If you’re British, Irish, French, German or Australian, or if your name sounds at all Jewish, you might think twice before deciding to spend your vacation in Lebanon this year. Not because the Switzerland of the Middle East isn’t a wonderful place to relax and enjoy the sunshine, but because you might be detained at the airport, questioned, followed around by a secret agent or even turned back to where you came from.
The General Security boosted its border control in the wake of January’s assassination of top Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai by what is thought to have been Israeli Mossad agents using fake European and Australian passports.
Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah raised the passport issue in a parliamentary session shortly after the killing and told As-Sharq al-Awsat that “the government has to take the necessary measures to preserve security and stability in the face of Israeli attempts,” adding that “many Israelis have previously managed to enter Lebanon with European and non-European passports.”
Although the idea came across opposition from many politicians, including Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar, the General Directorate of General Security went ahead with the tough measures Hezbollah asked for. During an interview with Al Manar TV, the head of the GDGS, General Wafiq Jezzini, who has close ties to Hezbollah, described his new plan to keep Israeli infiltrators out of Lebanon.
According to Jezzini, lists of Jewish family names have been distributed at the borders. “When someone arrives in Lebanon with a foreign passport and his family name suggests that he is of Jewish origin, the border center sends his information to the central information office at the General Security Directorate, which specifically takes responsibility for following this individual,” Jezzini said.
Several foreigners NOW Lebanon spoke to have already been denied entry into the country at the airport. Most of them were in Lebanon to study or were employed by Lebanese companies. Some of them ended up stranded in other Middle Eastern countries while all their belongings stayed here. In the meantime, their friends are trying to convince the General Security that they made a mistake. (None of the Europeans or Australians interviewed by NOW Lebanon wished to make their names or the details of their stories public for fear that they might anger General Security and make the situation worse for themselves and their friends working here on their behalf.)
Lebanese lawyers consulted by NOW Lebanon, who demanded their names not be mentioned for the same reasons, said they can’t do anything about the cases. The lawyers pointed out that while General Security can’t turn people away on just a hunch or because their names sound different, most of the foreigners were denied entry on pretext of not having a proper work permit or for being in the country too long on a temporary residency visa.
Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar told MTV last week that Lebanon should not reject foreigners entering the country for touristic, cultural and economic reasons out of fear that they are spies. “It is not acceptable for Lebanon to let its fear of Israel become intellectual terrorism,” he said. The new boost in security at the Lebanese borders might hurt tourism, one of the most important sources of revenue for the Lebanese state, especially as it comes right before the summer season.
In 2009, after a year of political stability, Lebanon had the highest increase in the number of tourists in the world. According to the World Tourism Organization, 39 percent more people came to visit Lebanon after it was declared the number-one international destination by several renowned publications. It might not happen this year, as unreasonably tight security at the borders might send tourists to more friendly countries.