Bombs target alcohol businesses in south Lebanon

Zahi Zeidan vows he won't back down as he stands in his bomb-shattered restaurant and oversees workers carrying debris out of dining rooms where on a good night patrons are usually drinking and dancing.

"They targeted us because we serve alcohol," said Zeidan. "Selling alcohol is my right. This is my country and I will not accept that people dictate to me what I work."

Zeidan's restaurant Nocean was hit last week by a bomb blast after closing time, lightly hurting five staffers and wrecking part of the hall. It was the fourth in a string of bombings in recent months that have targeted establishments selling alcohol in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre.

Such attacks are rare and the bombings are the first of their kind in years in the south, raising worries that Islamic militants are trying to make a show of strength. But who those militants might be remains a mystery. No one has claimed responsibility for the blasts and police investigations have so far brought no revelations.

In general, Lebanon is perhaps the most tolerant Arab nation when it comes to alcohol. The capital Beirut is known for its bars and clubs frequented by locals and foreign tourists. Beach parties, in which men and women in bathing suits dance and drink are also common in Beirut as well as the coasts north and south of the capital.

But other parts of the country are more conservative, including the south, which is the heartland of Lebanon's Shiite Muslim community. Much of the population shuns alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam. In most southern towns and villages, shops largely don't sell alcohol and people avoid drinking in public to avoid harassment from Shiite hard-liners. The Shiite militant group Hezbollah holds sway across much of the south and doesn't tolerate alcohol sales.

Tyre, a tourist-draw city on the Mediterranean coast, has been an exception. It has historically been a stronghold of the less austere Shiite group Amal, and the group turned a blind eye in the past to alcohol business. The southern city, which is majority Shiite but has Christian and Sunni Muslim communities, is known for its fish restaurants along the corniche, where many people like to drink arak, an anise-flavored liquor, with seafood.

In the face of the threats, some are determined to keep the margin of tolerance in the city. On a recent day, Michel Bashawati and his friend Rudy Elia — both Tyre natives — sat in a restaurant overlooking the historic port with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, two glasses and two dishes of pumpkin seeds and peanuts in front of them.

"I am not worried because when I drink I am not harming anyone," Elia, a 24-year-old who owns a restaurant in the African nation of Liberia, said as he filled his glass with ice and poured himself a second whisky.

But the attacks raise the question of whether Sunni extremists are moving in or whether local Shiite militants are taking a harder line and trying to enforce a stricter lifestyle in the city.

The last major attacks on alcohol venues came more than a decade ago, in the city of Sidon further north, and were blamed on Sunni Palestinian radicals from a nearby refugee camp. Last year, several shops selling alcohol closed in the southern market town of Nabatiyeh after residents protested outside their outlets. Lebanese media said some of the owners received threats from members of an unidentified local party, warning, "close your shop or we break your head."

Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Moussawi refused to comment on the latest bombings, saying that the group condemned such blasts in the past.

Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Beirut's St. Joseph University, said Amal or Hezbollah were unlikely to be behind the blasts. "They don't benefit from such attacks," she said. "On the contrary, it embarrasses them and harms their image."

She said she believes an "external factor," perhaps other Muslim extremists, were carrying out the attacks to "create strife" and fuel conflicts between sects.

The bombings, which began in November, appear designed to avoid casualties. The Nocean blast was the only one that hurt anyone, and the five staffers were released from the hospital the same night.

In the April 22 Nocean attack, someone slipped into the building at night, apparently removing a security camera that films anyone going up to the restaurant. Nocean is on the third floor of a building with several restaurants, including a McDonald's, in an eastern part of Tyre. The security camera of an adjacent supermarket showed a man stopping a car, entering the building and then returning to his car moments before the blast. Zeidan said authorities are trying to identify the man.

"I will repair the damage and start serving alcohol again even if this means that they will bomb the place again," said Zeidan.

The Tyros restaurant, struck by a similar pre-dawn bombing three days before New Year's Eve, also rebounded quickly. Mohammed Mahmoud, a worker there, said the damage was repaired within hours.

"We are still serving alcohol and we will not change," he said. "These explosions are attacks on personal freedoms. A person is free to chose whether he wants to drink or no."

The first two blasts came on the same night in November. One ripped through a pub on the ground floor of the seaside Queen Elissa Hotel. Moments later, a liquor store was hit and heavily damaged. Patrick Kattoura, who runs the store for his father, said it had been selling alcohol since the 1980s and had never received threats. The store has reopened and resumed selling.

"It is my right to sell whatever I want as long as it does not violate Lebanese laws."

But the blasts have some worried.

After the Queen Elissa bombing, Nazih Arnaout, the brother of the owner of the Tyros restaurant, hung a large banner outside his own fish restaurant, called the Classic Tyros. "Sorry. We don't serve alcoholic beverages," it reads.

Asked why he stopped booze sales, Arnaout replied calmly, "so that they don't blow us up."


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