Navigating Dahiyeh: Security in Lebanon’s Southern Suburbs

24 November 2019

by Kelly Stedem

Beirut’s southern suburbs, collectively known by the Arabic word for “suburb”, Dahiyeh, and Hizbullah’s territorial heartland in South Lebanon enjoy the paradoxical reputations of being lands of lawlessness that are simultaneously the safest regions in the country. Dahiyeh in particular has the guise of a militarized zone; cars sit in traffic to pass through army checkpoints hemmed in by large concrete blast walls. At the same time, local residents boast about how they feel that they are living in the most protected region thanks to the presence of Hizbullah. The southern suburbs are concurrently a zone of both danger and security. In this piece, I will show how Hizbullah polices its neighborhoods, providing security and protection to local residents, while simultaneously undermining the  role of the state in providing such security services. Insights into the local provision of policing are based on eight months of fieldwork conducted between 2017 and 2019, as well as observations made while working for local NGOs in South Beirut between 2011 and 2014.

Both South Lebanon and Dahiyeh were bombed during wars between Hizbullah and Israel. Dahiyeh was also the target of terrorist bombings between 2012 and 2015. I was living in Beirut at the time of those bombings and the tension in the area was palpable. In my neighborhood of Chiyah – a Shia-dominated area on the cusp of Dahiyeh that supports Hizbullah’s ally Harakat Amal – security measures popped up overnight in response to the threats. Streets were blocked off with barricades, the country’s police force (the Internal Security Forces, or ISF) erected checkpoints on the main roads, and affiliates of Harakat Amal requested residents place cards with their name and phone numbers on vehicles to expedite the identification of potential car bombs. For residents, these security measures were daily hassles. But they also became routine; residents developed a muscle memory for navigating around blocked streets and through military checkpoints.

Smoke rising over Dahiyeh after the August 15, 2013 Roueiss bombing. Credit: Kelly Stedem

Hizbullah’s robust security apparatus for managing local affairs is well-known. In previous years, plain-clothed men sitting near official state checkpoints around Dahiyeh were a common sight. (In many instances, government agencies took over operation of these checkpoints from Hizbullah as part of the party’s attempts to avoid accusations of acting as a state-within-a-state.) These men were believed to be (and probably were) Hizbullah representatives tasked with observing the checkpoints (though they were allegedly replaced with cameras in recent years). Similar scenes are still a common sight throughout Dahiyeh (and Beirut generally) despite the presence of official state security institutions. For example, I once observed a man sitting along a busy intersection in Ghobeiri jump up and begin calling into a walkie talkie after a car accident. Local residents told me that men like him are Hizbullah members tasked with watching the area and keeping the peace. This is not to claim that every man sitting around outside watching the streets is a party operative; they’re often just socializing. But, in instances of necessity, those individuals who are tasked with protecting the status quo are made visible.

Hizbullah’s local security is more sophisticated than mere neighborhood watches, however. Individuals with connections, or wasta, to Hizbullah may also turn to the party for help resolving disputes and criminal matters, a service that is invaluable given the state of Lebanon’s official security institutions. Notably, this service is not unique to Hizbullah, and other parties often provide similar help to their members and affiliate networks. While the Lebanese Armed Forces is well respected, it suffers from budgeting shortfalls that leave it short of the funding necessary to effectively develop its capacities. The ISF, in contrast, suffers from low levels of trust and a reputation for corruption. Wein al-Dawleh?, “Where is the State,” is a common retort to questions on the state of the security sector in Lebanon, generally, and in Dahiyeh, specifically. According to my research, victims of crimes often feel they have no recourse to, for example, seek the return of stolen cars or catch thieves. Numerous interviewees expressed an apathy towards the ISF, stating that they would report a crime if absolutely necessary, but most believed that the only people who could fix such a problem would be the political parties.

Makeshift barricades in Chiyah placed immediately after the start of the bombings in 2012. Credit: Kelly Stedem

Moreover, Hizbullah also employs a series of mechanisms aimed at securing and maintaining borders. Seemingly random barricades and blocked streets have been common since at least 2012. One interviewee who lived near an important party member’s home described to me how the party blocks off certain sections of the street and frequently patrols the area with bomb detecting devices; one morning, security officials even informed this resident that they had broken into their vehicle because some medicine inside had set off the bomb sensors. The interviewee conveyed mixed emotions at this situation: annoyance at how these measures affected their daily routine, yet at the same time, a sense of relief at being under the umbrella of Hizbullah’s security protection. These sentiments were echoed by many others—both in Dahiyeh and South Lebanon—who felt that they were protected from violence thanks to Hizbullah’s security apparatus, even as they recognized the problems with that apparatus’s very existence. Although opinions vary widely, most interviewees were stuck between a recognition that Hizbullah’s security apparatus impinges upon state capacity and a sense of gratitude that it exists, given their perception that the state is incapable of protecting its citizens.

Yet, the large-scale security measures intended to thwart terrorist bombings now seem to be more performative than preventative. The last bombing in Dahiyeh occurred on November 12, 2015, when two suicide bombers killed 89 people in Bourj al-Barajneh. According to my research, some civilians look at the continued operation of checkpoints as necessary; they believe that the Lebanese government and Hizbullah are protecting them from unknown threats. Others view these measures as a means for Hizbullah to continue the façade of a city under attack. From this perspective, the illusion of continuous threat justifies the need for Hizbullah’s security presence, given the limited capacity of official state institutions.

Similarly, the reputation of crime and violence in Nabatiyeh (South Lebanon’s predominant city) and its environs appears to be overblown. In a 2013 survey conducted by International Alert and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, only 4% of Nabatiyeh respondents as compared to 21% of Beirut respondents claimed to have been a victim of a crime. In Dahiyeh, meanwhile, crime appears to have been on the rise for roughly the past decade. Numerous local residents conveyed feelings of increasing insecurity in their neighborhoods. Many claimed that petty crimes, like pickpocketing, have increased. Others reported an increase in drug trafficking; one interviewee claimed, for instance, that she was nearly car-jacked by a man on drugs.

One factor in the rise of violence may be a result of Hizbullah’s own practices: their willingness to protect party members from prosecution. Both Hizbullah and Harakat Amal, like many of Lebanon’s political parties, practice himaya. The term generally means “protection,” but it can be applied to the willingness of the parties to protect members or relatives of important party members from prosecution, even when they are perpetrators of violence. To that end, Hizbullah allegedly operates its own court system and private jails within Dahiyeh to deal with problematic party members, although the party denies the existence of these institutions. These resources do not seem to be used for petty criminals or minor issues, however.

A barricade in Chiyah tagged with the colors and logo of Harakat Amal. Credit: Kelly Stedem

In the end, Hizbullah’s security apparatus serves to reinforce duality in public perceptions of Dahiyeh and South Lebanon, and in the realities of life there. There is a clear failure of state reach into these areas, and yet a ubiquitous security presence. The party both acts as an enforcer of community policing yet shields (some) criminals from justice. And all this occurs under the shadow of the ever-looming threat of renewed conflict with Israel, further entrenching a sense of necessity of Hizbullah’s security presence, despite any local frustrations over the limitations of security being provided as a private, rather than a public, good.    

Kelly Stedem is a PhD candidate at Brandeis University and the Crown Center for Middle East Studies in Waltham, Massachusetts. You can follow her on Twitter @Kstedem.

Header image credit: Dahiyeh, November 2006. Credit: David Karvala (CC BY 2.0)

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