TYRE, Lebanon (AFP) – Hezbollah’s recent threat of open war on Israel and Lebanon’s seemingly endless political crisis have many jittery Lebanese getting their passports ready to flee the country or renting apartments in “safe” regions.
Officials in southern Lebanon, which bore the brunt of the 2006 war between the Shiite militant group and the Jewish state, say they have been overwhelmed by the number of people seeking to get their documents in order since February 14, when Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah issued his threat against Israel.
Residents of Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut, which was also heavily bombed during the 34-day war, are also bracing for the worst.
“I renewed my passport and those of the three children because I’m scared something is going to happen,” said Lina Melhem, 35, as she stood outside Beirut’s General Security headquarters, which handles official documents.
“We suffered a lot during the 2006 war and I am not willing to go through this again,” said Melhem, whose family lives in the southern suburb of Dahiyeh. “If war breaks out, I will immediately leave to join my husband who works in Qatar.”
Nasrallah’s threat came following the assassination of one of the militant group’s top commanders, Imad Mughnieh. Hezbollah blamed Israel, which denied any involvement.
That warning added fuel to an already tense situation in Lebanon, which is mired in its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
A standoff between the Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition has left the country without a president since November, when pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term.
Tension also mounted last month when the United States dispatched one of its warships to the region in what was seen as a warning to Syria and Iran — two key players in the Lebanese crisis.
Although politicians are downplaying fears of a renewed war, the As-Safir newspaper, which is close to the opposition, summed up the general feeling in a commentary Tuesday.
“The Lebanese are worried about the situation and are acting as if war was imminent as they set up emergency plans: getting their passports ready, seeking visas, renting apartments far from what they believe will be the battle front and changing their whole way of life,” the newspaper said.
Mohammed, 43, is a resident of the southern village of El Qlayle, which was heavily bombed during the 2006 war. He told AFP he was looking to rent an apartment in Aley, west of Beirut, for the coming months out of fear the crisis will escalate into a full-blown war.
Several residents in the eastern Bekaa region, which has a strong Hezbollah presence, said they were looking for housing in Christian villages in the area, where they believe they would be safer in the event of Israeli air strikes.
“I rented a house in a Christian village near Baalbeck for me and my five children in case we have a new war,” Abu Ali Balluk, 70, told AFP.
Baalbeck resident Mona, 40, has three children and a husband who works in Saudi Arabia. She is stocking up on food.
“I live alone with the kids and far from the main market,” she said, as she held 10 bags of pita bread outside a bakery. “I am putting food in the freezer and stocking up just in case war erupts.”
An official at the passport office in Baalbeck said he has seen a 30 percent surge in the number of passports issued in recent weeks. In Tyre, a security official told AFP his office was receiving up to 400 requests a day for passport renewals, compared to 75 previously.
“Demand has peaked since Nasrallah’s speech on February 14 threatening Israel with a new war,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
Mohammed Issa, a mechanic who lives with his five children and his parents and sisters near a Hezbollah position in the Bekaa said he has readied passports for the entire family and visas to Turkey.
“We’ll head there via Syria,” he said.
Mohammed Jaafar, 54, says he is taking no chances.
“My nerves are shattered, especially when I think of what we went through in 2006,” he said, standing outside the passport office in Tyre. “Tomorrow, me and my family are boarding a plane to Abidjan (Ivory Coast) and it won’t be for tourism.
“I’ll be starting fresh there, working with my son.”