran. A few political factions from other sects have launched anti-virus programs, preparing clinics or passing out aid, but they can't match Hizbullah's funding and organization.
"Hizbullah wants people to know that it is a special project, a project that is above the state" said Ali Hamadeh, a political writer at An-Nahar newspaper who is often critical of the group.
In an analysis, Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center said the outbreak presents serious challenges for Hizbullah, diverting its attention from Syria, but it might also present an opportunity.
Given the "weakness of public institutions, the group once again has the chance to showcase the strength of its governance services and social welfare networks," Jane's said.