Street named after Hezbollah leader causes stir in Lebanon

Ghobeiry, a suburb of Beirut, re-named the street shortly after the Special Tribunal for Lebanon heard final arguments in the assassination case of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri

Youmn Ahmad, a Lebanese artist, paints a portrait of Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned from his post, during the annual Beirut Marathon, in Beirut Lebanon November 12, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/JAMAL SAIDI)
Youmn Ahmad, a Lebanese artist, paints a portrait of Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned from his post, during the annual Beirut Marathon, in Beirut Lebanon November 12, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS/JAMAL SAIDI)
As the Special Tribunal for Lebanon enters into final deliberations over who killed Rafik al-Hariri, the country’s former prime minister, one Lebanese municipality has stirred sectarian tensions by recently re-naming a street after the alleged orchestrator of the politician’s 2005 assassination. 
The municipality of Ghobeiry, a southern suburb of Beirut, re-named a street after Mustafa Badreddine, a Hezbollah commander believed to have masterminded al-Hariri’s assassination. Badreddine was killed in 2016 in Syria while commanding Hezbollah fighters sent to aid President Bashar al-Assad in the regime’s fight against Sunni rebel groups.
Hezbollah, a Shi’ite armed group backed by Iran, is widely considered a terrorist organization.
Badreddine was allegedly behind other terrorist attacks including the October 1983 bombing of an army barracks in Beirut, where U.S. Marines and French troops were stationed, an attack that killed 305 people. He also allegedly organized bombings a few months later that targeted the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait.  
Images of a new sign on the re-named street reportedly circulated on social media on Monday and Tuesday, with some users angrily calling on the municipality to take it down while others chimed in praising Ghobeiry’s decision to erect it.
The municipality, known as a stronghold of Hezbollah support, quickly defended the re-naming as “legal, normal and legitimate,” according to a BBC report. Adding insult to injury, the municipality chose to re-name a street that leads up to the Rafik al-Hariri National Hospital.
On Monday, Interior Ministry officials denied issuing any authorization for the re-naming, demanding that any street sign displaying Badreddine be taken down immediately. Ghobeiry municipal authorities fired back, claiming it had informed the ministry of the decision last year, but did not receive a response. The ministry’s failure to respond, they argued, amounted to tacit approval of the re-naming.
On Tuesday, Saad al-Hariri, the slain premier’s son and current prime minister of Lebanon, took to Twitter over the affair: “The decision to name a street after Mustafa Badreddine is regrettable,” he wrote.
“There are people who want to drag the country to another place. They must take responsibility for this before God Almighty and before the Lebanese people. We are talking about extinguishing sedition. But this is sedition itself,” he added.
In 2005, Rafik al-Hariri and 22 others were killed when suspects detonated over 2,000 pounds of TNT as the prime minister’s motorcade made its way through Ashrafiyeh, one of Beirut’s oldest neighborhoods. The slain prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, was considered a close ally of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch nemesis in the region.
A UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) based in The Hague was eventually set up to handle the case, adhering to both Lebanese and international law. The STL has lasted for more than four years, involving as many as 300 witnesses. 
The tribunal has zeroed in on five suspects, all high-ranking members of Hezbollah: Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Sabra, and Hassan Mari. With Badreddine out of the picture, the other four have been tried in absentia, and are still at large. According to legal experts with detailed knowledge of the case, the evidence against them is overwhelming. If convicted, they will likely face life in prison.
Hezbollah has denied any role in the assassination, and has repeatedly denounced the tribunal a tool of Israel and the U.S.
It is unclear when exactly the street sign was erected. Some believe it was put up a few days after the STL entered into final deliberations. After recently attending one of the tribunal’s sessions in The Hague, al-Hariri told reporters he is confident his father’s murderers would be brought to justice.  
“We have always wanted justice and have not resorted to revenge,” Hariri reportedly said, adding that “there are things that hurt, but when in a position of responsibility, we have to look at the country’s interest.”
Imad Salamey, a Lebanese political analyst, told The Media Line that the street re-naming is “an expression of defiance by a segment of Lebanese society—namely the Shi’ite community—against the deliberations of the international tribunal.”
He explained that the Lebanese are not unified on the issue of the tribunal and the final verdict may lead to deeper grudges among the country’s political and factional divides. 
“Of course, this creates a dilemma for the Lebanese government and society over how to respond to such divisions, given that the tribunal is about to give its final verdict,” Salamey said.
He explained that the Ghobeiry municipality’s decision to re-name the street after the deceased Hezbollah commander presents a challenge to the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, which oversees the country’s different municipalities and generally does not allow them to make independent decisions within their own jurisdictions.
When it comes to gauging the level of support for Hezbollah in the country, Salamey said: “It is difficult to generalize about different groups. Hezbollah has been and continues to be highly supported by the Shi’ite community. It is not weakening; if anything its influence remains the same.”
Dr. Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on Hezbollah and director of counter-terrorism research at the Swedish Defense University, told The Media Line that Hezbollah has dissipated in the political realm, but is like “an engine that has different pistons working hard on the political, social, and also on the military front.” 
Ranstorp explained that the group has rebuilt its arsenal after recent conflicts, most notably in Syria, and maintains a global reach, especially wherever there is a Shi’ite community.
He contended that opposition to Hezbollah among Lebanese has not weakened the group, which still plays a large role in the country’s affairs and in Syria. It also has long counted on “the ability to say to the Lebanese: ‘Look, we are a deterrent against Israel,’” Ranstorp said.
“Lebanon is so divided at present. I wouldn’t say there is push-back against Hezbollah [over the street re-naming issue]. Individuals may push back, as well as sectarian groups, but obviously if you are pro-Hezbollah or Shi’ite, you are in favor of it.
“Hezbollah has taken over prisons that were held informally by the South Lebanese Army. So a street sign in a Hezbollah-dominated area can aggravate tensions but it won’t be a game-changer,” Ranstorp concluded.