Hizbullah Arresting Foreign Nationals In Beirut, Tightening Its Control In The Area

In late February 2024, three unusual incidents occurred in the Dahiya, the Hizbullah stronghold in southern Beirut, in which the organization detained and interrogated foreign nationals who had entered that area. All the people detained were foreigners who were in the country with the official approval and consent of the Lebanese state authorities. On February 28, Hizbullah apprehended a group of Dutch nationals that later turned out to be a security team sent to Lebanon to prepare for the possible evacuation of Dutch diplomats and nationals from the country in the event of an escalation in the war between Hizbullah and Israel. One day later Hizbullah stopped a UNIFIL vehicle that was passing through the Dahiya and detained its passengers. In the third incident, which occurred several days prior to the other two, Hizbullah arrested a Spanish diplomat who entered the Dahiya and was allegedly taking pictures there.

These incidents demonstrate that some areas of Lebanon, including in the capital Beirut, are outside the state’s authority and are controlled exclusively by Hizbullah. They are also evidence of Hizbullah’s considerable anxiety and concern about possible espionage activity against it that could lead to Israeli attacks on the Dahiya, like the one on January 2, 2024 in which the deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau, Saleh Al-Arouri, was eliminated.

It should be mentioned that, although the recent incident was the first time UNIFIL troops have been detained in Beirut, in South Lebanon such incidents are not rare, and some of them have resulted in casualties among the UNIFIL forces. In 2022, there were several incidents in which “locals” stopped UNIFIL patrol vehicles, including one in December in which Irish UNIFIL soldier Sean Rooney was shot dead. The incidents continued in 2023, and one of them resulted in the wounding of a UNIFIL soldier.[1]

This report reviews the three incidents that took place in Beirut in late February 2024 and some of the responses to them in Lebanon.

Hizbullah Detains Foreign Nationals In The Dahiya

As stated, on February 28, 2024 Hizbullah detained several Dutch nationals who had entered the Dahiya, specifically the Bi’r Al-Abed area in the heart of this district. According to reports in the Lebanese press, the group, which comprised 3-6 people, aroused the suspicion of locals and of Hizbullah operatives because its members were carrying many electronic devices and were openly armed. They were interrogated by Hizbullah’s “security committee” in the area, and on the following day they were handed over to the Lebanese Military Intelligence, which also questioned them for several hours before releasing them on orders of a judge. According to some reports, they were employees of the Dutch embassy who had come to Lebanon to plan the evacuation of Dutch diplomats and other nationals in the event of an escalation of the war between Israel and Hizbullah. Like the security teams of other foreign representations, they were in the country with the approval of the Lebanese foreign ministry. The website of the Kataeb (Phalanges) party, which opposes Hizbullah, reported on an incident that occurred one week before the arrest of the Dutch team, in which Hizbullah apprehended another group of people and released them after discovering that they had diplomatic immunity. The website did not specify the identity of that group.[2]

In response to the incident with the Dutch nationals, the spokesperson of the Dutch Ministry of Defense stated that “Hizbullah representatives detained three members of a Dutch defense team that provides support and protection to the embassy in Beirut. [They were detained] during a reconnaissance mission in the Dahiya that included examining routes, apparently in preparation for a possible evacuation in case of an escalation [in the war].” The spokesperson added that the Dutch nationals, to whom she referred as “soldiers,” had been turned over to the Lebanese armed forces and later released and returned to the embassy, and that they had arrived in the country after the outbreak of the war between Hamas and Israel in October 2023.[3]

On the following day, Hizbullah arrested several soldiers of UNIFIL’s Malaysian Battalion who were driving through the Dahiya’s Al-Sellom area. The Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily reported, citing a Lebanese security source, that the soldiers had been on their way from South Lebanon to Beirut and had entered the Dahiya by accident, following the directions of their navigation device.[4] The gear the soldiers were carrying, including cameras, was seized and they were taken for interrogation by Hizbullah’s security committee.[5]

UNIFIL issued a harshly-worded response to the incident, but refrained from explicitly blaming Hizbullah. Its deputy spokesperson said that the force was “on a routine logistical trip to Beirut” when it was intercepted by “local individuals,” and stressed that “freedom of movement is vital to implementing [UN] Resolution 1701.”[6]

The pro-Hizbullah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported on March 2 that, several days earlier, Hizbullah’s “security apparatus” had apprehended a Spanish national who was touring the Al-Kafa’at area in the Dahiya and taking pictures on his mobile phone. The man was released after the Spanish embassy intervened.[7] As of this writing, Spain has not issued an official response to the incident.

