BEIRUT -- Hizbullah has continued its operations to smuggle food, fuel and medicine into Syria via unofficial crossings it controls, even as the Lebanese people go hungry and do without.
Despite security measures implemented by Lebanese army units deployed along the land border with Syria, the smuggling of food items -- including those subsidised by the Central Bank of Lebanon (BDL) -- has not stopped.
Smuggling operations are taking food out of the mouths of the Lebanese people amid an economic crisis, the collapse of the national currency, skyrocketing food prices and the disappearance of many items from the markets.
According to Army Command data, a number of attempts to smuggle food and fuel across the border were thwarted in April, with all items seized by army units deployed in the Bekaa Valley, between Arsal, Hermel and al-Qasr.
Al-Qasr is situated directly on the Lebanese-Syrian border, with some of its lands falling on the Syrian side. It is a vital smuggling corridor by virtue of its proximity to the Syrian town of al-Qusayr.
Smuggling in broad daylight
The Lebanese accuse Hizbullah of smuggling and demand that the party put an end to its cross-border dealings. But some Hizbullah supporters are unrepentant.
In a recent interview with France 24, Sheikh Sadiq al-Nabulsi, a Hizbullah associate, claimed smuggling is an integral part of the "resistance operations".
Lebanese social media users have been posting and sharing videos of trucks and tankers engaged in cross-border smuggling in broad daylight, and politicians and activists have weighed in on the issue.
"We have warned, appealed and provided information in the hope that someone will take action, but to no avail," said Lebanese MP Ziad Hawat, of the Lebanese Forces parliamentary bloc, in an April 23 post on Twitter.
"The smuggling continues and its consequences are mounting," he said.
"Millions of dollars are being smuggled out every month. Yesterday, it was subsidised materials, and today it is drugs. All of this could have been avoided had a political decision been taken to control the borders."
He went on to describe Lebanon as "a country ruled by the mafia and [Hizbullah's] statelet".
'Tonnes' of goods seized daily
"The amount of smuggling from Lebanon to Syria is massive, and the army seizes tonnes of food items and thousands of litres of smuggled fuel every day," a military source at the Army Command told Al-Mashareq.
Smuggling is most prevalent in al-Qasr, he said, as its boundaries overlap the border between Lebanon and Syria.
The main hub for smugglers, according to the source, is "the 6.5km stretch between Lebanese General Security posts in al-Masnaa and Syrian General Security posts in Jdaidet Yabous".
In this area, the source said, "Lebanese who drive their vehicles past the al-Masnaa [border crossing], laden with food and fuel, are met by Syrians who come to buy them".
"The army does not have the right to interfere with the work of security services at al-Masnaa [crossing], including the customs service and general security directorate, despite the existence of an army intelligence centre there," he said.
The scanners in al-Masnaa are disabled, he added, and cars are inspected by just one member of the security forces.
Crossings controlled by Hizbullah
Journalist Mahmoud Shukr told Al-Mashareq the smuggling of food and fuel "continues, and the smugglers are known by names and addresses".
Most of the smugglers are part of Hizbullah's base or are in some way connected to it, he said, as the party is "the biggest beneficiary" of their activity.
The eastern border, from Jabal al-Sheikh to Hermel-al-Qasr, "has undergone a radical change since 2005 in terms of the stationing and deployment of land regiments established for this purpose and the erection of watch towers".
"The majority of the border is closed, except for some areas that security forces are prohibited from entering, because they are controlled by Hizbullah, and some crossings that remain open because no decisive political decision has been taken to close them," he said.
Shukr said a month ago the army "began to crack down on trucks carrying food and fuel to the Hermel area at a checkpoint it set up in the Hrabta area".
Lebanese face poverty, hunger
Although the authorities have not disclosed the scale of the smuggling, there are indications that between 50 and 70% of imported foodstuffs are smuggled out of the country, said Lebanese economist Jassim Ajaka.
"Money exchange mafias, merchants and smugglers are smuggling food items subsidised by BDL, thus depriving the Lebanese of food security," he said.
"Poverty and hunger await the Lebanese as the day BDL lifts subsidies approaches, while the caretaker government remains in a coma," Ajaka said.
Hizbullah recently introduced the al-Sajjad ration card -- a project aimed at placating its base over the deteriorating living conditions it faces, said Lebanese Centre for Consultations and Studies director Hassan Qutb.
However, it has concealed the real reasons for the exacerbation of the economic crisis, he said: its own smuggling of food, fuel and medicine subsidised by public funds through unofficial border crossings with Syria.
Hizbullah's support for the Iranian axis takes precedence over the interests of the Lebanese people, who suffer the consequences of its actions, he said.
Qutb said Hizbullah's stockpiling of subsidised foodstuffs and fuel under the pretext of preparing for the difficult days ahead "is done at the expense of the Lebanese people and their need for these materials now, not down the road".
It is done not with the party's or Iran's money, as Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah claims, he added, but with Lebanon's public funds.