Thieving From the Dead: Lebanon Criminals Touch New Low

Thieves in Lebanon are stealing iron fencing from cemeteries and grave sites to sell for a few dollars on the black market, as the nation grows used to hearing about pickpocketing, drug trafficking and theft almost on a daily basis.

As the country’s financial and economic crisis deepens, Lebanon is witnessing the collapse of its social, health and educational sectors.

Gangs carrying out armed robberies, kidnapping and murder — often motivated by revenge — have grown into organized mafias made up of Lebanese citizens, as well as Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

Despite steps taken by the security and military services, and regardless of the neighborhood watch that some towns have established to protect themselves, crime rates are on the rise.

Rabab from the city of Hermel said: “Unidentified persons stole the iron fence surrounding my mother’s grave in the town’s cemetery so they can sell the metal.”

Tony, another resident, said he entered his summer house in the Keserwan area last week and found two masked men inside trying to rob the premises. Fighting with the intruders, he removed the mask of one of the men, only to find out that he was the building’s concierge, a man Tony had known and trusted for over 11 years.

A security source told Arab News: “Criminals are stealing everything with a financial value, including infrastructure. We could be seeing more such crimes soon, but we are ready to thwart them and we are trying to compensate for our lack of logistical capabilities.”

Thefts are no longer limited to people and homes, but include public and security institutions as well.

The archives of Lebanon’s National News Agency were stolen, despite its headquarters being located near the Ministry of Interior and the Central Bank, where security is supposed to be tight.

Thieves also targeted Lebanese State Security, stealing weapons, ammunition and large quantities of petrol from military vehicles.

However, the most organized crimes include kidnappings for ransom.

A Lebanese man, Michel Makhoul, was the target of a kidnap attempt in the Zahle-Bekaa region this week when his car was stopped by a group of men. His fiancee, who was also in the vehicle, managed to escape.

Kidnappers demanded a ransom from Makhoul’s wealthy family before fleeing toward Brital in northern Bekaa, where they were pursued by the army.

One soldier was wounded when military units came under fire from the kidnappers. A Syrian suspect and three Lebanese were arrested, according to an army statement, while Makhoul was released unharmed.

A judicial source told Arab News: “Syrian detainees in Lebanon account for over 40 percent of the total number of detainees in prisons, most of whom have committed theft and murder.”

The source added: “When Hezbollah established illegal crossings to connect Lebanon with Syria during its military operations inside Syria, it turned a blind eye to new parallel crossings that were used by smugglers from the de facto forces who secure themselves cover by Hezbollah militants. The smuggling business expanded from food and subsidized medicine to weapons and dollars, in addition to wanted individuals.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of public sector, military and security employees receive monthly salaries barely enough to secure their needs for two days. They no longer have full health cover and cannot afford to pay for their children’s education.

In 2022, a survey carried out by the Central Administration of Statistics together with the International Labor Organization showed that almost a third of Lebanon’s active labor force was unemployed, while more than 60 percent of total employment was on an informal basis.

The same year Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on poverty and human rights, found that Palestinian and Syrian refugees faced disastrous living conditions in Lebanon, with 88 percent living in substandard conditions, and almost half of Syrian refugee families suffering from homelessness and food insecurity.

The hardships facing refugees often lead to confrontations. About 30 Syrians attacked a bakery in the Ksara area in Bekaa last Sunday, destroying its contents and beating employees who had refused to give them multiple bundles of bread, prompting anger among local residents.

Bakeries ration their products to stop trading on the black market.