A Cell Phone Civil War in Lebanon

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Mahmoud Zayat / AFP / Getty

Lebanese supporters of the government loyalist Future Movement set up a roadblock of burning tires on the road from Beirut to Saida.

The rattle of gunfire and crump of exploding rockets that shook the near-deserted streets of Beirut Wednesday seemed to signal the arrival of the long-feared showdown between the Western-backed government and its opponents led by Hizballah. Thick plumes of black smoke from barricades of burning tires cast a deep pall over the capital, as many Lebanese gloomily pondered whether the country's feuding leaders can pull back from the brink. "Both sides have dug in their heels," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a political analyst and expert on Hizballah. "I think there's going to be a battle for the state now." Perhaps, but the unlikely catalyst behind the latest flare-up was a government attempt to regulate Lebanon's telephone system.

The country has been politically paralyzed for 16 months, unable to elect a new President because of a deadlock between government and opposition forces in which neither side has the strength to prevail over the other. Then came the telephone crisis: Last weekend, Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze minority and an archenemy of Hizballah, accused the militant Shi'ite party of maintaining its own private telephone network, and of using security cameras to monitor Beirut airport with the possible aim of staging attacks or kidnappings. On Tuesday, the government followed up with an edict declaring Hizballah's telephone network "illegal and unconstitutional." It also launched an investigation into the alleged monitoring of the airport, and dismissed airport security chief General Wafiq Shuqeir, on suspicion of opposition sympathies.

Hizballah was having none of it, angrily declaring that the telephone network is part of its military wing — which it justifies as necessary to defend Lebanon against Israel — and warning anyone seeking to dismantle it would be treated as an "Israeli spy." Within days, the two sides were shooting at one another.

Although Hizballah is known for its massive Iran-funded social welfare system that provides everything from soup to education, construction materials and matchmaking services for Lebanon's Shi'ite underclass, cell-phone service is not part of the package — except for those who join its guerrilla army. One of the world's most technically advanced and resourceful guerrilla organizations, Hizballah had some time ago installed its own, in-house dedicated fiber-optic telephone network, connecting its headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut to its offices, military posts and cadres as far south as the Israeli border. During the summer 2006 war, Israel had jammed cellphone signals throughout south Lebanon and monitored the Lebanese telephone system, but Hizballah's internal communications channels had survived thanks to its private fiber-optic system. Since the war, however, Hizballah has expanded the network to cover its new military frontline north of the United Nations–patrolled southern border district, and into the Bekaa Valley to the east. Part of the system incorporates a WiMAX network allowing long-distance wireless access for the Internet and cell phones.

More recently, Hizballah has dug trenches for fiber-optic cables in the mainly Christian and Druze Mount Lebanon district and in north Lebanon, according to Marwan Hamade, the Lebanese minister of telecommunications. "It was confined to one or two small areas before and we overlooked it as part of their internal communications. But now it's spread all over Lebanon," Hamade told TIME.

Wednesday's violence overshadowed what was originally supposed to be a general strike called by Lebanon's leading trade union to demand wage increases and to protest rising prices. But it quickly developed into a confrontation between supporters of the government and of the opposition. Hundreds of green-bereted Lebanese troops fanned out in Beirut as demonstrators blocked main roads with burning tires and earth dumped by trucks. The airport road was severed and the airport was closed most of the day.

Soldiers dressed in riot gear struggled to separate rival groups of stone-throwing youths. In the afternoon, gunshots and explosions echoed over the capital. Pro-government Sunni gunmen wearing ski masks set up checkpoints in their neighborhoods, demanding to see identity cards from passers-by. An office belonging to the pro-government Future Movement was destroyed by opposition gunmen firing rocket-propelled grenades. The occupants escaped as the gunmen looted weapons and ammunition from inside the office.

By evening, the fighting had died down, but both sides have vowed not to yield. Hizballah supporters were seen carrying tents to the airport road to continue the blockade of the airport until the government rescinds its moves against the telephone network and reinstates General Shuqeir.

A Shi'ite source close to Hizballah said that armed fighters had deployed to the city center where opposition supporters have been encamped for 18 months in an anti-government sit-in. The fighters are on standby in case the camp comes under attack, the source said.

Although neither side seeks a civil war, their game of brinkmanship is growing increasingly dangerous. "The problem is that things might get out of hand," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. "If it gets much worse then the whole truce situation which has kept the peace these last few months might end."

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah's leader, is scheduled to give a rare press conference Thursday at which he is expected to outline his party's future course of action. But the fact that the reclusive Hizballah leader is speaking to the press at all underlines the seriousness of the situation: The last time he appeared before the media was on July 12, 2006 — the day war broke out with Israel.