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Pascal Sleiman killing: A history of Hezbollah-Lebanese Forces tensions

The recent murder of an LF official, along with Hezbollah's continued clashes with Israel, have put Lebanon on edge
Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters gather to attend a ceremony to honour fighters killed in the recent escalation with Israel, 3 November (Reuters/Alaa Al-Marjani)
Hezbollah supporters attend a ceremony to honour fighters killed in the recent escalation with Israel, 3 November 2023 (Reuters/Alaa Al-Marjani)
By Nader Durgham in Beirut

"Political until further notice." That is how the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian political party, has described the killing of one of its officials, Pascal Sleiman.

It's a notable departure from the official line offered by the Lebanese military, which said Sleiman was killed by gang members in a carjacking incident near Jbeil on Sunday, before they took his body to Syria.

The Lebanese Forces (LF), along with its supporters and other citizens, have rejected these findings. Instead, scrutiny has been placed on two groups to which the party is traditionally hostile: Syrian refugees and Hezbollah.

At a time when Hezbollah, a powerful Shia armed movement and political force, is clashing with Israel daily along the southern border, in response to Israel's war on Gaza, tensions with the LF come at a particularly worrying moment for Lebanon.

Hezbollah has previously been accused of carrying out political assassinations, a claim the party denies. Notably, the LF accused Hezbollah of killing one of its officials, Elias Hasrouni, in south Lebanon in August.

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Today, some members of the Lebanese Forces accuse the party of killing Sleiman too, or claiming Hezbollah at least played a role by allowing for the circumstances of his death.

In a speech made on Monday, prior to the confirmation of Sleiman’s death, Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah said Sleiman's abduction “has nothing to do with politics or Hezbollah”, condemning the accusations.

Charles Jabbour, an LF official, said even if Hezbollah did not kill Sleiman, he would still hold it accountable for his murder. Jabbour insists the party holds sway over border areas with Syria and is responsible for the Lebanese state’s lack of control over violence.

“Tensions between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces have persisted over the years,” Imad Salamey, associate professor at the Lebanese American University, told Middle East Eye. 

The mystery of Sleiman's killing is just the latest chapter. 

From war to politics

Both Hezbollah and the LF began as militias during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

The LF emerged as part of a wider Christian right-wing front fighting Palestinian, Muslim and secular left-wing forces. The militia then allied with Israel when the latter invaded and occupied parts of Lebanon in 1982.

Hezbollah was formed in the early 1980s by Lebanese Shia clerics who, with the help of Iran, created a militia that battled Israeli forces in Lebanon, eventually forcing Israel from the south in 2000.

While today Hezbollah and the LF are fiercely opposed political forces, in the 1980s Lebanon was kaleidoscopic, divided into multiple cantons by several competing militias.

As a result, the two rarely came to blows and fought quite separate battles, though there was a spat over the disappearance of four Iranian diplomats believed to have been taken at an LF-manned checkpoint in 1982.

Things changed after the war. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, who opposed Syria's occupation of Lebanon, was imprisoned. He was the only militia leader to face trial after the war.

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Meanwhile, Hezbollah presented itself as one of Damascus's main allies.

The withdrawal of Syrian forces in 2005, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, brought new political dynamics to Lebanon, and Geagea was released from prison.

The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which previously worked with the LF and others against Syria’s occupation, signed a memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah in 2006, giving the armed group a powerful Christian ally.

Hezbollah often made “efforts to bolster Christian factions opposed to the Lebanese Forces”, Salamey said.

Since the FPM allied with Hezbollah, it has been one of the LF's chief rivals, and a divide in Lebanon's Christian community persists to this day.

The outbreak of war in Syria in 2011, and Hezbollah's backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with fighters, only worsened tensions between the parties.

Lebanon’s crisis

Then came Lebanon's catastrophic economic crisis, which began in 2019. 

The LF, which enjoys close ties to western countries, and its allies accused Hezbollah and the FPM, whose founder Michel Aoun was president at the time, of being responsible for the economic collapse.

Nasrallah, meanwhile, accused the West and western-leaning Lebanese of exacerbating the economic conditions.

The LF also grew closer to Saudi Arabia, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.

Political polarisation reached a peak following the August 2020 Beirut port explosion. The blast killed more than 200 people and destroyed large areas of the capital, including Christian-majority areas where the LF holds sway.

When the prosecutor in charge of the blast probe, Tarek Bitar, summoned several former Lebanese ministers for questioning, including some of Hezbollah’s allies, the group led a large campaign against him. The LF positioned itself on the side of Bitar.

Partisans of the Christian Lebanese Forces burn rubble on the side of a road to protest the killing of Pascal Sleiman in the Jbeil area, on 8 April (AFP/Joseph Eid)
The Lebanese Forces burns rubble on the side of a road to protest against the killing of Pascal Sleiman in the Jbeil area, on 8 April 2024 (AFP/Joseph Eid)

The situation imploded when a group of supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, another Shia group, took to the streets in Beirut’s Tayouneh neighbourhood to call for Bitar’s removal in October 2021. The supporters were attacked by armed gunmen, with clashes killing seven people, including a woman sitting on her balcony nearby.

Hezbollah accused the Lebanese Forces of being behind the attack, which the Christian party denies.

Nasrallah lashed out at the LF following the attack, while Geagea said Hezbollah’s insistence on removing Bitar made him believe it “might be concerned with the port explosion".

In Lebanon's 2022 elections, the Lebanese Forces overtook the FPM as the largest Christian party in parliament.

Gaza war tensions

The eruption of the Gaza war six months ago, and Hezbollah’s involvement through daily border clashes with Israel, led to belief among the LF that the Iran-backed group wishes to drag Lebanon into a wider conflict.

Hezbollah says its clashes against Israel serve as a deterrent, rather than a provocation, but this did not stop the LF’s criticism.

LF officials in Christian towns in southern Lebanon have also been vocal, believing Hezbollah’s campaign, which affects their regions, constitutes “an unjustified war that has no horizon”.

Salamey says this context played a role in LF supporters quickly accusing Hezbollah following Sleiman’s murder.

'These tensions could potentially undermine Hezbollah's military campaign on the southern borders against Israel'

- Imad Salamey, Lebanese American University

“The suspicion over Hezbollah's involvement in the assassination likely stems from the fact that the party is the only group in Lebanon capable of executing sophisticated military operations with relative impunity, both within Lebanon and across the Syrian borders,” he said.

“This suspicion is amplified by the Lebanese Forces' intensified criticism of Hezbollah's military actions against Israel, particularly in support of Gaza.”

Even the FPM has seemed to distance itself from Hezbollah, with its leader, Gebran Bassil, expressing his opposition to Hezbollah’s clashes with Israel.

Salamey says there may be a “growing divide” between Christian and Shia communities in the country, which may explain Nasrallah’s intensified rhetoric against Geagea, his party and his allies.

“Nasrallah's aggressive approach against the LF and the Kataeb [another right-wing Christian party] in his latest speech may stem from Hezbollah's fear of growing domestic criticism and rifts with Christian groups in Lebanon,” he said.

“These tensions could potentially undermine Hezbollah's military campaign on the southern borders against Israel," he added.

"Nasrallah likely sees the need to assert Hezbollah's dominance and quell any internal dissent to maintain stability and control over its military operations.”

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