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Hezbollah assassination in Beirut: 3 Questions with our correspondent

GlobalPost correspondent Tracey Shelton answers the key questions about what Hassan Laqis' killing means for Lebanon and the region.

Hezbollah commander killedEnlarge
Mourners carry the coffin of Hassan Laqis, one of Hezbollah's top commanders, during his funeral in the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek on Dec. 4, 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, a senior Hezbollah military commander was gunned down in front of his home in southern Beirut.

Hezbollah confirmed the assassination, though it did not detail how Hassan Laqis was killed. Lebanese media reports said he was shot in his apartment building's garage.

The Shiite militant group immediately blamed Israel for the killing. Hezbollah has recently been careful to avoid blaming Sunni militants for violent attacks like the one that killed Laqis, for fear of further inflaming sectarian tensions already destabilizing Lebanon.

From Beirut, GlobalPost correspondent Tracey Shelton answered key questions about what his killing means for Lebanon and the region.

What's the domestic significance of today's killing in Lebanon? What's the feeling on the streets of Beirut?

There is a lot of talk on the street. Rumors about who's behind the killing are circulating, though Hezbollah is already holding Israel responsible. In recent attacks where parties within Lebanon were blamed, fears of street fights or retaliation bombings were high. But at this stage, most civilians are not voicing personal security concerns.

Residents in areas controlled by Hezbollah say there are extra security measures in place. Checkpoints are on high alert. Hezbollah's military is guarding every street. For senior members of both the political and military units of Hezbollah this is certainly a major shake up. But for most residents of Beirut, life continues as normal.

Laqqis fought in Syria's civil war, and Hezbollah has blamed Israel for his death, an accusation Israel denies. What does the killing mean for the already-tense relationships among these actors?

The standoff between Israel and Hezbollah has already been strained by the Syrian conflict.

Israel rarely makes statements when accused of responsibility for attacks like this, but today they were quick to deny the charges.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told the Associated Press, “These automatic accusations are an innate reflex with Hezbollah. They don't need evidence, they don't need facts, they just blame anything on Israel.”

Hezbollah's statement, meanwhile, implied a lack of evidence. “Israel automatically stands accused of responsibility,” the group said, while promising that Israel will bear “all consequences of this heinous crime.”

Local residents, even those loyal to Hezbollah, said they were unconvinced of Israel’s involvement.

Theories about the real culprit vary. Some blame Sunni Islamic groups within the Syrian opposition. Others blame more local enemies, again pointing to the Sunni- Shia divide within Lebanon (most evident right now in Tripoli, where 12 have died so far in clashes this week). Another story circulating among the Shia community is that Hezbollah itself could have carried out the assassination after learning that Hassan al-Laqqis was, hypothetically, supplying information to Israel.  

Do you take this as a sign of the Syrian conflict's continued spillover?

Many recent attacks in Lebanon have been linked to the Syrian conflict, including last month's bombing that targeted the Iranian embassy. Sunni jihadist group the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility, and issued a clear warning via Twitter that attacks would continue unless Shiite militants in Lebanon and Iran ceased their support of Bashar al-Assad.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon over the course of the conflict. Syrians now make up an estimated one-quarter of Lebanon’s population, which numbered around 4 million prior to the Syrian conflict. Many among these refugees are struggling civilian families, but there's also a large percentage of upper-class, influential individuals and militant groups from both sides of the Syrian conflict organizing reinforcements and resources for fighters inside Syria.

This influx, and international interference in the neighboring conflict in Syria have had an undeniable effect on Lebanon's political stability. With a similar religious and racial mix, and a common enemy in bordering Israel, Syria's conflict is a major driver of tensions both within Lebanon and between Lebanon and its neighbors. Whether directly or indirectly related, I believe this recent assassination is no exception.

Follow Tracey on Twitter @tracey_shelton.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/131204/hezbollah-assassination-beirut-3-questions-our-corresponden