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Lebanese soldiers clear the road next to a burning bank branch, set ablaze by demonstrators in the northern port city of Tripoli on April 28. Image Credit: AFP

Beirut: On Sunday evening, thugs hurled a grenade at a bank in a residential area of Beirut as incidents of arson and attacks on banks continue amid the dwindling condition of Lebanon’s economy.

An unidentified number of assailants targeted Audi Bank’s entrance in Nouwairy with a grenade, causing major damages to the front of the building and triggering waves of fear and panic among the residents.

As Lebanon faces its worst economic adversity in decades amid the coronavirus outbreak and an ailing monetary situation, incidents of arson and attacks with grenades an explosives on banks have increased noticeably across the country. Bank employees now fear for their lives as demonstrators hold them responsible for the continuing collapse of the Lebanese pound [versus the United States dollar] and the harsh capital control and fiscal measures that have been put in place.

Due to restrictions following the coronavirus outbreak, the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) had to retreat every policeman deployed to secure the entrances to banks.

Not efficient

A cross-section of banking staff members expressed to Gulf News their fears of losing their lives as attacks on banks have intensified. Implying that private security guards are not efficient enough to deter attacks from armed perpetrators, administrator Ghalia Khalil believes that banks should have more police deployed to ensure safety.

“Definitely, the staff [members] fear for their lives amid incidents of violence against banks. Bankers worldwide are always concerned about robberies. Here in Lebanon, we are facing an unusual situation with an ailing economy and the coronavirus outbreak,” said Ghalia.

Sometime ago, an angry client had stormed into a branch and stayed put on a mattress that he had brought with himself to sleep on, an official said. She said the client even threatened to bring in armed men to target the bank if he wasn’t allowed to withdraw his money.

“ISF staff or Lebanese army are skilled and trained to handle [far more] dangerous situations than issues of private security. What can an unarmed security guard do in case of a Molotov attack!” she exclaimed.

On Tuesday, a bomb was hurled at Bank Federal in Damour, while last week, a branch of Bankmed in Tripoli was gutted after angry demonstrators set it on fire. According to senior executive Hania Ebrahim, bankers face considerable personal and financial risks. “What most clients underestimate is that our jobs have become perilous and tortuous. Amid Lebanon’s failing economy [aside from COVID-19], we are at risk of losing our jobs or having our salaries deducted and now this security issue has surfaced to [further] endanger our lives. Every other day, we face angry clients. Banks have already been affected and haven’t been making profit due to the economic slowdown. Policemen should be deployed at banks to thwart such violent attacks. Earlier, we had two ISF members at every bank, but not anymore due to the curfew over coronavirus,” said Ebrahim, who urged the Interior Ministry to redeploy ISF members to protect banks.

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Angry demonstrators also set banks in Beirut, Tyre and Nabatieh on fire recently. Image Credit: Agencies

Mohammad J., a deputy branch manager in Tripoli, doesn’t want to lose his life in a Molotov attack. Having witnessed protesters setting banks on fire after his countryman Fawaz Al Samman, who was shot in last week’s demonstrations, lost his life, Mohammad feels his life is being endangered. “I want to stay alive for the sake of my two kids and don’t want to die in an explosion or fire. Working in a bank has become serious jeopardy. This state of uncertainty makes us prone to lose our jobs and lives. People are hungry and angry and could do anything ... security measures should be tightened up more around banks,” he cautioned.

Molotov grenade attacks and incidents of arson haven’t only targeted banks, but also branches of the Central Bank were battered in Beirut, Tripoli and Saidon.

Cheering and waving

Masked thugs attacked the Central Bank’s branch in Saidon with seven Molotov cocktails, even as the demonstrators stood there cheering and waving.

“The scenes were atrocious and I feared going to work the next day. First we feared angry clients and now this wave of unprecedented violence. I didn’t choose to work in a bank to die in such a dreadful way ... ultimately, we’re only doing our jobs. We understand most clients are angry with the unfair banking restrictions, but I don’t think that can be an excuse to attack a bank with explosives. ISF and police should be redeployed in bigger numbers to protect us,” said Najib Hassan, an employee at a bank teller.

Angry demonstrators also set banks in Beirut, Tyre and Nabatieh on fire recently. A high-ranking ISF officer told Gulf News: “We have encountered an increase in such violent attacks on banks. A number of arrests were made following thorough investigations. We are there to enforce the law. Any form of attacks on banks or any private property is punishable by law and lawbreakers will be referred to justice. The issue of redeployment of ISF personnel to protect banks is also being considered.”

Bassam Za'Za is a freelance writer based in Beirut.