Hasan Darwish & Krikor Yeretzian | The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk Sunday banned all demonstrations in Lebanon in response to a call by Syrian activists for a protest against the alleged mistreatment of Syrian refugees after four died in Lebanese Army custody. “We hope to accelerate the investigation into the death of the four Syrian refugees,” Machnouk said in a tweet. “For that reason, and after discussing [the matter] with the concerned security forces, we decided to decline any requests to hold a protest from anyone, in order to preserve security and civic peace.”
In recent days a Facebook page under the name Union of Syrian People in Lebanon called for a demonstration to be held in Downtown Beirut on July 18 at 7 p.m. to “defend the rights of Syrians in Lebanon.”
The call for a demonstration comes in the wake of a Lebanese Army raid in two Syrian refugee settlements near the northeastern border town of Arsal on June 30 in an effort to crackdown on militants entrenched in the area.
The operation saw 355 Syrian nationals detained after the Army was targeted by five suicide bombers, an explosive device and a grenade attack.
Four of the detained subsequently died while in Army custody.
The Army released a statement saying the men passed away due to pre-existing health conditions, but humanitarian organizations have demanded additional investigations into the deaths of the refugees.
Outcry in response to the deaths and detentions has prompted statements of support for the Army from politicians and on social media.
Those expressions of support were heightened by reports of the planned demonstration.
Machnouk addressed those posting messages of solidarity with the Army Sunday evening in a tweet saying, “People on Twitter should not tire themselves out [because] the Army, which follows the decisions made by the Cabinet, is a national institution for all Lebanese people, responsible for protecting Lebanon and all those living on its lands.”
Free Patriotic Movement MP Amal Abou Zeid also took to Twitter to denounce the protest ahead of Machnouk’s announcement. “This demonstration is suspicious, and its slogans are condemned,” Abou Zeid said, accusing any Lebanese participants of treason.
The MP called on the authorities to ban the rally – planned to be held in Beirut’s Samir Kassir Square – saying, “The Lebanese have never protested against the presence of Syrian refugees on their land. What right do they have and what nerves have they got to protest against us and against our Army?”
Relatives of deceased Army servicemen Saturday requested to protest at the same time and place in support of the Army.
Former minister Wiam Wahhab Saturday called on all Lebanese via Twitter to take part in a pro-Lebanese Army demonstration in Beirut and also urged the Interior Ministry to prevent the Syrian demonstration “as many Lebanese will take part in the counterprotest, resulting in a row.”
He added that “everyone should be aware of the [effect] of underestimating allowing people to protest,” and that the Civil “War in Lebanon raged between proponents and opponents of [Palestinian refugee] camps.”
Progressive Socialist Party head MP Walid Jumblatt said condemnation of the Army was “Not a peaceful stance.
“We are in a sensitive situation concerning terrorism, and the security forces, particularly the Army, have succeeded in this sense, and sometimes mistakes are made, as happened in the last operation in Arsal,” Jumblatt added.
Over the weekend, many other Lebanese politicians stressed their support for the Army and continued to push for the repatriation of Syrian refugees. “We are living [through] the challenge of the problem of Syrian displacement,” Lebanese Forces MP George Adwan said Saturday in a statement from the LF media office.
“We have to be united, as Lebanese [people], on one issue, which is how our Syrian brothers should return to their country,” Adwan said, adding that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are competing with Lebanese nationals for employment.
There are 1 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations refugee agency in Lebanon. However, the government places the total number closer to 1.5 million.
Refugees in Lebanon are required to sign a pledge not to work, but are often exploited by employers and accept underpaid work. “The Lebanese are emigrating ... and unfortunately our Syrian brothers are taking more job opportunities away from the Lebanese,” Adwan said.
The deputy head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council Sheikh Nabil Kaouk said Sunday that “the refugee crisis is choking Lebanon,” the state-run National News Agency reported. “However, there are [political] parties that commit to the Saudi Arabian veto against contacting [the government in] Syria,” Qawouk continued, stressing that the return of Syrian refugees to their home country should be “swift and voluntary.” Hezbollah, whose military wing has been fighting alongside Syrian regime troops, is in favor of coordinating with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad to orchestrate the return of refugees. Prime Minister Saad Hariri has postponed discussion of the matter in Cabinet.
Most Lebanese people want refugees to return to Syria, Kaouk added, also warning of the extremist threat on the northeast Lebanon border with Syria.
Jumblatt also commented on the refugee crisis, saying it must be addressed. “We must encourage international countries to continue their support. If we wanted to create organized camps, we have failed, because of internal sensitivities,” the PSP leader said. “There should be organized camps [while] waiting on [a] political solution in Syria for the refugees to return to their homes.”