Overall Crime and Safety Situation
The last twelve months have been relatively calm and stable when compared to years past; however, the potential for a spontaneous upsurge in terrorism, regional unrest and violence remains a viable threat. Lebanese government authorities are not always able to guarantee the protection of citizens or visitors in the event violence suddenly erupts. Access to the airport, land borders, and ports can be interrupted by public demonstrations that may occur with little warning. Under such circumstances, the ability of U.S. government personnel to reach travelers or provide emergency services may at times be severely limited.
The overall crime situation in Lebanon remains at relatively the same level as in previous years. For 2009, there was an increase in criminal activity related to drug usage and narcotics distribution. There was also a slight increase in the numbers of reported incidents of petty theft, burglary, robbery, auto theft, and car-jacking. Additionally, the U.S. Embassy has recently witnessed an increased level of reported robberies regarding a theft ring that seems to be targeting foreigners using service cars. On a positive note, the number of recorded homicides within Lebanon was down for the last year.
The roadways in Lebanon operate unconventionally, with drivers who often maneuver aggressively and pay little regard to traffic lights and stop signs. Erratic traffic patterns, poorly marked merges and addresses, and inconsistent law enforcement are common. Outside the capital city, lanes are generally unmarked and may be poorly lit. Heavy periods of traffic congestion are most noticeable during the morning and afternoon peak rush hours, and during times of inclement weather.
There is a notable lack of electronic traffic control signals, resulting in frequently erratic traffic patterns and vehicle accidents. Police rarely respond to vehicle accidents and therefore accident reports/investigations are not normally conducted. Parties involved in traffic accidents settle matters among themselves unless significant injury or material damage is involved. Emergency services are generally adequate in Beirut, but may be less responsive elsewhere in the country.
In case of a road accident, emergency numbers are “140” for the Red Cross and “125” for the emergency civil police.
Lebanon witnessed the beginning of terrorist attacks launched against U.S. and western interests in the early 1980’s.These included the April 18, 1983 suicide attack at the U.S. Embassy in West Beirut (63 dead), the bombing of the headquarters of U.S. and French forces on October 23, 1983 (298 dead), the assassination of American University of Beirut President Malcolm Kerr on January 18, 1984, and the bombing of the U.S. Embassy annex in East Beirut on September 20, 1984 (9 dead).
The country also saw the rise of radicalism among a small number of Lebanese Muslim factions who believed that the successive Israeli and U.S. interventions in Lebanon were serving primarily Christian interests. It was from these factions that Hizballah emerged, supported by Iran and Syria, from a loose coalition of Shi'a groups.
In July 2006, Hizballah guerillas crossed into Israel, killed three Israeli soldiers, and kidnapped two others, precipitating a war with Israel. Israeli air strikes hit Hizballah positions in the south and strategic targets throughout Lebanon, and Israeli ground forces moved against Hizballah in southern Lebanon. Hizballah resisted the ground attack and fired thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel. By the time the fighting ended a month later, an estimated 1,200 Lebanese civilians and hundreds of Hizballah fighters had died, along with 119 Israeli military and 43 Israeli civilians.
The Israeli-Hizballah conflict ended with the passage of United Nations Security Council resolution 1701, which called for a cease-fire and the establishment of a weapons-free zone in southern Lebanon. Resolution 1701 also increased the presence of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in the southern part of the country, and tasked it with enforcing the resolution in tandem with units of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). No further hostilities between Israel and Hizballah have occurred since the 2006 conflict, though on several occasions in 2009 rockets were launched from southern Lebanon into Israel by individuals believed to be members of Palestinian splinter groups.
In May 2008, Hizballah closed the Beirut airport and deployed militants in the streets of west Beirut. Two weeks of isolated fighting ensued between Hizballah and other factions in several parts of the country. Calm was restored in late May 2008 by an agreement among major Lebanese political leaders that took place in Doha, Qatar. The Doha agreement permitted the government to resume functioning, paving the way for parliamentary elections in June 2009.
While the threat of terrorist activity kept Lebanese security agencies on high alert throughout the year, 2009 also saw an increased effort by the government to disrupt suspected terror cells before they could act. The LAF in particular were credited with the capture of wanted terrorist fugitives and the containment of sectarian violence.
The continued hostility that exists between Israel and Hizballah results in an ongoing threat to all persons who live and work in Lebanon.
Regional Terrorism and Organized Crime
A number of designated terrorist organizations remain active in Lebanon. Hamas, The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), Fatah al-Islam (FAI), al-Qa’ida in Lebanon, Jund al-Sham, the Ziyad al-Jarrah Battalions, and several other splinter groups all operate within Lebanon’s borders. Hizballah, a designated terrorist organization that is also a legal entity and a major political party, is represented in Lebanon's cabinet and parliament.
