Tensions threaten to reach new highs this summer in Lebanon amid calls on social media to attack Syrian refugees and allegations that several Syrians detained by the Lebanese army had been tortured to death. “We are witnessing a rise in tensions between Syrians and Lebanese,” Prime Minister Saad Hariri acknowledged July 15 during a meeting at the Grand Serail, government headquarters in Beirut. “The entire country feels the weight [of the refugees].”
Amid chronic economic and social problems, Lebanon now hosts the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Syrians constitute roughly a quarter of Lebanon’s small population, estimated at 4-5 million people.
In private, many Lebanese compare the current situation to the eve of the civil war (1975-1990), which was sparked by tensions between local communities and Palestinian refugees. Lebanese media often amplify this fear, publishing sensationalist articles like one in early May in Ad-Diyar claiming that there were 300,000 pregnant Syrian women in Lebanon, implying that the number of Syrian refugees would top 2 million by the end of the year.
The latest controversy began July 4 when the Lebanese army announced the deaths of four Syrian men in its custody. They had been arrested in late June along with more than 300 others during raids on several Syrian refugee camps in Arsal, near the border with Syria. The army asserted in a press release that the men — Mustafa Abd el-Karim Absse, Khaled Hussein el-Mleis, Anas Hussein el-Husseiki and Othman Merhi el-Mleis — had “suffered from chronic health issues that were aggravated due to the climate condition.”
Pictures widely shared on social media and by Human Rights Watch (HRW) show deep gashes around the men’s wrists, as well as burns, bruises and, in one case, congealed blood around the man's ear. HRW showed the pictures to Dr. Homer Venters, program director at Physicians for Human Rights. In a statement to HRW, Venter asserted, “It would be reasonable to conclude that the death of these men is the result of in-custody violence.”
The Beirut Bar Association has prohibited Diala Chehadeh, the lawyer representing the families of the deceased, from talking to the press. Meanwhile, the army has stopped her from pursuing independent analyses of blood and tissue samples a doctor collected from the Syrians' bodies.
“It’s the first time that several people have died in the custody of the Lebanese army,” Wadih al-Asmar, president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, told Al-Monitor. Asmar said he could not remember any such cases even during the 2007 clashes between the army and Palestinian factions near the northern city of Tripoli, during which more than 400 people were killed. To Asmar, this is proof that the army “can behave according to the international humanitarian law when it has the desire to do so.”
To Fidaa Itani, a journalist who spent a night in custody after taking to Facebook to criticize politicians for the June raid in Arsal, the message was clear. “They arrested as many men as possible,” he told Al-Monitor. “It means the Lebanese army wants all refugees to leave the region of Arsal and go back to Syria.” A large number of refugees has settled in the Arsal area.
Against this backdrop, the Socialist Forum, a left-wing political group with approximately 30 members, called for a march to be held July 18 in solidarity with Syrian refugees. An obscure Facebook group calling itself the Union of the Syrian People in Lebanon then rallied people to counterdemonstrate, disrupting the Socialist Forum initiative.
“The [group] was posting racist videos against the Lebanese army and the Lebanese people, so we were put in a position that was really hard to manage, because we do not support racism in any way,” Hani Adada, a member of the Socialist Forum, explained to Al-Monitor. The organizers received threats, including for allegedly managing the union's page, and ultimately canceled the event.
Wiam Wahhab, a former government minister, sent several indignant tweets calling for counterdemonstrations “in support of the army and against terrorism.” On July 16, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk banned all demonstrations.
As the controversy grew, many expressed support for the Lebanese army on social media, for instance by changing their WhatsApp profile picture to the army's emblem. Activist and blogger Gino Raidy attributed the populist defense to the positive image the army enjoys.
“In neighboring countries, the army is seen as oppressive, but not in Lebanon,” Raidy said. “The army is the one institution that is believed to be above corruption and sectarian issues.”
Kareem Chehayeb blogged that voice messages were sent via WhatsAapp encouraging Lebanese to attack Syrians on the street. Even the staunchest defenders of the army seemed to take a step back, however, when a video surfaced of a group of Lebanese men beating someone who appeared to be a Syrian refugee and forcing him to pledge allegiance to the Lebanese army. The swift arrest of the perpetrators reassured activists, who also noted that the army was making a public show of cooperating with international nongovernmental organizations to shield civilians from the ongoing offensive by Hezbollah against militant groups near Arsal.
Asmar hopes that the outbursts of violence against Syrians will now be contained. “We have only heard of four or five incidents during the last two weeks, when the tension was at its peak,” he said.
One major sticking point remains, however: the investigation by the Lebanese army into the deaths of the four Syrian men. On July 24, the National News Agency said Military Court Judge Saqr Saqr had received a report from the army's Medical Committee affirming that the Syrian detainees had died from “various health complications.” The army has not officially commented.
“Very often, the government is quick to announce an investigation if there is an uproar, but results are never released,” Bassam Khawaja, a researcher on Lebanon at HRW, told Al-Monitor. “The army should be able to take this kind of scrutiny. If these people died of natural causes, a full transparent investigation would make this clear. Otherwise, those responsible should be held accountable.”