Beirut, once dubbed the Paris of the Middle East, has experienced its fair share of violence. Yet, even compared to the Lebanese capital’s turbulent history, the explosion that rocked the city on Tuesday was of a different order altogether. According to Lebanese officials, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at warehouse 12 in Beirut's port exploded under still-unclear circumstances, wreaking devastation reminiscent of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war in adjacent neighborhoods.
Details about how the explosion occurred remain unclear. Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council formed an investigative committee to examine the incident and release its findings within five days. In the meantime, the ambiguity has fueled unsubstantiated theories about the cause of the explosion.
The incident occurred at a particularly politically sensitive time for Lebanon, fueling conspiracy theories that Hezbollah caused the explosion to intimidate its political opponents. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, tasked with trying four Hezbollah members for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is expected to issue its verdict in its central Ayyash et. al. case on August 7. This proximity to the special tribunal's verdict led Lebanese media outlets to quickly report on the safety of Hariri's son, Saad.
Despite Hezbollah’s history of political violence, including Hariri’s murder, it’s highly unlikely it's the culprit this time. The organization couldn’t expect to avoid responsibility for such an action with the spotlight so focused on their reaction to the special tribunal's verdict. Moreover, Hezbollah would have little to gain – France has already reassured the group that the international community won’t act against it over the special tribunal's decision – and much to lose by causing such widescale harm to Beirut’s civilians.
The group – either to redirect attention or fuel enmity against its foes – has also been eagerly fueling the rumor mill, with Al-Mayadeen and Al-Manar suggesting American or Israeli responsibility. While Hezbollah’s Al-Ahed newspaper denied a strike caused the explosion, these other outlets hosted guests, like retired Lebanese General Charles Abi Nader – a frequent contributor to Hezbollah’s mouthpieces – hinting Jerusalem or Washington were responsible. “Who else has an interest in bringing Lebanon to its knees now?” Abi Nader asked rhetorically.
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Tensions remain high between Israel and Hezbollah since a July 20 strike on Damascus that killed the group’s fighter Ali Kamel Mohsen. The group attributed the attack to Israel. Nonetheless, an Israeli strike can easily be ruled out, despite previous Israeli claims that Hezbollah uses Beirut’s seaport to store and import weapons. For one, the Lebanese Armed Forces didn’t report the presence of any Israeli aircraft in Lebanese airspace on Tuesday. Moreover, while strikes in Syria are acceptable per the existing “rules of the game” between Israel and Hezbollah, any such activity in Lebanon would virtually guarantee the outbreak of a war.
Meanwhile, Israel’s recent behavior points toward a desire to deescalate with Hezbollah. On July 27, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi ordered IDF troops to chase off – but not kill – members of a Hezbollah cell that infiltrated Israel. The IDF has also refrained from releasing its video of that incident, whose occurrence the group denied, to avoid embarrassing Hezbollah or increasing the pressure on it to carry out a follow-up attack. Israel also went to great lengths in recent days to avoid blaming Hezbollah after a cell attempted to infiltrate the Golan Heights on August 3. And while the IDF has conducted its largest troop deployment to the north since the 2006 war with Hezbollah, this was aimed more at deterring the group than inviting an escalation.
Indeed, it seems that the cause of the explosion was the gross incompetence of Lebanese authorities.
In 2013, Lebanese officials seized the ammonium nitrate aboard a Moldovan-flagged ship, captained by a Russian national, en route to Africa. Since then, that cargo of 2,750 tons of explosives – by comparison, the amount is 200 times the explosive material used in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing and 1,375 times the amount used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – remained stored, and improperly secured, within Beirut Seaport’s warehouse 12. One explanation is that dockworkers welding shut a hole in the storage facility set off a chain reaction resulting in the massive explosion. Contradictory reports seem to indicate that the welding operation set off a cache of massive fireworks, resulting in an initial, smaller, explosion, which then set off the ammonium nitrate – accounting for several eyewitnesses reporting hearing two explosions minutes apart.
Alternatively, it seems the ammonium nitrate was housed in bags right behind the storage facility’s metal doors. These doors heated while being welded shut, first detonating a small number of bags, before setting off the rest and engulfing the whole warehouse.
As of the time of this writing, in addition to the vast material damage to homes and property, the number of dead and wounded passed 100 and 4,000, respectively – taxing Lebanon’s already-stretched health sector – and is expected to rise even further. But the impact will extend beyond casualties, as 80 percent of Lebanon’s economy is centered between Beirut and Mount Lebanon.
The decimation of Beirut’s port will have a severe impact on Lebanon’s already-rampant food shortage, particularly since the country imports 80 percent of its food, one that won’t be alleviated by diverting shipments to the Tripoli port. Additionally, the explosion rendered Beirut’s granaries unusable. While Lebanese officials state they have enough wheat until they can resume imports, the Higher Defense Council has begun rationing flour. Moreover, it remains unclear how the cash-strapped Lebanese government plans to foot the bill for the material damages, medical expenses and indemnification payments for deaths resulting from the explosion.
The Lebanese public is already highly dissatisfied with their country’s political class. Coupling that with their inevitable anger over gross dereliction of duty by Lebanese authorities leading to Tuesday’s explosion, and the fact that promised restitution will likely not materialize, and the Lebanese street is bound to burst. The Lebanese government seems to be anticipating that and, in typical fashion, they’re declaring a thinly-veiled state of martial law in Beirut – in an attempt to squelch their people rather than remedy Lebanon’s deep-seated structural problems which led to the disastrous explosion at Beirut’s seaport.
David Daoud is a research analyst on Lebanon and Hezbollah at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). Twitter: @DavidADaoud