Lebanon after the Beirut explosion disaster
Aug 7, 2020 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
This Update looks at the aftermath of the horrific accidental explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on Tuesday, which cost more than 130 lives, injured thousands and left hundreds of thousands homeless in a country already in an economic meltdown.
While what happened – the accidental detonation of a warehouse full of thousands of tons of the explosive fertiliser ammonium nitrate seized from a Moldovan ship in 2014 – is now becoming clearer, the implications for Lebanon and the wider region are much less clear and are the focus of this Update.
We lead with veteran American Middle East commentator Michael Rubin, who argues that Lebanon’s political leaders must not be allowed to shirk their responsibility for this tragedy, as they have for other disastrous activities and trends in Lebanon. He notes how Hezbollah assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (and 21 bystanders) with a huge bomb which devastated a large area of downtown Beirut in 2005 but succeeded in escaping any accountability and now effectively rules Lebanon. He argues that only accountability for Lebanon’s corrupt and incompetent elites can bring any hope to the country. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.
Next up is another American expert, Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, who focuses further on Hezbollah and the threat to Lebanon’s future it represents. He notes that everyone at first considered an attack on or explosion in a Hezbollah weapons factory as an explanation for the Beirut blast, and argues that this highlights the extent to which the Lebanese are aware that a terrible military conflict which would be many times more devastating than this horrific accident is looming because of Hezbollah’s behaviour. He goes on to argue that only Hezbollah’s disarmament can give Lebanon a viable future, and that now, when Hezbollah is facing strong internal opposition for its role in the Lebanese economic meltdown and other mismanagement, is the time for international pressure to be ramped up to help achieve this. For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Finally, some more analysis of how Hezbollah will react to recent events comes from Seth Frantzman of the Jerusalem Post. He warns that, despite the heat it is taking for its role in Lebanon’s misgovernment, Hezbollah will likely seek to capitalise on the explosion tragedy by playing a major role in reconstruction and playing the patriotic card, while shifting blame for Lebanon’s misfortunes elsewhere. He recounts Hezbollah’s track record of trying and largely succeeding in turning disasters into an even tighter stranglehold on Lebanon. For Frantzman’s full analysis, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Frantzman also noted in a separate article that in 2016, Hezbollah threatened to target Haifa with an attempt to spark an ammonium nitrate explosion like the one in Beirut. (video of the threat here.) Moreover, other analysts have noted that Hezbollah was previously caught stockpiling ammonium nitrate to use as an explosive in London and Germany.
- A very timely new project from the Washington Institue for Near East Policy that very accessibly details all publicly known information about Hezbollah’s international activities as both a map and a timeline. Commentary on what the project seeks to accomplish comes from top counterterrorism scholar and main author Matt Levitt, along with some other notable experts.
- A heartfelt lament for Lebanon’s tragedy from Helen Nasser Assad, a Lebanese woman who had to flee to Israel in 2000.
- Israel has been offering aid to Lebanon in the aftermath of the blasts, but this is being rejected. Israeli hospital administrators are begging Lebanon to be allowed to help. Meanwhile, Israeli charities are seeking to get aid to Lebanon via third countries, including Australia.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- A short video comment on the Beruit blast and Lebanon’s situation from American foreign policy pundit Michael Doran, speaking at an AIJAC webinar yesterday. The full webinar, on “China and the Middle East: Ongoing Challenges for the Next US Administration” is available here.
- AIJAC’s Oved Lovel analyses the implications of the Washington Institute’s new Hezbollah mapping project for Australia’ s policies on Hezbollah.
- Oved Lobel also had a blog on Russia’s efforts to make itself a stakeholder on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
- AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein had an article in the Canberra Times discussing both a mooted China-Iran friendship deal, and the imminent lifting of a UN arms embargo on Iran.
- Tzvi Fleischer, together with other AIJAC staff, argued that talk about creating parliamentary friendship groups between Iran and Australia is a bad idea, especially with Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert still being imprisoned by Teheran on bogus charges.
