In the spirit of the era, the prodigious explosion in Beirut was documented in film in real time from every possible angle. Since Tuesday’s disaster, more and more appalling videos have been surfacing: the priest who fled in the middle of a mass with the church’s ceiling collapsing above him; the mother trying to protect her three young children; the bride whose smile before her wedding suddenly morphs into a gaze of horror, as the shockwave hits the street. Saddest of all, perhaps, is a short clip in which the lens focuses on the first flames, which before our eyes become a hugely powerful explosion. The word on social networks is that the photographer was killed.
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For many, the mushroom cloud that rose above the disaster site in the port of Beirut brought to mind a reduced version of a nuclear blast. The scale of damage is vast. Tens of thousands of apartments in the Lebanese capital sustained heavy damage, reports say that hundreds of thousands have been left homeless. It’s feared that dozens more are still buried under the rubble, in addition to the 135 killed and about 5,000 injured. The lightly wounded, with blood on their faces, were seen leaving the ER without being treated, as the medical teams concentrated on the more badly hurt.
The number of those killed, incidentally, is not yet a record for Lebanon. Deadlier events have been recorded in the country’s melancholy history, such as the 1983 suicide attack in Beirut that claimed the lives of 241 U.S. Marines, who were in Lebanon as a byproduct of the Lebanon War launched by Israel the previous year.
In the long term, the most serious damage could be economic. Lebanon was already badly battered and bruised, in the wake of a prolonged financial crisis that was exacerbated by international sanctions imposed on the country. The explosion, which took place in a depot that contained large quantities of ammonium nitrate, leveled the port area and destroyed wheat silos. There is a real fear that it will be difficult to feed the population in the coming months.
The rickety government in Beirut is now the target of broad public rage, as an absence of supervision made possible the hitches that brought about the explosion. In the immediate term the government will have to find bypass routes to ensure the continued import of goods to the country. In the long term, someone will have to underwrite the rebuilding of the port. Great powers or wealthy states might seek to carry out that project, with a view to extending their regional influence.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates have an opportunity to heap largesse on Lebanon that will reduce Iran’s control, via Hezbollah, in the country. China might identify a potential to expand its “Belt and Road” initiative, in which it is building ports and roads throughout the world. And Russia, if it can only find the budget, would be happy to have another foothold on the Mediterranean coast, along the lines of the port of Tartus in Syria.
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The scenes of the destruction provided Israelis with a dual warning: what a war with Hezbollah is liable to look like, on the southern side of the border, too, when population centers are a target of attack; and the possible consequences of a strike on a site where dangerous substances are held, such as the Haifa Bay oil refineries, with their surrounding civilian population. Possibly the event in Lebanon will hasten the evacuation procedures in Haifa, which have been dragging on for years. The most immediate danger, the ammonia tank, was removed from Haifa in 2017 following a court decision that was a late product of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
Lebanon, like Israel, has a great deal to lose in a future war between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah. Paradoxically, the explosion of the hazardous substances (it’s not yet clear if it has anything to do with Hezbollah’s depots) could push the next war back. The Shi’ite organization is basing its strategy – more intensively since the end of the last war – on dispersing its headquarters and weaponry in the heart of the civilian population, in the hope that the inhabitants will serve as human shields. Two weeks ago, the head of Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Amir Baram, said in an interview with Haaretz that “anyone who goes to sleep with bombs, should not be surprised if he wakes up with missiles.” Even though Israel had nothing to do with this week’s explosion, that threat will now sound louder, with the devastated port being a warning sign.
In the 1990s, following the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc, the New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman hypothesized that war could not break out between two countries that had McDonald’s branches. His argument, that capitalist countries with at least a modicum of democracy do not launch unnecessary wars with each other, has since been refuted.
Still, this week it appeared as though a degree of restraint had descended on the Lebanese arena. That’s true in the immediate range, because Hezbollah will find it difficult to justify revenge on Israel now (for the killing of one of its men in an attack in Damascus on July 21, which the organization attributes to Israel), while Beirut is still burying its dead from the disaster in the port. That could hold true for the long term, too, in light of the dramatic illustration of a tiny bit of the destruction that can be expected in the event of a broad-scale war.