Beirut in ruins

The Lebanese capital, already reeling under an economic crisis, is devastated by an explosion caused by a stockpile of ammonium nitrate.

Published : Sep 04, 2020 07:00 IST

The site of the explosion in Beirut on August 4.

The site of the explosion in Beirut on August 4.

flattened Beirut, the Lebanese capital, on August 4, according to some experts, was comparable in power to the atomic bomb explosion in Nagasaki 75 years ago. It was a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse in the harbour area of Lebanon’s most important port that caught fire and exploded. The chemical, which is used mainly for making fertilizers but has been used on occasion by states as well as non-state actors to make bombs, was lying unattended for more than six years.

According to initial reports, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was stored in the port. But some experts noted that if that was true, then the explosion would have been much more devastating. By mid August, 250 people had died and 6,000 had got injured. More than 300,000 people were left homeless. Buildings located near the port area were either completely destroyed or badly damaged. In other parts of Beirut, windows and interiors of buildings were shattered. Such was the impact of the blast that psychologists trained to help victims of war and torture have been deployed to provide emergency health care.

It is estimated that $15 billion, a quarter of the country’s 2019 gross domestic product (GDP), will be needed to get the city back on its feet and functioning again. People of Lebanon were already impoverished by the economic crisis that has gripped the country for the past five years. The Lebanese currency has lost 80 per cent of its value in the past eight months. Inflation is at 90 per cent currently. According to Ramzi Musharaffieh, Social Affairs Minister in the outgoing government, 75 per cent of the population is in urgent need of food aid. Javad Zarif, Iranian Foreign Minister who was on a solidarity visit to Beirut in the second week of August, said the international community should focus on helping the Lebanese people in their hour of need. The United States and France are using the tragedy to further their agenda in the region. The calls by Western leaders for the installation of a technocratic government is viewed as an attempt to keep anti-Zionist forces such as the Hezbollah out of the government.

Iran has demanded that the U.S. lift the economic sanctions it has imposed on Lebanon. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said that “the blast should not be used as an excuse to further political aims”. His comments came after French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beirut on August 8. “Some countries are trying to politicise these blasts for their own interests,” the spokesman said. Iran sent emergency medical supplies, pop-up hospitals and food to Lebanon. Syria chipped in by opening its borders and sending medical teams to Beirut.

The Lebanese diaspora has been quick to lend a helping hand. It is said that there were more Lebanese residing outside the country than within. The expatriate community donated money and material. The money was useful in procuring 138 tonnes of glass needed to repair the broken windows and doors. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Western governments are not willing to channel aid through government agencies unless political and economic reforms are implemented. Lebanon had announced earlier in the year that it would default on its $30-billion foreign debt and requested an emergency loan from the IMF. An emergency summit of donor countries held on August 7 to help the blast victims managed to raise only $297 million. This money will be earmarked to augment health care facilities for the people of Lebanon. Qatar was the biggest single donor, followed by France and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates did not figure on the list.

Doubts have been raised about the origin and cause of the blast. According to Viktor Murakhavosky, a Russian military expert, the amount of ammonium nitrate stored in the warehouse might have been much smaller than the original stockpile offloaded from the ship that was impounded six years ago. If 2,750 tonnes of the chemical had exploded, the whole of Beirut would have been wiped out, he claimed. Lebanese officials and a former Minister said a lot of ammonium nitrate had been pilfered from the docks over the years. Robert Baer, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative, told CNN that certain aspects of the explosion “suggest the combustion of military grade materiel along with the ammonium nitrate”. As a result of the explosion, a huge mushroom-like cloud had formed in the skies of Beirut.

However, Prime Minister Hassan Diab was quick to characterise the explosion as an accident and as a reflection of the endemic corruption plaguing the country. He blamed the previous administrations for the incident.

The ship carrying the chemical was impounded by the port authorities in 2013 for reasons that are still not clear. The cargo, which originated from Georgia, was destined for a client in Mozambique. The paper trail regarding the exact nature of the sale of the chemical is unclear. In 2013, Lebanon was passing through a period of political turmoil. Between 2014 and 2016, the country could not even elect a President. The civil war in Syria put further strain on Lebanon’s fragile polity and economy.