- Jack Gross on some new ways start-up nation Israel is seeking to use its flair for innovation to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Don’t let Lebanon’s political order shirk accountability for Beirut explosion
by Michael Rubin
Washington Examiner, August 05, 2020
The explosion in Beirut’s port was a human tragedy. Hundreds died in the blast, and thousands more were wounded. The victims transcended Lebanese society: Christians, Sunni, Shi’ites, Druze, supporters of Hezbollah, and Hezbollah’s most diehard opponents. Conspiracy theories erupted — Hezbollah munitions stored in the port, an Israeli airstrike, even a nuclear bomb — but the reality was more mundane. The reason for one of the largest accidental explosions since the 1917 Halifax explosion and the Texas City disaster three decades later was simple incompetence: Authorities offloaded highly explosive cargo into an unsecured warehouse, largely forgot about it, and then allowed welders unaware about the danger they faced into the warehouse to conduct repairs.
The government has put port managers under house arrest while the investigation gets underway. But if there is any lesson from recent Lebanese history, only the weak and never the powerful face accountability for their actions. That was what occurred when Hezbollah detonated a bomb in the heart of Beirut in order to assassinate former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. In the aftermath, Lebanese were outraged in much the way they are today. The resulting Cedar Revolution forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops and gave Lebanon a chance, albeit one squandered by Lebanon’s self-serving elite, at a better future.
The evidence in the Hariri bomb pointed overwhelmingly to Hezbollah as a group and to specific operators within its network. Hezbollah, through a combination of overt threats and posturing and covert pressure, largely sidetracked the tribunal. Rather than become a mechanism for justice, Lebanese fearing the cost of holding Hezbollah to account transformed it into a tool for obfuscation and delay.
What happens in Lebanon never stays in Lebanon. While Hezbollah and the Saudi monarchy are on opposite sides of the Middle East’s ideological, sectarian, and diplomatic divide, Hezbollah’s ability to shirk accountability for the murder in broad daylight of one of post-civil war Lebanon’s most prominent and popular leaders likely inspired Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to believe he could act with similar impunity against journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The best thing the United States and broader international community can do right now is ensure accountability as Lebanon picks up the pieces and rebuilds. There should be judicial accountability not only for authorities in the port who may have been negligent but also for the political leaders who turned a deaf ear to warning about tons of ammonium nitrate stored within a stone’s throw to the heart of the city. There should also be accountability and transparency to ensure that groups like Hezbollah responsible for so many ills in Lebanese society today do not enrich themselves off the construction contracts that will flow into the city, and that elite politicians and power brokers do not likewise siphon off funds as they so often have in the past.
Beirut was once the Paris of the Middle East, and it is easy to fall in love with the city that represents the Middle East at its cosmopolitan best. That the Lebanese have suffered so much both for reasons beyond their control and because of the fickleness of their political machine is a tragedy. Some Lebanese will try to blame Israel, others Syria, and others Iran for their plight before Tuesday’s events, and for their desperation today. Only, however, when the Lebanese people shirk off corrupt and incompetent elites and a political culture where too many act with impunity will the country thrive, and its people achieve the justice they so much deserve.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.
Without dismantling Hezbollah’s arsenal, Lebanon will always be at risk
by Jonathan Schanzer
Al-Arabiya, August 6, 2020
The site of Beruit’s terrible tragedy on Tuesday.
The reported 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that sat unclaimed and uncontrolled since at least 2014 in a warehouse is yet another sign of failed leadership and mismanagement by the Lebanese political elite. At minimum, it was ineptitude.Tuesday’s massive explosions in Beirut were a tragedy. But as is often the case in Lebanon, this tragedy was preventable.
The fact that a massive amount of explosive material was just sitting in the Port of Beirut – long suspected to be exploited by Hezbollah for illicit trade and smuggling – raises troubling questions about whether the Iran-backed terror group, which is the political glue that holds together Lebanon’s current government, had any intentions of deploying that material in an attack.
While we now know that the explosion was a terrible accident, most analysts of the region (whether they admit it or not) had to briefly wonder whether the explosion was a military strike. The notion that an outside actor, notably Israel, might have targeted a weapons depot at the Port was all too easy to imagine, given the history of conflict over the last four decades.
The Lebanese almost certainly understand that the inadvertent deaths of an estimated 135 Lebanese and the massive destruction of property could be a prelude to much, much worse for Lebanon. A terrible military conflict is still quite possible.
