HomePoliticsNewsClashes in Kahaleh leave two dead

Clashes in Kahaleh leave two dead

Clashes ensued after a truck belonging to Hezbollah carrying ammunition overturned in the village of Kahaleh, leaving two dead and raising concerns over further escalation in the country.

Lebanese army soldiers and onlookers gather in the town of Kahaleh, where two people were killed in clashes between members of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and residents of the Christian town on August 9, 2023. The deadly violence broke out after a truck overturned on a road cutting through the town of Kahaleh, which residents claim was carrying weapons for the powerful Shiite movement. Photo: AFP

Two people were killed in clashes between Hezbollah and residents of the village Kahaleh, located in the Aley region, after a truck belonging to the Shiite party overturned in the Christian-majority village.

The clashes once again highlighted criticisms of Hezbollah and its activities, causing concern that this could be the beginning of a wider sectarian conflict.

What happened: A truck driving from the Bekaa to Beirut overturned at a turn on the road while passing through the village of Kahaleh. While the traffic incident did not initially seem to be anything out of the ordinary as Lebanon and its roads are prone to accidents, the response was anything but ordinary.

Armed men quickly established a perimeter around the vehicle and looked to prevent anyone from approaching it, as others attempted to offload the truck’s contents, giving onlookers a brief glimpse at what, at the time, appeared to be weapons. Given where the truck was coming from and the organization of the people accompanying it, it was easy to deduce that the vehicle belonged to Hezbollah.

The fact that Hezbollah was transporting such cargo through their village angered the residents of Kahala, and they did not want them to just pick up and leave. Then the shooting started.

Armed residents in the village and Hezbollah members fought in the streets up the village, resulting in the deaths of one of the Hezbollah men, Ahmad Qassass, and a Kahaleh resident, Fadi Bejjani.

Residents of the village claimed that Hezbollah had prevented the Lebanese army from entering the area until they had left.

Once the Hezbollah men departed, the army was quick to block off the area and prevented anyone from approaching the truck that was still laying in the road.

The aftermath: Soon after the clashes came to an end, and the army took control of the situation, Hezbollah issued a statement about the incident.

In the statement, they confirmed much of what had previously been reported. Hezbollah confirmed that the truck was theirs, but did not comment on its contents, and also confirmed that one of their fighters had been killed.

However, Hezbollah also looked to avoid responsibility for the fighting and said that its people had come under attack by “armed men from militias located in the area” and that Hezbollah did not start shooting back until after they had come under fire themselves.

This account was quickly disputed by residents of the village who said that “You are the militia, not us.” They also insisted that Hezbollah had been the one to start the fighting. Video footage of the clashes does not show evidence of who shot first.

The army was finally able to get the truck back up on its wheels and attempted to remove it from Kahaleh, but were stopped by angry residents who did not want the military to simply walk away with Hezbollah’s cargo, especially after one of their people had been killed because of it.

Eventually, the army was able to depart the village and confirmed that the truck was filled with ammunition.

The incident was widely condemned throughout Lebanon, with Caesar Abi Khalil, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement which is currently in talks with Hezbollah, stating that Hezbollah’s statement “contradicts the truth” and that there should be a discussion about turning over the perpetrators.

Nadim Gemayel, a member of the Kataeb Party which has a presence in Kahaleh, criticized the army the following day for its response and lack of clarity in its statement.

The statement in question did not name Hezbollah as being involved in the incident and did not assign any blame as to which side started the fighting. While acknowledging the truck’s contents, it did not say if the army was taking possession of the ammunition or if it was turned back over to Hezbollah.

Qassass was buried on August 10 while Bejjani is set to be buried the following day. During the funeral for Qassass, the car of caretaker Defense Minister Maurice Slim was struck by bullets. While initially reported as an assassination attempt, it is believed that the car was only struck by stray bullets.

Fears of escalation: Given that the fighting was between Shiite and Christian forces, it quickly sparked fear that fighting could expand to other areas, in particular, the neighboring Shiite-majority Chiyeh and Christian-majority Ain el-Remmaneh in Beirut’s southern suburbs, which have long been viewed as a powderkeg that could lead to civil strife.

Given the potential for conflict, the army sent a significant number of troops to the roads bordering the two neighborhoods. No fighting occurred and the situation remained calm.

What next: On August 10, the day after the clashes, it was reported that Fadi Akiki from the military court had begun investigating the clashes in Kahaleh. So far, the investigation has found that the truck’s fall was accidental and is using video footage to find out what happened exactly. Who started the shooting remains unclear.

It also remains unlikely that Hezbollah will turn over any of its people if the investigation finds them responsible for the clashes. The incident is also unlikely to deter them from moving and transporting weapons and ammunition around the country.

Nicholas Frakes is a senior reporter with @NOW_leb. He tweets  @nicfrakesjourno.