A Hezbollah supporter fires a rocket-propelled grenade in the air to celebrate the arrival of Iranian fuel tankers to Lebanon, in the eastern town of Baalbek, on September 16, 2021. Image Credit: AP

Beirut: The Hezbollah militant group said it trucked more than 1 million gallons of Iranian diesel fuel into Lebanon from Syria on Thursday, celebrating the move as a way of spiting the United States while bringing much-needed aid to a country nearly paralyzed by fuel shortages.

With Lebanon suffering one of the worst economic collapses in modern history, Hezbollah portrayed itself as a national savior, stepping in where the Lebanese government and its Western backers had failed.

Hezbollah supporters lined roads in northeastern Lebanon as dozens of tanker trucks arrived. They waved Hezbollah flags, distributed sweets, blasted heroic anthems and fired rocket-propelled grenades into the air in celebration.

The fuel delivery — which a Hezbollah official said was the first installment of more than 13 million gallons — underscored the severity of Lebanon’s crisis, as well as the government’s failure to address it. Unable to secure help from elsewhere, it has turned to war-torn Syria and economically damaged Iran.

The move appeared to violate US sanctions involving the purchase of Iranian oil, but it was unclear whether the United States would press the issue. Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, is already subject to US sanctions. Although the group is part of Lebanon’s government, it appeared to be acting independently.

The US Embassy in Beirut declined to comment Thursday. But when Hezbollah announced last month that fuel was on the way from Iran, the US ambassador played down any threat of punitive measures.

“I don’t think anyone is going to fall on their sword if someone’s able to get fuel into hospitals that need it,” Ambassador Dorothy Shea told Al-Arabiya English.

The fuel arrived as Lebanon struggles through what the World Bank has called one of the world’s worst economic meltdowns since the mid-1800s. Since the fall of 2019, the national currency has lost 90% of its value, and prices for many goods have tripled.

Fuel shortages have caused widespread electricity cuts and left many Lebanese waiting in long lines to fill up their cars.

The convoy’s arrival highlighted the near absence of the Lebanese state.

The government bodies charged with overseeing energy imports were not involved with the delivery. The trucks drove from Syria into Lebanon over an open stretch of land, not via an official border crossing, with no customs or security checks. It was unclear whether the imports had any legal authorization or if any taxes would be paid on them.

Lebanon’s prime minister, Najib Mikati, who formed a new Cabinet last week and has vowed to work to ease the country’s woes, made no public statement about the fuel shipment Thursday, nor did authorities overseeing the borders.

“The country is facing a serious crisis, so the government couldn’t care less whether the trucks entered legally or illegally,” said Elias Farhat, a retired general in the Lebanese army. “We’re in an emergency situation.”

The shipment was the first tranche of 13.2 million gallons an Iranian ship delivered to the port of Baniyas, Syria, last week, Ahmed Raya, a Hezbollah media official, said. The rest will take several days to offload and transport to Lebanon.

TankerTrackers.com, a group that tracks global oil shipments, estimated that the ship carried less than 8 million gallons of fuel.

The fuel crisis set off a showdown of sorts between Hezbollah and its allies and the United States over who could act faster to ease the people’s pain, a competition that Hezbollah won, at least for the day.

Nearly every step of the fuel’s journey was a challenge to the United States, which has imposed sanctions on the purchase of Iranian oil, the Syrian government, Hezbollah and the Hezbollah-linked company that will distribute the fuel inside Lebanon.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that the fuel had been paid for by unnamed Lebanese businessmen and that most of it would be donated to institutions that included government hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, the Lebanese Red Cross and organizations involved in water distribution.

Cut-rate fuel will also be sold to private hospitals, medicine factories, bakeries, supermarkets and private electricity providers, he said.

Women toss rose petals as they welcome tankers carrying Iranian fuel. Image Credit: AFP

“Our aim is not trade or profit,” Nasrallah said in a speech Tuesday. “Our aim is to alleviate the suffering of the people.”

He also said three more Iranian ships, one carrying gasoline and two carrying diesel, were en route to Syria.

Jessica Obeid, an energy policy consultant and nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said that 1 million gallons Hezbollah reported bringing in Thursday was not a lot relative to the country’s needs but that it could help individual institutions.

A hospital generator, for example, might burn about 26 gallons per hour, she said.

But stepping in where the state had failed was a political coup for Hezbollah, whose image as the nation’s defender had been tarnished by its participation in Syria’s civil war and its opposition to a grassroots protest movement that sought to end government corruption.

Hezbollah has blamed the United States for Lebanon’s economic crisis, claiming that it has put Lebanon under siege. In fact, US sanctions focus overwhelmingly on Hezbollah and its allies, not the Lebanese state, whose dysfunction and corruption are at the root of the crisis.

The United States is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Lebanon, and the Biden administration announced a new $100 million aid package last month aimed at providing assistance for food, health care, security, water and sanitation.

But Hezbollah portrayed the arrival of the convoy Thursday in heroic terms, saying it had “broken the American siege,” a line of thinking that many Lebanese will most likely accept.

“This feeds into the image that Hezbollah has won the battle of perseverance against the US siege, and that kind of image is what the organization is trying to reflect,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.