The Beirut explosion: are Israel and Hezbollah responsible?

Summary: Nearly a year on from the Beirut port explosion, no conclusions have been reached as to what caused it but an Arab Digest member who witnessed the explosion believes that both the Israelis and Hezbollah are to blame

“Shortly after 6 pm we heard a jet flying at low level from the west and an explosion from the direction of the port,” an Arab Digest member recalls. “A couple of minutes later came the deeper sound of a surface to surface missile followed by another explosion.  The ground then shook violently (this turned out later to be the ammonium nitrate detonating) and we watched in disbelief the plume of smoke and debris soaring into the sky.  The blast reached us a few seconds later, throwing us off our feet from the terrace into the flat and blowing in all the glass.” Our member was talking about the 4 August 2020 blast that destroyed Beirut port, killed 217, injured more than 7000 and devastated huge swathes of the Lebanese capital leading to 300,000 being displaced from their damaged homes. For our member, it was a fortunate escape: bruised and cut… and astonished to find that in the midst of the badly damaged flat, the internet was still working.

Now nearly a year on there are still pressing questions about what caused the blast and who is responsible, questions that the suffering people of Beirut and Lebanon deserve to have answers to. The second and by far the most destructive explosion was caused when a warehouse containing ammonium nitrate caught fire. A common explanation put about at the time was that the explosion had been caused by careless workers. But no concrete evidence has been brought forward to support that claim.

Protests demanding accountability outside the house of interior minister Mohammad Fahmi last week in Beirut, as the first anniversary of the blast approaches

France had declared it would conduct a major investigation. However, a  French judge could not determine conclusively  “whether the explosion was the result of an intentional security operation or whether it was the result of negligence in storing the ammonium nitrate and shortcomings that led to the devastating explosion.” According to a Reuters report, the FBI had arrived at the same inconclusive conclusion.  That was in November of last year.

The French  report raised the possibility of an attack – “an intentional security operation” -together with the claim that the explosion was an accident caused by negligence. Their equivocation and failure to find answers didn’t prevent them from a patronising scolding of the Lebanese . As their ambassador in Beirut put it: “To all this country’s leaders, I want to say that your individual and collective responsibility is considerable, be brave enough to take action, and France will help you.”

The first Lebanese judge investigating the blast was forced out in mid-February after he had attempted to charge cabinet ministers and the prime minister in place at the time of the explosion (see our 4 February newsletter). A second judge has made virtually no headway against entrenched political elites whose central goal is to protect themselves and their fiefdoms while evading responsibility and the truth. On 14 July, Amnesty called for the removal of immunity for senior politicians and government and military personnel:

The protesters’ demand is simple: let justice take its course. We stand with these families in calling on Lebanese authorities to immediately lift all immunities granted to officials, regardless of their role or position. Any failure to do so is an obstruction of justice, and violates the rights of victims and families to truth, justice and reparations.

Despite pleas and protests by the families, justice is unlikely to be allowed to take its course.  The judiciary itself is deeply compromised and beholden to numerous sectarian, business and political factions, a malignant legacy of Lebanon’s  1975 -1990 civil war. As an article on the Just Security website forensically elucidates: “the corruptibility of the judicial system is no accident. Instead, the convoluted structure of the judiciary complements the structure of the rest of the political system – in that it facilitates impunity at the highest levels and protects those who have retained power in the aftermath of Lebanon’s civil war.”

In the absence of an independent investigation, with all the foot-dragging and obfuscation that entails, speculation abounds about what caused the explosion. There are those, including our member, who believe what happened on 4 August last year was the unintended consequence of an Israeli attack on a Hezbollah weapons dump in the port. The cache was located adjacent to the warehouse holding the ammonium nitrate.  The first blast, with its eerie resemblance to fireworks going off, set off the fire that caused the major blast which levelled the port and damaged much of Beirut.

The Arab Digest member, who is familiar with Israeli air force tactics and the consequences of those tactics, is convinced it was a missile strike. “We compared notes with a friend who had observed the jet banking away from the attack, and another friend who actually saw the surface to surface missile flash past her office window.”

The member says according to detailed work done by Lebanese citizen activists in the wake of the attack the ammonium nitrate aboard the Moldavan-flagged  MV Rhosus had landed in Beirut under a cover story in 2013.  It was subsequently seized by port authorities. The supposition of the activists is that it was then trucked to Syria to provide the regime forces of Hezbollah’s ally Bashar al-Assad with the raw material for the improvised barrel bombs they began dropping on opposition-held cities, having run short of conventional ammunition. The member quoted expert sources who estimated over several years the original 2750 tonnes had been reduced to about 400 tonnes at the time of the blast.

Richard Silverstein who describes himself as a writer who “focusses on the excesses of the Israeli national security state” wrote in his blog Tikun Olam just after the blast on 4 August:

A confidential highly-informed Israeli source has told me that Israel caused the massive explosion at the Beirut port earlier today which killed over 100 and injured thousands….The source received this information from an Israeli official having special knowledge concerning the matter.

Israel targeted a Hezbollah weapons depot at the port and planned to destroy it with an explosive device.  Tragically, Israeli intelligence did not perform due diligence on its target.  Thus they did not know (or if they did know, they didn’t care) that there were 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a next-door warehouse.

In his blog, he referred to comments of then President Trump who in a hastily arranged press conference said he had met with some of his “great generals” and “they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.” His comments caused consternation at the Pentagon with Silverstein arguing that Trump had let slip “highly classified information ” i.e. that the Israelis had informed the Pentagon that they were going to carry out an attack on the Hezbollah weapons cache.

Silverstein, though a controversial figure, is viewed by some experts, among them the long-time Middle East correspondent Richard Spencer, as a useful source for Israeli defence information that would otherwise be censored by the authorities.  When contacted by Arab Digest, Silverstein thought it “not likely” that the Israelis would have used a fighter jet to carry out the alleged strike. He thought it too obvious and reckless. He pointed to the modus operandi used against Iranian targets where explosives were placed and then detonated remotely as a more likely attack mode. He said his source had not mentioned anything about using a fighter jet. “It might have been triggered by a drone,” Silverstein suggested. But of the attack itself he was certain.  It was carried out by the Israelis. His source, he said had been contacted by a cabinet minister in the Netanyahu government (the “Israeli official having special knowledge”) shortly after the explosion. Silverstein told Arab Digest he was “totally confident about the source.”

Should this version, or variations on it, be the true narrative it is understandable why Hezbollah and Israel would not want it to see the light of day.  Less understandable, and puzzling, is why major news outlets have not touched the story when it was presented to them by reputable sources. Part of the answer may lie in the fact that the sources, either for professional or personal security concerns have not wanted to go on the record.

A truly independent investigation might answer the questions and uncover the truth but for the Lebanese people, battered by an economic crisis and stalked by the COVID pandemic, finding out what happened that terrible day in Beirut must join a disheartening queue. In a country that has for too long been abused by its political elites and used by foreign powers for their own purposes, seeking answers is a long and arduous task with little hope at its end that justice will be served.

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