Hezbollah continues to stockpile weapons at an alarming rate. Estimates suggest that the group has an estimated 150,000 rockets of varying capabilities scattered across Lebanon, often in high-density population areas. The group has turned the Lebanese population into human shields for its arsenal that is designed to wage war against Israel. In recent months, Israeli officials have warned that Hezbollah is also stockpiling lethal precision-guided munitions (PGMs) that could evade Israeli defenses and hit sensitive targets that could lead to mass casualties. The Israelis have therefore made it clear that pre-emption might be necessary. In other words, they are warning of war.
To be clear, the Israelis don’t want war. For this reason, the Israeli military has held off on striking Hezbollah’s missile arsenal, even as it has expanded alarmingly in recent years. In the wake of Tuesday’s catastrophe, the Israeli military went to great pains to convey that it was not responsible, and that it was even willing to help. Defense Minister Benny Gatz took the unusual step of announcing on Twitter that, “Israel approached Lebanon through international defense and diplomatic channels to offer the Lebanese government medical humanitarian aid.”
This show of goodwill notwithstanding, the explosion in Beirut should be a wake-up call. If Hezbollah’s arsenal is not dismantled soon, more explosions are likely to come.
For Lebanon, the timing of all this could not be worse. Lebanon is more than $90 billion in debt, thanks to the corruption, greed and illicit financial activities of Hezbollah and the country’s political elite. The rescue package will not be easy to assemble, given the demands of the global coronavirus pandemic and a world economy in recession. A financial rescue is even harder to imagine while a terrorist group,
Until Hezbollah is disarmed, the situation in Lebanon cannot be improved, Schanzer argues. And anger at Hezbollah over its recent failures provides an opportunity to accomplish this.
Hezbollah, remains at the center of Lebanon’s politics and economy.
Frustration is now boiling over in Lebanon. Many in the country are laying the blame for Tuesday’s blast at the feet of the political elite and Hezbollah. These frustrations are not unfounded, and they are not new. The people have been protesting against the government’s failures, off and on, for years.
The time is now to act on these sentiments, and to capitalize on the fact that the world has turned its attention to this tiny corner of the Arab world. International pressure can play a role in demanding political reform in Lebanon. But that will only happen if Hezbollah’s weapons, illicit finance and political influence can be diminished. The Arab world, in particular, has a leadership role to play. But ultimately, the prospect for meaningful change rests with the beleaguered people of Lebanon.
How will Hezbollah react to this week’s massive blast in Beirut?
For Hezbollah, the terrorist army that occupies southern and central Lebanon and maintains and arsenal of 150,000 missiles aimed at Israel, the explosion is a mixed blessing.
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Jerusalem Post, August 6, 2020
Smoke rises after an explosion was heard in Beirut, Lebanon August 4, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/ISSAM ABDALLAH)
A wedding photographer was flying a drone in Beirut on Tuesday. As the drone maneuvered over the head of the bride and then circled next to her dress, a massive explosion kilometers away caused a burst of air that sent dust gusting into the frame and caused the bride to run for cover. The camera crew and the bride were the lucky ones. Across Beirut at least 137 were killed, thousands were injured, and the city was laid waste.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning from Thursday as early investigations blamed negligence for the explosion at Beirut port.
Up to a quarter of a million people were left without homes fit to live in, officials said, after shock waves smashed building facades, sucked furniture out into streets and shattered windows miles inland. The death toll was expected to rise from the blast, which officials blamed on a huge stockpile of highly explosive material stored for years in unsafe conditions at the port.
The explosion was the most powerful ever in Beirut, a city still scarred by a civil war that ended three decades ago and reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections.
“No words can describe the horror that has hit Beirut last night, turning it into a disaster-stricken city,” President Michel Aoun said in an address to the nation during an emergency cabinet session.
IT HAD already been a tough week for Lebanon. In the throes of a financial crisis widely seen as the biggest threat to its stability since the 1975-90 civil war, and with hard currency growing ever scarcer, the Lebanese pound has lost some 80% of its value, depositors have been shut out of their savings, and unemployment and poverty are soaring. A report at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies revealed that it will take $93 billion to rescue Lebanon from its enormous debt.
A UN investigation, 15 years in the making, was supposed to finally release details on who murdered Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. He, too, was incinerated by a massive bomb blast. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a UN-backed court located outside The Hague, Netherlands, decided to delay its verdict “out of respect for the countless victims of the devastating explosion.”