In 2009, terrorist violence and counterterrorism activity included the following incidents:
· On five separate occasions (January 8 and 14, February 21, September 11, and October 27), Katyusha rockets were fired from southern Lebanon into Israel. No casualties were reported from any of the incidents. The al-Qa’ida-inspired Ziyad al-Jarrah Battalions claimed responsibility for several of the attacks.
· On March 24, the Internal Security Forces (ISF) defused an explosive device near the home of former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel and arrested a Syrian, Youssef Mohammad al-Mohammed, who is currently imprisoned.
· On June 17, the LAF thwarted an attempt to drive a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device into the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon. Hasan Merhi, a FAI member, was arrested in connection with the incident.
· In July, the LAF arrested Syrian citizen Mounjed al-Fahham, believed to be a high-ranking al-Qa’ida leader in Lebanon, at Beirut International Airport. Investigations revealed that al-Fahham intended to smuggle FAI spiritual leader Oussama Chehabi (known as Abou Zahra), FAI leader Abdel Rahman Awad, and Abdel Ghani Jawhar (wanted for 2008 attacks against LAF soldiers in Tripoli), out of Lebanon.
· On August 19, an LAF intelligence unit arrested Lebanese citizen Wissam Tahbish, reported to be a key member of Jund al-Sham. Tahbish was the primary suspect in the 1999 assassination of four Lebanese judges in Sidon.
· On September 17, a Lebanese military court convicted five Palestinians of armed attacks, including a January 2008 bombing aimed at United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeepers. The one member in custody was sentenced to three years of hard labor while four fugitive members, convicted in absentia, were given life sentences.
International and Transnational Terrorism
Many transnational terrorist groups train, operate, or are based in Lebanon. Poor border security and easy access to weapons and munitions, along with numerous areas of non-government control, create the ideal environment for terrorist organizations to transit or prepare for operations. These groups can include: al-Qa’ida, Abu Nidal, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Abus Musa group, Palestinian Liberation Front (Abu Abbas wing), Palestinian Liberation Front (Tal’al Ya’qub wing), Popular Struggle Front, Palestinian Peoples Party, Harakat Ansar Allah, Arab Liberation Front, Islamic Liberation Party, Fatah Al-Islam, Fatah-Intifada, and Asbat al Ansar.
In late December 2008 and early 2009, there were a number of demonstrations in response to the military operations by Israel in the Gaza Strip. On these occasions, as many as two hundred demonstrators gathered in Awkar Square, located one-half mile from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Tear gas and water cannons were used in almost every instance, in response to demonstrators attempting to breach police barricades. Similar protests were held at UN offices and at the Egyptian Embassy in downtown Beirut.
At times, there have been massive Hizballah demonstrations held in the southern suburbs of Beirut and in the refugee camps, centering mainly around political or military conflicts with Israel or other internal political issues. Consistent with previous demonstrations, anti-American or anti-Western sentiments can be observed, with participant numbers ranging from 500 to tens of thousands of people.
There have also been smaller, more sporadic gatherings by demonstrators protesting the lack of electrical power and lack of Lebanese government attention/sympathy for their cause. These demonstrators burn tires and other debris in the road, causing traffic disruptions for limited periods of time.
Americans have been the targets of numerous terrorist attacks in Lebanon and the threat of anti-Western terrorist activity continues to exist in Lebanon. On January 15, 2008, a U.S. Embassy vehicle was targeted in a bomb attack that killed three Lebanese bystanders.
The Department of State considers the threat to U.S. government personnel in Beirut sufficiently serious to require them to live and work under strict security restrictions. Because of security concerns, unofficial travel to Lebanon by U.S. Government employees and their family members is discouraged and requires prior approval by the U.S. Department of State.
The Lebanese coast follows a natural fault line and the country has a history of major earthquakes that have periodically leveled Beirut over the centuries, with the last major one happening south of Zrariyeh in the province of Tyre in 1956. Most buildings and structures in Lebanon are built without little consideration for earthquakes. A major earthquake (6.0+) would likely cause serious damage to significant portions of Beirut.
A recent underwater survey revealed that Lebanon lies dangerously close to a fault that could generate a catastrophic tsunami, according to a report by Discovery News channel. According to the survey, the fault lies just four miles off Lebanon's coast and caused a tsunami-generating earthquake in 551 A.D.
Industrial and Transportation Accidents
Traffic accidents remain the main cause of serious injuries in Lebanon. Air travel is considered comparatively safe. Until the January 25, 2010 crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 409, shortly after takeoff from the Beirut airport, there had been no fatal airline crashes in Lebanon in decades.
