Beirut , Asharq Al-Awsat- At 3:55am yesterday morning, the thundering sound of Israeli jets wakes up the neighborhood of Raouche. Lights come on and three women go out to their balconies to see what is happening. Soon after, a massive explosion is heard, about 6km south of the area, in the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahiyeh, a southern suburb of Beirut. The women scramble back indoors.
Four more heavy blasts followed the menacing sound of fighter jets. In the meantime, from the city’s rooftops, one can see tracer fire and anti-aircraft fire shooting towards the sky.
Finally, at about 5:15am, as the sun rises and lights up the sky, calm seems to return. Birds begin to chirp in the trees. Mostaqbal TV crews are seen climbing into trucks, heading towards Dahiyeh. The calm, however, is short-lived, as Israel resumes its offensive in the morning.
Maurice, a general manager of a restaurant in East Beirut, said he did not sleep all night. “I stayed up smoking and drinking whilst monitoring the news. We can’t make sense of things at the moment. Hezbollah needs to disarm.”
Throughout the morning, it was reported that the Damascus/Beirut highway was closed and a sea blockade was in place in the northern city of Tripoli. Tyre, in the south, and the Rachidiyah Palestinian refugee camp, were also reported to be coming under fire.
By midday, supermarkets across the capital were busy with people stocking up on provisions.
Simon, the store manager of a supermarket chain, said, “There were already 40 people queuing in front of the shop before we opened.” People were stocking up on “milk, oil, water, sugar, coffee, meat and canned food, the usual stuff,” he added.
Zeina, standing outside the shop, was furious, “I don’t think it is right that a single party should be making decisions alone, putting national security at risk.”
“I am against Hezbollah but I am also against Israel’s reaction. There are millions of civilians in Lebanon and once again, our infrastructure is being targeted. It is as if it is in Israel’s interest to harm all the Lebanese. I’m furious!”
What measures was she taking during these turbulent times? “We’ve lived through a civil war. This is not my main concern for the time being. I just think that what is happening to the country is simply wrong.”
An older couple moving through the vegetable stand said the recent events were different to the civil war. “It’s not the same thing. People are more aware of the situation.”
Another female shopper, who requested anonymity, was more ambivalent. “Hopefully, this will be over quickly, but I have a bad feeling. We are moving backwards 10 years,” she added, in reference to the 1996 Israeli operation against Lebanon.
The atmosphere remains tense. A source in the US diplomatic corps said the next 72 hours would prove to be difficult.
Lebanon is slowly becoming isolated from the outside world, with rumors that phone lines will be hit next. Already, Beirut is suffering from electricity and water cuts.
For the past two days, the mood in the streets has changed. Uncertainty and pessimism seem to be the name of the game.
In the lobby of the luxurious 5 star Intercontinental Hotel Phoenicia, visitors sat with their bags packed, ready to leave.
A group of women from the Persian Gulf said they were not sure what would happen but events overnight had led them to cut their vacation short by a week. “We have packed our bags, but we don’t know how we are going to leave the country. There is [the possibility of traveling to] Syria of course, but we have to wait and see.”
With the airport shut after all three runaways were bombed, and a sea blockade in place, the only way out of Lebanon is through Syria.
Along the border, hundreds of cars were stuck in a traffic jam, as thousands of people tried to flee. The wait for a Syrian visa reached 6 hours. Taxi fares went through the roof; Syrian taxis waiting to drive people to Damascus were charging up to 250 dollars, for a journey that normally costs no more than 20 dollars.
In the usually bustling neighborhood of Hamra, in West Beirut, half the shops are closed and traffic was, unusual for a busy street, moving smoothly.
Zakaria, who works nearby in a flower shop on Jeanne D’Arc street, said, “I am used to the Israeli reaction. I’m not sure about tonight but I expect something to happen.” Despite the bombing, he vowed to stay put. “I was here during the Israeli invasion in 1982. I didn’t leave then and I won’t leave now.”
Driving across the Lebanese capital, there are less cars than normal and the mood is subdued. Everyone seems to be reflecting on the recent escalation of violence.
“I am not with Hezbollah, but they kidnap two soldiers and many Lebanese suffer the consequences,” said Elias, a 22-year-old Lebanese citizen.
No one appeared to know what will happen next or what action the government was going to take. The general feeling was one of sitting tight and waiting.
In the meantime, cars were queuing at gas stations. In Tabariz, close to downtown Beirut, Shukri, who manages a Medco station, said he had served three times as many customers as normal. “We are really busy; we serviced about 1000 cars in 11 hours. At this rate, we’ll have enough fuel to last us another three days before we run out.”
How does he plan to replenish his tanks now that the port was shut? “This crisis won’t last longer than a week. We’ll be getting gas soon.”
Time will tell whether his optimism was misplaced.