The decision by the Lebanese government to shut down a private telephone network operated by the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah was an act of war and Hezbollah would defend itself, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, said Thursday.
The comments were among Nasrallah’s strongest since the beginning of Lebanon’s months-long political crisis and may signal a new level of confrontation between Hezbollah and its supporters and the Western-backed government. Tensions have escalated in recent days, and clashes and gunfire continued on the streets of Beirut on Thursday as Hezbollah tried to enforce a general strike called by labor unions. It is the country’s worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
On Tuesday, the government said that it would send troops to shut down a telephone network operated by Hezbollah in south Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut.
“This decision was a declaration of war and the start of war on the resistance and its weapons,” Nasrallah said, speaking via satellite at a news conference convened by Hezbollah in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
“Our response to this decision is that whoever declares or starts a war, be it a brother or a father, then it is our right to defend ourselves and our existence,” he said.
However, Nasrallah left open the door for some negotiations by saying that it would stop the strike if the government’s forces left the streets of Beirut and the government reversed its decision on the telephone network.
The government has said it would prosecute those responsible for operating the network, which was mainly used for communication between Hezbollah members during the war with Israel in 2006. It also accused the militant group of placing several spy cameras on a road outside the Beirut airport to monitor pro-government officials. The cabinet dismissed the airport’s director of security, a figure close to Hezbollah.
On Thursday, parts of the city were still shut down, and roads were still blocked by burning tires and garbage cans set on fire by Hezbollah supporters and other opponents of the government.
They were trying to enforce a strike protesting government economic policies and demanding higher minimum wages. Roads to the airport were still closed, and only one plane managed to leave Beirut on Thursday.