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Hezbollah justifies its involvement in the war in Syria

Hussein Malla / AP, file

Salma, the mother of Loulou Awad, 20, seen in the photograph, a Lebanese girl who was killed after a rocket was fired by Syrian rebels two days ago and hit their home, in Hermel town, northeast of Lebanon, Wednesday May 29, 2013.

HERMEL, Lebanon -- Following the involvement of the militant Hezbollah group in fighting in Syria alongside President Bashar Assad's forces, sectarian tensions in Lebanon have been on the rise, endangering the lives of civilians caught in the middle of an ongoing conflict.   

Last week, the northeastern Lebanese town of Hermel was struck by rockets fired by the Syrian opposition in retaliation for Hezbollah's involvement in the war.

Some residents went to their roofs to see where the rockets had struck. Among them was 20-year-old Loulou Awad. As she gazed over the rolling hills and the valley below, another rocket struck the building across the street. The explosion sent a piece of shrapnel through the air that struck and killed her.

Hussein Malla / AP file

Lebanese Mohammad Awad, 16, is seen through destruction, after a rocket fired by Syrian rebels hit their home and killed his older sister, Loulou Awad, 20, according to villagers, in Hermel town, northeast of Lebanon, Wednesday, May 29, 2013.

This week, Loulou's father, Abdullah Mohammad Awad, a 58-year-old manager at a printing company, received guests paying condolences in the building where his daughter was killed. He said the Syrian opposition is filled with "infidels and terrorists."

"I want to go to the front and kill these terrorists," he said. "I've already requested from the leadership of Hezbollah to go. And the minute they grant me permission I will go and fight."

Awad said he felt hatred especially for the Lebanese in a predominantly Sunni village, Arsal, who he said helped the rebels fire the rocket that killed his daughter.

At the site of the attack, a Hezbollah banner sends condolences to Loulou's family.

Hezbollah is making a lot of condolence posters these days.

The Bekaa Valley's Shiite Muslim community –- at least those who join Hezbollah -- is paying with blood for its involvement in the Syrian war. Driving through the valley, dozens of fresh posters bearing the portraits of young fighters killed in Syria line the streets.

'I don't like war'
On the way to Hermel, a Hezbollah fighter who carried an AK-47 in the passenger seat of his dented and rusting Toyota minivan, briefly detained a reporter for taking a photo of one of the posters.

The journalist was forced to go to the fighter's home while he awaited clearance from the local Hezbollah security official so that reporting could continue. The fighter's wife, who did not wear a hijab, or head covering, welcomed the reporter into her home and grimaced as her husband moved a meter-long sniper rifle and a vest packed with ammunition into the hallway, while their three young children played in the family's modest living room.

"I don't like war," she said – a sentiment that others in this Hezbollah stronghold might share, given that their brothers, sons and fathers are dying.

The 'Party of Satan'
The Syrian opposition dominates a town not far from where Hezbollah fighters cross into Syria.

Here, in primarily Sunni Arsal, about 20 miles from Hermel, Syrian opposition fighters move around openly, wearing camouflage outfits. The town is also filled with Syrian refugees -- so many that some live in tents on the outskirts of the town.

One of the refugees is a former fruit exporter who did not want to be identified. He used to live in a nice house in a village near Qusair, he said. Now, he sleeps on a thin mattress on the floor in a dark, three-bedroom apartment with 40 other people, including his daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

He condemned Hezbollah's involvement in Syria's war, and when referring to the group, whose name means "Party of God," called them "Hezb-al-Shaytan," or "Party of Satan."

Mostafa Assaf / Reuters, file

Supporters of Hezbollah and relatives of Hezbollah members attend the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter who died in the Syrian conflict in Ouzai in Beirut May 26, 2013.

"During the 2006 war [between Hezbollah and Israel], we sheltered the Lebanese refugees from Hermel and the Bekaa in our homes," he said. "Now, they have returned our hospitality by killing us and betraying us."

"It's a sectarian war," he added. "Hezbollah has turned this into a sectarian war."

Taking Qusair
North of Hermel, on the outskirts of the Hezbollah-dominated village of Qasr, a huge explosion echoed across the plain as a Hezbollah operative dressed in camouflage and carrying a walkie-talkie showed visitors the town of Qusair, about seven miles away.

"Usually there's more shelling," he said, as vans with darkened windows and trucks with tarpaulins covering their cargo beds sped along a narrow road and passed quickly through a Syrian military checkpoint half a mile down the road.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah justified the battle for Qusair by saying it "prevents war from coming to Lebanon." He told the group's enemies, "let's fight in Syria, not in Lebanon."

But he can control only half of that equation.

Many Lebanese fear that Shiite civilians will be killed if Sunni extremists retaliate against Hezbollah in the areas it dominates.

That kind of attack would make it hard for Hezbollah to control followers bent on revenge against Sunnis, and a spiral of tit-for-tat violence could follow.

In Qasr, the Hezbollah operative's radio squawked, and unknown voices spoke about moving from one sector to another.

That night, Hezbollah and the Syrian army mounted their final push into the town. By the next morning, Qusair had fallen.

In Hezbollah-dominated neighborhoods in Beirut and in the Bekaa Valley, residents celebrated by firing weapons into the air and setting off fireworks. Others handed out sweets.

The Free Syrian Army, which leads the rebel fighters, vowed to avenge the defeat and said that by helping the Syrian army, Lebanon's Hezbollah had made itself a legitimate target.