President Michel Aoun told the media that he was informed about the existence of the dangerous consignment only in the middle of July and that he had immediately given orders to the military and security agencies “to do what was needed”. Aoun also emphasised that the previous governments were similarly informed about the existence of the volatile cargo.

Investigators were trying to find out whether the blast was an accident or was intentionally triggered. Although Aoun said that negligence might have caused the accident he did not rule out internal sabotage or “external intervention”. One of the theories being investigated is the possible involvement of Israel in the incident. During an address to the United Nations General Assembly In September 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called the warehouse where the chemicals were stored “a Hezbollah arms depot”. Israel has denied any involvement in the explosion but senior members of the Netanyahu cabinet claim that the explosions destroyed a Hezbollah missile arsenal. U.S. President Donald Trump did not waste time to voice his suspicion that the explosion was not an accident. He said the U.S. Army generals he had conferred with were of the view that the blast was caused by a bombing. He did not identify the generals he had spoken to. However, Defence Secretary Mark Esper was quick to contradict his boss, saying that all indicators pointed to an accidental explosion. Trump later changed his position by saying that nobody knew for sure what caused the explosion.

The Hezbollah’s warning

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader and the pre-eminent political figure in the country, said that “negligence, corruption and nepotism” had played a role in the tragedy and demanded quick answers. He warned that lack of accountability would send the wrong message to the Lebanese people that “there is no state”. Nasrallah and several leading Lebanese politicians, including Aoun, have rejected calls for an independent international inquiry, saying that “it would be a waste of time” and that it would be unnecessarily “politicised”.

The Hezbollah leader, however, issued a strong warning that if the probe found that Israel had a role in the explosion, then “it will pay a price the size of the crime”.

At the end of July, the Israeli Defence Minister had threatened to destroy Lebanon. The port of Beirut is Lebanon’s key economic lifeline. Israel has since the 1980s adhered to the Dahiya doctrine, named after a suburb in Beirut which was devastated by the Israeli army during its occupation of the city in 1982-83. The doctrine subscribes to the use of maximum lethal force against civilian targets and infrastructure in order to teach the enemy a lesson.

Following Macron’s visit to Beirut, France unilaterally started an inquiry by despatching 20 forensic inspectors to Lebanon. The U.S. followed suit by sending a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) team. They claim to be working under the overall supervision of the Lebanese government.

The resignation of the government led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab less than a week after the explosion has left a power vacuum in the country. Diab is continuing as the caretaker Prime Minister. France and the U.S. are exploiting the situation to the hilt. It is obvious that the game plan is to isolate the Hezbollah movement and its allies in the country. Rumours are being spread that the Hezbollah, which was controlling the port area, had failed to ensure the removal of the chemical dump.

The Hezbollah and its allies are the strongest political grouping in the country and enjoy the unstinting support of the overwhelming majority of the Shia population. No viable government in Lebanon can be formed without their backing. The Shias, who were discriminated against and ostracised politically in the past, constitute around 40 per cent of the population. The Hezbollah is also a key member of the “axis of resistance” that has played an important role in defeating the U.S.- backed forces in Syria. It was also in the forefront of the fight against the Islamic State.

The Lebanese Parliament declared a state of emergency soon after the blasts and gave the military sweeping powers to control the situation as mass protests and violence broke out in Beirut. The protests, which had taken an anti-establishment stance, was hijacked by vested interests out to change the political map of the country by targeting the Hezbollah and its Shia ally, the Amal Movement.

Effigies of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and Parliament Speaker and Amal leader Nabil Berri were seen hanging from public squares. The protests were, however, short-lived as the weary residents of Beirut had more urgent matters to attend to like finding food and shelter for their families.

Mass protests in October last year had forced the resignation of the Saad Hariri government. Hariri is viewed as the representative of Lebanon’s venal elite. One per cent of Lebanon’s population has more wealth than 50 per cent of the population which lives below the poverty line. There is a concerted attempt to bring him back as Prime Minister.

Several tumultuous events have rocked Beirut since the 1970s. The city was devastated many a time as a consequence of civil wars and Israeli military occupation. It was rebuilt two decades ago and became a major tourist, entertainment and business hub of the Arab world. It will now have to start all over again.

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