Analysis

Sectarian Violence Is Lebanese Elites’ Comfort Zone

Open battle broke out in downtown Beirut this week—and the chances for political justice slipped further away.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
A member of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement fires his gun during the funeral of some of their members who were killed during clashes in the Tayouneh neighbourhood of the capital Beirut's southern suburbs a day earlier, on Oct. 15, 2021.
A member of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement fires his gun during the funeral of some of their members who were killed during clashes in the Tayouneh neighbourhood of the capital Beirut's southern suburbs a day earlier, on Oct. 15, 2021. IBRAHIM AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

Beirut turned into a war zone this week as armed men took over the streets and exchanged fire near the civil war-era front line with a Christian and a Shiite neighborhood on either side. Schoolchildren hid under their desks, people on the streets crouched behind cars, while residents took cover in hallways or lay down on floors to escape bullets that were fired indiscriminately.

Seven people were killed, including a 24-year-old woman who was hit by a bullet inside her home. Shots were fired and rockets launched for four long hours in the heart of the city, and just like that a country that was already mired in multiple crises—including how to pay for fuel and literally keep the lights on—was plunged into open sectarian violence. Fears of another civil war are back—and they could soon trump the country’s quest for justice, activists said.

At around 10 in the morning on Thursday, Shiite supporters of Hezbollah and its ally the Amal Movement arrived at Beirut’s Palais de Justice to protest against Tarek Bitar, a judge investigating the port blast that left more than 200 people dead and thousands injured in August 2020. The protests took place a few days after Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, accused Bitar of being biased and demanded that an “honest and transparent” contemporary replace him.

Beirut turned into a war zone this week as armed men took over the streets and exchanged fire near the civil war-era front line with a Christian and a Shiite neighborhood on either side. Schoolchildren hid under their desks, people on the streets crouched behind cars, while residents took cover in hallways or lay down on floors to escape bullets that were fired indiscriminately.

Seven people were killed, including a 24-year-old woman who was hit by a bullet inside her home. Shots were fired and rockets launched for four long hours in the heart of the city, and just like that a country that was already mired in multiple crises—including how to pay for fuel and literally keep the lights on—was plunged into open sectarian violence. Fears of another civil war are back—and they could soon trump the country’s quest for justice, activists said.

At around 10 in the morning on Thursday, Shiite supporters of Hezbollah and its ally the Amal Movement arrived at Beirut’s Palais de Justice to protest against Tarek Bitar, a judge investigating the port blast that left more than 200 people dead and thousands injured in August 2020. The protests took place a few days after Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, accused Bitar of being biased and demanded that an “honest and transparent” contemporary replace him.

Soon after the arrival of the Shiite protesters, unknown snipers ensconced on rooftops in Ain el-Remmaneh, a Christian-dominated neighborhood, fired shots in what Hezbollah described as targeted killings. The bullets aimed “at heads,” Hezbollah said in a statement. Within minutes of the attack, Hezbollah fighters armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers emerged—likely from the Shiite-dominated neighborhood on the other side—and fired back at the buildings.

Nada Maucourant Atallah, a French Lebanese journalist who lives a street behind the Tayoneh roundabout, where the violence unfolded, hid in the hallway in her building. “I have never been so scared,” she said. “I sat in the corridor for hours, until the firing stopped.” Hani, a Syrian refugee who also lives near Tayouneh, was on his way to get a few papers printed when he heard two rockets fired in quick succession. “I felt like I was back in Damascus,” he said. “The shooting went on for hours, and I was so afraid of a bullet hitting me.” Hani’s Spanish neighbor has since left Lebanon, and Kuwait became the first to ask its citizens to leave the country.

Hezbollah accused the Lebanese Forces, the second-largest Christian-based party in the parliament and a former militia during the Lebanese civil war, of deputing the snipers. Al-Akhbar, a Hezbollah-backed newspaper, went so far as to print an altered photo of the leader of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, dressed in a Nazi uniform and declared that Geagea was the man behind the clashes. Hezbollah’s patron Iran alluded to Israel’s alleged links with the Lebanese Forces and held Israel responsible for instigating the clashes. “Seditions and conspiracies that have their roots in the Zionist regime” will not succeed in destabilizing Lebanon, Iran’s foreign ministry said in a statement. Geagea, however, denied responsibility and chastised Hezbollah for asserting itself in non-Shiite neighborhoods.

The fighting eventually tapered off, but by the end, neighbors who had learned the importance of keeping peace the hard way were once again suspicious of each other and on edge. Young male supporters of the Lebanese Forces and Hezbollah, both wearing black, roamed the streets in their respective neighborhoods, promising protection against the other to co-religionists.

Sami Nader, a Lebanese analyst, said that while the identity of the snipers was unclear, sectarian tensions have certainly been growing. He said Christians feel their neighborhoods were the worst affected in the Beirut port blast and that Hezbollah is trying to bury the truth by threatening Bitar. “It is possible that when Christians saw their streets completely invaded by their neighbors from Shiite community, they reacted,” Nader said. “But the fact that snipers spent hours on the rooftop indicates they may have been well prepared.”

The Lebanese Army arrested nine people but has not yet revealed the names of the snipers or their political affiliation. But several analysts and activists said the violence on Thursday was a message to the Lebanese that they can either have peace or justice. “The message behind the deliberate and purposeful spectacle was very much on display: There is to be no peace, however fragile, unless the pursuit of justice is abandoned and with it any hope of accountability,” said Naji Bakhti, the program manager of the Samir Kassir Foundation, which works on human rights in the Levant and is named after a Lebanese Palestinian journalist who was assassinated in 2005.

“Somewhere below the ash, rubble, burnt grain, and scattered remains of the victims of the Beirut port explosion lies a detail which Hezbollah would apparently rather remain buried. [Thursday’s] display is a declaration that they are prepared to bury it deeper if need be,” he said, adding, “It is not for us to say why that is.”

Makram Rabah, a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, weighed in and said Hezbollah has deliberately impeded investigations since the beginning. “I genuinely believe this [investigation] will implicate them because the nitrate was stored in Beirut on behalf of the Syrian regime,” Rabah claimed. In January, a Lebanese journalist reported that the company that bought the ammonium nitrate that exploded in the Beirut blast was linked to two Syrian Russian businessmen with ties to President Bashar al-Assad. “Whatever Hezbollah does, it will never find any judge to rubber-stamp what it says,” Rabah added.

According to Lebanon’s National News Agency, the Lebanese Judges Association has rejected the call for Bitar’s replacement. On Thursday, the United States reiterated the need to ensure judicial independence. “Judges must be free from violence. They must be free from threats,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. “They must be free from intimidation, including that of Hezbollah.”

But Hezbollah contends that Bitar is an American stooge. Elias Farhat, a retired general of the Lebanese Army, backed Hezbollah’s doubts over Bitar’s integrity. “Bitar was selective in questioning and indicting,” Farhat said. He added that Bitar excluded from questioning all the ministers of justice and of defense between 2013 and 2020 who were aware of the presence of ammonium nitrate and, despite warnings of how dangerous it was, did nothing. “The issue today is how to continue the investigation, by firing Bitar and appointing another judge who will start investigating into the real case of nitrate explosion,” Farhat said.

Legal experts said Hezbollah wants an investigation focused solely on how the nitrate exploded, while most citizens want a thorough investigation into all aspects of the incident, including how the explosives got there and whether it was meant for the Syrian government and protected by Hezbollah.

Beirut’s battle for truth seems to have rattled the powers that be. But those powers still have guns and have now shown they are willing to use them. And that means, for the sake of keeping peace, the Lebanese might have to, once again, give up on justice.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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