Pro-Hizbullah Dailies: The Individuals Arrested Were Members Of Security Apparatuses Affiliated With Israel

While Hizbullah itself did not officially refer to the three incidents, media outlets close to it claimed that the persons arrested had not been engaged in innocent activity but in espionage against Hizbullah on behalf of Israel and its allies. The Al-Akhbar daily called the incidents “a series of security violations by foreigners” and questioned the explanations provided for the detainees’ actions. The daily wrote: “The security war between the resistance in Lebanon and the Israeli enemy is escalating. Since the outbreak of the war following [Operation] Al-Aqsa Flood [i.e., Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel]… foreign security activity in Lebanon has escalated, along with the diplomatic pressure exerted by the West, which is allied with the enemy… It has recently come to light that the infiltration of Lebanon by Arab, Western and international intelligence apparatuses that are aiding the enemy has increased. These apparatuses employ their foreign nationals as agents, as well as Lebanese collaborators and non-Lebanese people who live here, and they gather information, including names and pictures, in order to help Israel compile its bank of targets.”

Discussing the arrest of the Spanish national, the daily questioned the account he gave in his interrogation, namely that he entered the area by accident and took a picture of the street so that his colleagues at the embassy would be able to send a car to fetch him. The daily claimed that, when his gear was investigated, “his phone was found to be equipped with software that prevents accessing the information inside it.” It added that, “as usual, the minute the incident became known in certain narrow circles, high-level contacts and intervention began in order to release him, especially intervention by the [Spanish] embassy in Beirut…”

About the incident involving the UNIFIL troops, the daily said that such incidents happen from time to time “due to mistakes or to deliberate action by certain UNIFIL units.” Al-Akhbar claimed that it was “locals” who intercepted the UNIFIL vehicle and seized the gear and cameras inside it, and added: “The ‘mistake’ [of the UNIFIL troops] occurred in a place that is very sensitive for the resistance, and during a war with the enemy. This led the relevant elements to question the nature of their trip: Did they really lose their way, or are there elements that are pushing to create security problems in Beirut? This [question] is especially [pertinent] given that UNIFIL’s missions are usually [carried out] in the areas south of the Litani river. In contrast, UNIFIL operatives patrolling in Beirut is a strange occurrence.” The report went on to note that the incident occurred against the backdrop of demands made by various elements, especially the U.S. and Israel, to expand UNIFIL’s mandate and give it greater freedom of action. Consequently, the incident “gave rise to many questions, [for instance] whether UNIFIL is allowed to move outside South Lebanon without an escort of the Lebanese armed forces.” The daily admitted that, according to sources, the UNIFIL soldiers apprehended in Al-Sellom had not been engaged in military activity, and UNIFIL is permitted to move throughout Lebanon as part of escorting visitors and carrying out logistical missions.[8]

Another Al-Akhbar report from the same day, about the detainment of the Dutch nationals, noted that since the start of the war special forces of several Western countries, including Britain and Canada, equipped with advanced weapons and gear, have arrived in Lebanon in order to evacuate the foreign nationals and diplomats if the war with Israel escalates. The daily stated further that the arrest of the Dutch nationals was “part of a plan… that Hizbullah’s security apparatus has begun to implement in most of the areas where the organization’s headquarters are located, in light of the enemy’s attempts to infiltrate them…”[9]

On March 6, the daily published a report that sheds light on Hizbullah’s current anxiety.

The report stated that “no official security or political element in Lebanon can say exactly how many military and security operatives are active in Lebanon on behalf of Arab and foreign embassies.” It added that, contrary to the official understandings between the embassies and the Lebanese state, the security teams that have arrived at the embassies since the outbreak of the war are not engaged only in training and shooting practice, but are also gathering information and intelligence. Furthermore, “they have lately made some ‘mistakes,’ especially in the Dahiya.” The daily went on to say that, “regardless of whether the incidents were mistakes or deliberate actions,” Hizbullah is suspicious of activity [by outsiders] in areas where its bases or operatives are located. Furthermore, various aspects of the Dutch nationals’ behavior had been suspicious: they claimed to be headed for a coffee shop that cannot be found on Google; one of them was carrying a gun with a silencer; an investigation revealed that there were no Dutch nationals living In the area, and their documents identified them as Dutch soldiers but did not specify their ranks, as is customary. The behavior of the Spanish national was likewise suspect, the daily claimed. His phone was equipped with special apps enabling to find many sites, and he recorded the names of shops in the areas he photographed. The report noted that he left Lebanon on February 23, and concluded: “The fact that the Dutch [team] was using a rented vehicle, the apps found on the phone of the Spanish diplomat, and other actions of some of the detainees [all] contribute to the concern felt by the security apparatuses of the resistance, [which suspect] that the enemy is trying to use these actions to learn about the situation on the ground and check how ready [Hizbullah] will be if it [the enemy] carries out a security operation by means of people who have come from abroad, as it has done in the past.”[10]

The Hizbullah-affiliated website Al-Ahed likewise addressed the organization’s concerns and implied that they are justified. It quoted “knowledgeable security sources” as saying that the Lebanese security forces and Hizbullah operatives are lately taking “scrupulous and unusual security measures” in the vicinity of the organization’s headquarters and positions in the Dahiya because they “fear an aggressive action by Israel.” The sources claimed that several “infiltrations” that occurred recently, especially after the Dutch nationals and the UNIFIL force passed through the Dahiya, prompted Hizbullah to reinforce security around its positions.[11]