In the past, the kidnapping of American and western citizens has been used by extremist groups that operate in Lebanon to bolster political or international attention. This tactic remains a threat throughout the country. Additionally, criminal kidnappings involving car-jacking and taxi robberies have been reported.
Drug and Narcoterrorism
Lebanon is not a major illicit drug producing or drug-transit country. During 2009, Lebanon undertook eradication efforts in the Bekaa Valley and claimed to have destroyed nearly all cannabis and opium production. However, illicit crop cultivation remains an attractive option for some farmers due to a lack of economically viable alternative crops.
Drug trafficking across the Lebanese-Syrian border continued in 2009, in large part due to the absence of effective border controls along the two countries’ border. Additionally, Lebanon is a transit country for cocaine and heroin, with Lebanese nationals operating in concert with drug traffickers from South America and West Africa.
The U.S. government maintains excellent relations with Lebanese law enforcement and security elements. Overall, police are responsive but they do not have the resources or the capacity to effectively police all areas of Lebanon. There are no special concerns with regard to targeted victimization of Americans or to scams or confidence schemes.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
If you are arrested for any reason, make sure that every effort is made to contact the U.S. Embassy on your behalf. While the police services in Lebanon do take measures to notify the Embassy in the event of an arrest of an American citizen, this may not always be the case depending on the time, place, and circumstances surrounding your arrest.
Where to Turn for Assistance
If you are the victim of a crime in Lebanon, you should contact the local police and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Although the investigation and prosecution of the crime is solely the responsibility of local authorities, Embassy personnel can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and to find an attorney if needed.
The local equivalent to the “911” emergency line in Lebanon is 112.
Police Emergency Numbers:
Beirut ISF: 01/425250
Beirut Emergency Police: 112
Tareek El-Jdideh/Beirut: 01/858811
Hobeiche Police Station: 01/740925
Explosive Ordnance Disposal: 01/601930/1
When Dialing from a Cell Phone:
Emergency Police Department (ISF): 999
Information Department: 120
Civil Defense (Fire and Rescue): 125
Lebanese Red Cross: 140
Ambulance Service (Red Cross headquarters): 140
Medical care in Beirut and the surrounding area is considered good. Many hospitals have modern equipment and well-trained physicians. Payment for medical services is typically required at the time care is provided. Most major U.S. medical insurance is accepted. Long-term visitors are encouraged to become familiar with hospitals near their homes and places of employment.
Contact Information for Local Hospitals and Clinics
Abu-Jawdeh (located in Zalka): 04/718000 04/716000
Serhal (located in Rabieh): 04/406838 04/403910
Haroun (located in Zalka): 01/897300 01/875052
Arz (located in Zalka): 01/876770/1/2/3/4
Bahannes (located in Bahannes): 04/982773 04/982774
AUH (located in Beirut): 01/350000 01/340460
Hotel Dieu (located in Ashrafieh): 01/615300 01/615400
Sacre Coeur (located in Hazmieh): 05/453500 05/952114
Air Ambulance Services
There are no local air ambulance companies in Lebanon.
Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
Visitors are reminded to be watchful of their surroundings at all times, paying close attention to activities in their immediate area. Americans traveling in Lebanon should exercise the same common-sense precautions used in travel to any unfamiliar environment. Avoid time and place predictability; seek to avoid repeated presence at the same venues and times, or at a minimum, use different routes to get there. If considering renting an apartment, consider only those buildings offering controlled access and providing well-lit parking and walkway areas. Visitors are encouraged not to wear expensive jewelry, display large amounts of money, or dress in a manner that will draw attention. Any unusual activity or inquiries should be reported to local security officials or to the U.S. Embassy's Regional Security Office at 04/542600, ext. 4205.
Unless absolutely necessary, areas within the southern suburbs of Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, the North Lebanon district, the Bekaa district, the Southern Lebanon district (including UNIFIL patrolled areas), any Hizbollah-controlled region, and the Palestinian refugee camps should be avoided.
Regional Security Officer: 04/542600, ext. 4205
Medical Unit: 04/542600, ext. 4302
Consular Affairs 04/542600, ext. 4380
Charlie Post (24/7): 04/542600, ext. 4555
OSAC Country Council
The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) serves as an information channel between U.S. organizations operating in Lebanon and Embassy security officers. The Council Steering Committee meets on a quarterly basis with full Council meetings taking place annually.
Representatives of American organizations operating in Lebanon are encouraged to contact the Regional Security Office, 04/542600, ext. 4205. For Lebanon-specific information, go online at http://beirut.osac.gov/ or http://www.osac.gov for general information.