The country had been bracing for the verdict in the case of the men charged with planning and arranging the bombing 15 years ago. The four defendants, who are not in custody and are being tried in absentia, are linked to Hezbollah.
For Hezbollah, the terrorist army that occupies southern and central Lebanon and maintains an arsenal of 150,000 missiles aimed at Israel, the explosion is a mixed blessing. It could capitalize on the ruination brought to the more liberal parts of Beirut by sinking its fangs into reconstruction efforts.
It has done this in the past. Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, are masters at turning crisis to opportunity. For instance, after the murder of Hariri, Hezbollah appeared to lose out on its Syrian regime ally. The Syrians, occupiers of Lebanon since the 1970s, had helped midwife Hezbollah to run part of the country. But the murder of Hariri was widely blamed on a nefarious alliance of Damascus and Hezbollah. Protests caused the Syrians to leave. Hezbollah lay low initially.
But Hezbollah is always plotting. A year and a half after Hariri was killed, Hezbollah launched an attack on Israel. The goal here was for Hezbollah to showcase its abilities. Hezbollah claims to be “defending” Lebanon from Israel. Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, potentially ending the raison d’être of the terrorist group. It wasn’t “resisting” anymore. But for jihadist groups, whether Sunni or Shi’ite like Hezbollah, “resistance” always takes the form of aggression, terrorism, ethnic cleansing and swallowing up countries. Therefore, Hezbollah attacked Israel in 2006, and a vicious, destructive war resulted.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah at a religious procession: Hezbollah is adept at finding ways to win or appear to win, even when facing disaster, and will seek to exploit the current tragedy
But Hezbollah always finds a way to win, even if it loses. In 2008 it occupied Beirut after clashes with rival political parties, showing its muscle. The government, with support from Rafik’s son Saad Hariri, had challenged Hezbollah’s use of an independent telecommunication network. Hezbollah had likely used this network to plot the murder of Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah responded with force.
After the 2006 war and 2008 clashes, it sponged up investment in Lebanon, including likely leveraging Qatari and other investment to its own ends. It built up a shadow economy so as to route money to drug trafficking in South America and through corrupt banks linked to Iran. It gained a new opportunity with the Syrian civil war. In 2012 it began to send hundreds of fighters to Syria and basically took over Lebanon’s foreign and military policy. Hezbollah hijacked the parliament and presidency, refusing to name a successor to the Christian president Michel Suleiman. Not until 2016 did Hezbollah get what it wanted, when its ally Michel Aoun was appointed president.
By 2016 Hezbollah was entrenched in Syria, and it had mobilized itself to receive new precision-guided munitions from Iran. It benefited from the Iran deal and likely benefited from the Gulf crisis that pitted Qatar against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia, a guarantor of the peace process that ended the civil war in Lebanon in 1989, tried to pressure Lebanon by appearing to pressure Saad Hariri during a trip to Riyadh. But nothing worked to sideline Hezbollah. It always seems to grow and grow, even if it suffers setbacks like having key members killed in Syria.
THIS WEEK, the massive explosion represents another possibility for Hezbollah. While it may initially get some criticism and heat for the explosion, because it also maintains dangerous stockpiles of weapons all over Lebanon, it will find a way to leverage this to its benefit. Hezbollah wants China, Russia and Iran to help rebuild Lebanon. Turkey and Qatar are also rebuilding the country, but Hezbollah has amicable relations with Doha.
Now Hezbollah may have to wait some time before making its moves clear. This is because it can’t raise its head too much and appear to gloat over the destruction. It will instead try to send volunteers to help and portray itself as the responsible party. It will try to shift blame to Israel and the US. While others are distracted with solidarity for Beirut, Hezbollah will increase its stranglehold elsewhere. This has always been the Hezbollah model. It may increase trafficking in weapons from Syria and construct new bases.
Israel would be reticent to carry out any actions in Lebanon amid tensions with Hezbollah, because Israel will not want to be seen as harming Lebanon more. This means the explosion becomes a perfect smokescreen and solidarity shield for Hezbollah. For average Lebanese, it is yet another disaster in a long series of disasters.
While Hezbollah will pretend to be patriotic, it will work behind the scenes to corrupt everything that comes into Lebanon in the next year.