Violent clashes broke out in Beirut and other areas of Lebanon on Tuesday night, making it three straight nights of clashes in a row, as anti-corruption protests that began five weeks ago push Lebanon into an economic crisis that risks aggravating already tense sectarian tensions.

Clashes and gunfire between supporters of Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, and Shi’ite groups Hezbollah and Amal risked turning the protests into a more violent conflict, Reuters reported based on local media accounts.

Eyal Zisser, an Israeli expert on Syria and Lebanon and the vice rector of Tel Aviv University, said that the current upheaval in Lebanon marks the first time Hezbollah has been criticized domestically.

“This is significant because even the Shi’ites consider Hezbollah responsible or partly responsible for the crisis affecting Lebanon,” said Zisser. “Therefore, in the long run, this has meaning, and without a doubt, it harms Hezbollah’s power.”

Zisser went on to emphasize that it’s necessary to understand that Hezbollah has been sitting in the Lebanese government since 2005, and thus “can no longer say that it has no say on the matter.”

“Hezbollah has grown and expanded over the years, and became corrupt,” he added.

Since the end of Lebanon’s bloody civil war in 1990, the country has been held together by a fragile power-sharing agreement among its three main sectarian religious groups: Christians, Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

However, due to demographic changes and influence by foreign powers such as Iran, the country’s Shi’ite community has grown in power at the expense of Christians and Sunni Muslims. As such, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah wields enormous influence in the country, with many seeing it as a “state within a state,” with greater military might than the country’s own Western-backed armed forces.

At the same time, younger Lebanese seem fed up with decades of economic mismanagement and corruption, as well as with the country’s sectarian political system.

Last month, Hariri, a Sunni Muslim whose own father was assassinated by Hezbollah in 2005, bowed to popular pressure and stepped down as prime minister. Yet due to the country’s political paralysis, a successor has yet to be named, leading to fears that the country could spiral once again into civil war.

‘All weapons will be turned against Israel’

Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay, former deputy head of the National Security Council of Israel, told JNS that “Lebanon has many problems, not all of them connected to Hezbollah, but to the political and economic situation in the country.”

“Since Hezbollah represents the Shi’ites, which make up the majority, I don’t see their support for the terrorist group … changing because of the protests. I don’t think the protests will hurt Hezbollah in the long term,” said Shay, a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the IDC in Herzliya, Israel.

Hezbollah accused the United States last week of meddling in the formation of a new Lebanese government amid one of the country’s worst economic crises.

“The first obstruction in the formation of the government is America because it wants a government that resembles it, and we want a government that resembles the Lebanese people,” Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem told Reuters.

The protests against the corruption of the ruling elite have also targeted Hezbollah, and the terror group is apparently trying to deflect the criticism by resorting to a refrain common in the Middle East—it’s America’s fault.

In actuality, the Trump administration is holding up more than $100 million in military aid to Lebanon that has already been approved by Congress.

According to an AP report, the reason the aid is being withheld is unknown, and the move is upsetting some in the “national security community” that see the funds as essential for the country to ward off Iranian influence and that of Hezbollah.

Still, many experts see the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) itself as part of the problem, since Hezbollah is a part of the country’s government and has infiltrated the army, complicating the issue of foreign aid.

‘Lebanon has many problems, not all of them connected to Hezbollah’

Tony Badran, a Lebanon expert and research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told JNS that according to Trump administration officials, there has been no change in American policy on aid to Lebanon.

“That said, the public hysteria around the delay has betrayed a genuine fear that the unquestioned bipartisan consensus on the issue is cracking, which is overdue because the policy is misguided and unjustifiable,” he said.

“If the Trump administration proceeds with the aid today, it would be against the backdrop of the LAF sandbagging UNIFIL on checking Hezbollah’s attack tunnels, doing nothing about a Hezbollah precision-missile facility next door to an LAF base, firing on our Israeli allies, beating protesters in the streets, detaining and abusing them, and arresting minors.”

What’s more, continued the Lebanon expert, Lebanese authorities have illegally detained and reportedly abused an American citizen, whom they left languishing in a military prison in dismal conditions until his health collapsed.

Badran is referring to Amer Fakhoury, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was arrested in Lebanon during a family trip in September. This came after pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar made accusations that Fakhoury had tortured Hezbollah and Palestinian prisoners in the 1980s and 1990s as a commander in the mainly Christian South Lebanon Army that was allied with Israel.

“Delivering the aid now would signal that the Lebanese government has total immunity and impunity to undermine American interests, as well as the rights of the Lebanese people protesting against it in the streets,” added Badran.

Shay agreed when asked about U.S. aid to the Lebanese army, saying “I think aid to the Lebanese army is the same as helping Hezbollah. Most of the soldiers are Shi’ites, and all of the weapons that get to Lebanon are taken by Hezbollah and will be turned against Israel.”

“I think that in this case, Trump is correct,” he continued. “The Saudis already [cutting] aid to Lebanon because there is a state within a state [there] called Hezbollah. All military equipment delivered to the country’s military serves Hezbollah.”

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