Lebanese Journalists: Hizbullah Is Doing As It Pleases In Lebanon, With The Consent Of The State

Following these events, some articles in the Lebanese press criticized both Hizbullah’s conduct and the failure of the state to respond to the incidents. Journalist Imad Moussa, a columnist for the Nidaa Al-Watan daily, addressed the issue in a piece titled “Is The Al-Sellom Neighborhood Part of Lebanon?” He stated that the UNIFIL incident reveals that there are areas in Lebanon where the state laws do not apply and where the only people who have freedom of action are Hizbullah operatives, and that the state allows this situation. He wrote: “Not a single security element in Lebanon, nor the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry or the Prime Minister’s Office, issued the slightest statement of condemnation when the UNIFIL vehicle was targeted at a Hizbullah checkpoint… and when the dark-skinned soldiers of the Malaysian Battalion were led to the offices of Hizbullah’s security committee, their gear, cameras and weapons were seized and they were interrogated on suspicion of taking photographs…”

Responding to remarks by the UNIFIL deputy spokesperson, that UNIFIL forces “have the freedom and authorization from the government of Lebanon to move throughout Lebanon for administrative and logistical reasons,” Moussa commented: “It seems that she is mixed up and is confusing Lebanon with some other country. The Al-Sellom neighborhood, as well as Bir Al-Abed, Al-Ghobeiry, South [Lebanon] and the town of Lassa are part of a state that exists within the larger state of Lebanon.” If such an incident took place in any other part of Lebanon, he added, the Higher Defense Council would have quickly convened, the gunmen would have been arrested by the state apparatuses and 12 official statements would have been issued within 12 hours. “Lebanon [generally] prevents such incidents, and is ready to hit the attackers with an iron fist,” he wrote. However, “the leaders of the two states [i.e., Lebanon and the Hizbullah state within it] have neighborly relations, so the detainees were quickly handed over to the [state’s] intelligence [services], and the [Hizbullah operatives] who captured the Malaysians were congratulated by their commanders for keeping their eyes open and defending their country. Nationals of the Netherlands, Britain, France, Germany and [even] Lebanon cannot move freely in the Al-Sellom neighborhood or in the Dahiya, even if they are diplomats or security personnel who have been licensed to carry arms by the relevant authorities.” He concluded by stating that, when the Lebanese leaders say they are committed to implementing UN Resolution 1701, they mean that it will be implemented in some other Lebanon, not the one that appears on maps and in atlases.”[12]

One article also argued that the UNIFIL incident wasn’t incidental but had to do with talks that are currently taking place on expanding UNIFIL’s mandate as part of an arrangement between Israel and Hizbullah. Lara Yazbek, of the Lebanese Al-Markazia news agency, stated that it was Hizbullah that had arrested the UNIFIL soldiers, not “locals.” She wrote: “This time the UNIFIL members were lucky and did not pay with their lives for accidentally entering the territories of [Hizbullah’s] ‘statelet’… Although Hizbullah always denies any involvement in these incidents, what happened in the Dahiya a few hours ago clearly bears its fingerprints. The killing of Sean Rooney of [UNIFIL’s] Irish Battalion in December 2022… is clear proof that there was political intervention or political support for the attackers. A few months ago, a military court ordered Muhammad Iyad, who had been accused of Rooney’s murder, to be released on bail… Four other people were prosecuted with him, all of them Hizbullah operatives…

“The incident [i.e., the apprehension of the UNIFIL soldiers in the Dahiya] is not disconnected from its place and time, and it is proof that the [Hizbullah] organization, amid the international negotiations taking place regarding UNIFIL’s presence and role in the south in preparation for restoring stability in the aftermath of October 7, has no intention of agreeing to the proposal [to expand UNIFIL’s mandate] but rather to oppose it…”[13] [1] On these incidents and others, see e.g., MEMRI reports: Special Dispatch No. 10390 – Lebanese Journalists: Hizbullah Responsible For Death Of Irish UNIFIL Soldier – December 22, 2022; Special Dispatch No. 9721 – Lebanese Journalists: Hizbullah Behind Attacks By South Lebanon Residents On UNIFIL Forces – January 13, 2022; Special Dispatch No. 6778 – Anti-Hizbullah Shi’ite Lebanese Journalist: The Recent Clashes Between South Lebanon Residents And UNIFIL Forces Are A Message From Iran To The U.S. – February 10, 2017.

[2] Kataeb.org, March 3, 2024.

[3] Telegraaf.nl, March 1, 2024.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 1, 2024.

[5] Al-Mudun (Lebanon), March 1, 2024.

[6] Lbcgroup.tv, March 2, 2024.

[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 2, 2024.

[8] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 2, 2024.

[9] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 2, 2024.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 6, 2024.

[11] Alahednews.com.lb, March 5, 2024,

[12] Nidaa Al-Watan (Lebanon), March 4, 2024.

[13] Almarkazia.com, March 2, 2024.

Check Also

What comes after Ebrahim Raisi

The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on Sunday may have …