Analysis

Hezbollah Has No Choice but Escalation

The Beirut port blast investigation is turning over dangerous stones.

By , a British-Lebanese freelance journalist focusing on conflict, human rights, and the Middle East.
A member of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement fires his gun.
A member of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement fires his gun during the funeral of some of his fellow members who were killed during clashes in Beirut’s southern suburbs on Oct. 15. Ibrahim Amro/AFP via Getty Images

After a week of violence and bloodshed on Beirut’s streets failed to disrupt the investigation into Beirut’s port blast, Hezbollah’s bellicose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had little more than intimidation and absurd exaggerations to offer in his televised speech last Monday evening. But with the militia leader having played nearly all of his cards with no success at stopping an investigation that threatens the heart of Hezbollah’s power, an already badly battered Lebanon is entering a deeply dangerous crisis. Nasrallah, himself, dubbed the violence on Oct. 14 that left seven people dead, including multiple gunmen and a mother of five children who was shot dead in her own home, a “dangerous and critical new stage” for Lebanon. He should know, given his direct responsibility for this escalation.

More than 200 people were killed and 6,500 wounded when hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port for years exploded following a warehouse fire on Aug. 4, 2020. The blast devastated large parts of Beirut, worsening an already brewing and catastrophic economic crisis.

Over a year later, no officials have been convicted of any crimes related to the blast despite significant evidence of corruption and criminal negligence at play. Today almost 75 percent of Lebanon’s population live in poverty. Ordinary Lebanese were already on their knees before the blast crushed them entirely.

After a week of violence and bloodshed on Beirut’s streets failed to disrupt the investigation into Beirut’s port blast, Hezbollah’s bellicose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had little more than intimidation and absurd exaggerations to offer in his televised speech last Monday evening. But with the militia leader having played nearly all of his cards with no success at stopping an investigation that threatens the heart of Hezbollah’s power, an already badly battered Lebanon is entering a deeply dangerous crisis. Nasrallah, himself, dubbed the violence on Oct. 14 that left seven people dead, including multiple gunmen and a mother of five children who was shot dead in her own home, a “dangerous and critical new stage” for Lebanon. He should know, given his direct responsibility for this escalation.

More than 200 people were killed and 6,500 wounded when hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port for years exploded following a warehouse fire on Aug. 4, 2020. The blast devastated large parts of Beirut, worsening an already brewing and catastrophic economic crisis.

Over a year later, no officials have been convicted of any crimes related to the blast despite significant evidence of corruption and criminal negligence at play. Today almost 75 percent of Lebanon’s population live in poverty. Ordinary Lebanese were already on their knees before the blast crushed them entirely.

The port blast is testing the limits of Hezbollah’s immunity. Hezbollah’s overwhelming military strength is unmatched in the country and, in fact, across much of the Middle East. But due to Lebanon’s constitution and the Taif Agreement that ended the civil war, it has to share power with other factions, all mostly civil war-era paramilitary organizations with political wings. Despite its military and political hegemony over Lebanon, Hezbollah has neither the ability nor will to save the country’s economy or end the widespread corruption the group personally benefits from.

Hezbollah operatives were recently found guilty of assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a verdict that shocked no one and did not change a single thing politically in the nation. Hezbollah still maintains its domination of Lebanon, achieved through assassination, intimidation, armed violence, and—alongside its allied Amal Movement—an electoral stranglehold over Lebanon’s Shiite community.

One man has emerged as a rare leader of the quest for survivors’ justice. Tarek Bitar, the judge tasked with investigating the Beirut port blast and the man at the center of the street clashes, resumed his investigation on Tuesday, despite numerous attempts by Nasrallah and his allies to halt the tribunal. All of Nasrallah’s threats and political machinations have so far failed to disrupt the probe, which explains why the Amal Movement and Hezbollah favored a violent escalation.

Some of the clashes’ details are still emerging. In Lebanon’s worst street violence in 13 years, video footage showed that the protest planned by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, another traditionally Shiite political party that now mostly acts as a junior partner to Hezbollah, to oust Bitar descended into sectarian violence as supporters of the predominantly Shiite groups entered a Christian neighborhood.

Unidentified gunmen reportedly opened fire on the demonstrators, with a military source telling Reuters the shooting came from the Christian neighborhood of Ain El Remmaneh first, prompting an exchange of fire. Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said snipers opened fire on the crowd below and some of those killed were shot in the head. Mawlawi also added that the dead were all from “one side.”

On Monday, Nasrallah laid the responsibility for his supporters’ deaths with Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces—a Christian political party, militia, and current bitter opponents of Hezbollah—a claim Geagea stringently denies.

The Lebanese Forces is one of several similar far-right political parties/sectarian paramilitary organizations that make up the system, where power is allocated by denomination and religion. By far, the strongest of those militias belong to Hezbollah. Geagea’s denials notwithstanding, it would be extraordinarily implausible for anyone other than Lebanese Forces-affiliated combatants to have opened fire on the Hezbollah and Amal Movement protest; snipers don’t just appear on traditionally Christian neighborhood buildings out of nowhere. Yet Nasrallah’s claims that the Oct. 14 demonstration was anything other than a premeditated attempt at violent sectarian intimidation over the judicial probe should be treated with the same due skepticism.

For his part, Bitar has continued his investigation despite the threats. His steadfast and resolute pursuit of political figures summoned to answer questions relating to the port blast has rattled Lebanon’s paramilitary ruling class, an elite band of kleptocratic warlords that has known nothing but impunity for its violence and corruption since the civil war. By issuing court summons to senior Hezbollah allies, Bitar is testing the very limits of the Lebanese state, which has existed solely at the mercy of militant organizations for decades.

Bitar’s work has pushed Hezbollah into an uncomfortable position, and its modus operandi of sectarian escalation has done little to alleviate the pressure. While the bloodshed on Beirut’s streets was a terrifying glimpse of what the future could hold for Lebanon if these militias plunge the country into another civil war, this violence flare-up is still not the country’s biggest concern.

Hezbollah has now exhausted nearly every single routine in its playbook. Nasrallah’s speeches, political sabotage, parliamentary intransigence, and the Shura Council have failed to oust Bitar. Sending armed thugs onto Beirut’s streets has failed to halt the probe. The most concerning situation for Lebanon right now is Hezbollah has painted itself into a corner and only has the most extreme options left.

There are brutal precedents here. Hezbollah assassinated Hariri and then murdered the intelligence officers leading the Hariri investigation. In Lebanon, there is always room for more violence, and the nation’s worry is violence is the only card left in the hands of those in power.

The international community must protect Bitar’s life at all costs. The alternative is another special tribunal and permanent impunity for the architects of Lebanon’s suffering.

Oz Katerji is a British-Lebanese freelance journalist focusing on conflict, human rights, and the Middle East.

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