Cellphone videos of horrifying scenes from Tuesday’s explosion at the port of Beirut predictably fueled speculation about who was behind the incident and why.
Initially, the story was that a warehouse containing several tonnes of fireworks slated for use in festivities had blown up. Then official military sources said the warehouse housed flammable or explosive material, further specifying that it was ammonium nitrate, which was stored in a warehouse for six years.
But even as the Lebanese authorities were feverishly investigating, some of the public were quick to suggest that this wasn’t the result of an accident or negligence, but a terror attack reminiscent of the bombings that rocked Lebanon in the 1980s, or the huge bombing that killed Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 as he traveled in a guarded convoy. The implication was that it was a bombing perpetrated by Lebanese actors.
Fingers were also pointed at Israel, accompanied by the explanation that the bombing at the port was part of Israel’s campaign against Iran. Lebanese pundits cited the fire that erupted on Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr a few weeks ago, an incident attributed to Israel, as well as other recent fires in Iran.
Some of the other mysteries the Lebanese security services will have to dispel relate to the ownership of the warehouse that blew up, the nature of the “flammable materials” it contained and, no less important, whether there are other concentrations of flammable materials in the port, in residential neighborhoods or in other sensitive locales.
The answer to that last question may have significant implications not only for the way Hezbollah operates in Lebanon, but also for the political battle now raging in the country over the economic and health crises created by the coronavirus. Even after it turned out that the explosion was caused by an accident rather than a deliberate attack, the enormous scope of the damage and the large number of people killed and wounded will raise pointed questions about the warehousing of ammunition, missiles, guns and explosives in populated areas.
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The Lebanese are well acquainted with the map of Hezbollah’s bases and missile stockpiles, since their location has been reported in the media and on the internet. Anyone who lives near one is aware of the threat posed by the possibility of an accident causing an explosion or a deliberate Israeli attack. The explosion at the port makes this threat even more concrete.
But dismantling and neutralizing these stockpiles, or moving them away from populated areas, is a sensitive issue politically, because it would mean disarming “the Lebanese resistance” and leaving the country devoid of any force capable of deterring Israel. Lebanon’s political leadership has refrained from demanding directly that Hezbollah disarm, even though the organization’s military character and the fact that it’s defined as a terrorist organization by the United States and some European countries undermine Beirut’s ability to obtain financial aid or loans from the International Monetary Fund to extricate the country from its severe financial crisis.
The Beirut port blast could now at least lead to some changes in the public discourse, and even possibly among some political leaders, resulting in a demand to remove Hezbollah’s weapons and ammunition warehouses from population centers, which the organization is likely to oppose, as it would expose it to Israeli military actions that for now are being prevented as Israel supposedly wouldn’t want to strike civilians.
A higher standard of demands depends on the public reaction to the explosion and whether the country’s protest movement sees it as a national threat that the political leadership is responsible for. In such a case, even if officially the government would only be at fault for neglecting the supervision of these warehouses, it would need to examine and neutralize other storage sites, including ones used by Hezbollah.
In the coming days, both the government and Hezbollah would most likely try to prove it was a higher force, the flammable material’s wear and tear or the heat that caused the incident, and the government would commit to examining each and every potentially dangerous warehouse, without vowing to remove it, in order to avoid confrontation with Hezbollah.
Even when it was just an accident, an explosion of such magnitude at Lebanon’s main port sends a warning message to Iran, too, who only about a month ago said it would deploy ships and oil tankers to Lebanon. There were even talks of a vessel that would host a power station, which would give Beirut electricity. The question of Iranian aid has and still does stir political controversy in Lebanon over its commitment, or lack thereof, to the sanctions against Tehran.
Accepting Iranian aid ostensibly isn’t a violation of U.S. sanctions, but the international community, Israel and the United States in particular, fear these ships, if they do make it to Lebanon, would start a regular supply line not only of oil, flour and medicine, but also of weapons, ammunitions and missile parts. Thus, even if some of the Beirut port terminals can resume operations, Lebanon’s fear of an attack – Israeli or otherwise – targeting Iranian vessels becomes real even if no such intention exists at this point.
Beyond the political implications, the Lebanese government has suffered a massive blow to its most vital supply line, potentially affecting its ability to bring in basic goods and maintain regular export and import. The Beirut port, which recently underwent several phases of development, is one of the most important ones in the Middle East, transferring goods from Europe to Syria, Iraq, Jordan and the Gulf states. It is also one of Lebanon’s main sources of income. Its shutdown, at a time when Lebanon needs every dollar, would do its part in the political turmoil that is threatening the country’s stability.