IN THE evening of February 1st a car bomb killed three people in Hermel, a Shia town that is a Hizbullah stronghold in Lebanon’s east on the border with Syria. The bomb was the second to hit the town in two weeks—the first was on January 16th. Both attacks were claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate that is fighting against President Bashar Assad in Syria.
Jabhat al-Nusra announced its expansion into Lebanon in December. On January 24th, it declared Hizbullah areas legitimate targets, since the Lebanese Shia movement backs Mr Assad. The day after, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), another Al Qaeda affiliate active in Syria and Iraq, also announced it will start operations in Lebanon.
Hermel’s residents are distraught by the violence rocking their town. “They don’t know religion, they don’t know God,” said Amal Mourtada, a 30-year-old shop assistant of the attackers, as she nursed her bruised face and hand, injuries from the first explosion.
But the townspeople also blame those closer to home for the lot: their fellow Lebanese in the neighbouring town of Arsal.
Arsal, a nearby Sunni border town, has long been a smugglers den, formerly of cigarettes and petrol, now of ammunition, fighters and guns. An early supporter of the Syrian opposition, the town’s concrete buildings are crammed with Syrian refugees, among them rebel fighters who come to Arsal to recuperate. A dingy field hospital receives wounded combatants almost daily.
Arsal, too, has suffered for its role. Syria’s airforce regularly bombs the town’s outskirts.
Surrounded by Shia towns on all sides, Arsal’s only road is often blocked by their angry residents. Arsal’s inhabitants are fearful of these impromptu checkpoints. “I will be killed or arrested just because I am Sunni and we are helping the Syrians,” says Abed Hassan Hmeil, a 24-year-old quarry worker.
Similarly, Hermel residents fear their Sunni neighbours and their Syrian guests. “I have many friends in Arsal, but they can’t guarantee my safety anymore,” says Muhammed Alaw, a teacher from the town. Mr Alaw says his students are “enraged” by the violence hitting their town, and have been leaving his classroom to fight with Hizbullah in “significant numbers”.
The Shia movement has long argued that it is only fighting in Syria to prevent Islamists targeting its base in Lebanon. With the violence increasing, that argument appears to be winning over former sceptics. Mr Alaw once criticised Hizbullah for fighting in Syria, but has changed his mind. “Can you imagine how many bombs we would have if Qusayr hadn’t fallen [to regime control]?” he says, referring to a border town that Hizbullah helped the Syrian army take back from rebels last June.
Another brewing battle could rock the fragile border towns yet further. Yabrud, a Syrian town that is the only remaining rebel stronghold along the border, is increasingly surrounded by the Syrian army. A fight there could force rebel fighters to retreat to Arsal, bringing a little more of the war with them.