Whether accidental or not, Beirut suffers.
By Abu Khalil
Photo by Daniel Carde
Anyone who has been to Beirut loves Beirut. Combine a beautiful land with a beautiful people and animate them all with all the quintessential human passions of food, love, and political intrigue. It is no wonder that up until the onset of the Lebanese Civil War, it was referred to as the ‘Paris of the Middle East.’ In my humble opinion, Paris is a shithole compared to the delicately placed Mediterranean capital of Lebanon. Nonetheless, beauty comes with a price. Lebanon has been plagued by factionalism, ethnic tensions, and corruption since its creation in 1943. Lebanon has endured nearly 60 years of domestic and regional fighting. Unclaimed explosions are nothing new. Neither is the endless speculation regarding culprits. Unfortunately, all we can do here is speculate when all the regional actors work tirelessly, sometimes in tandem, to obfuscate the truth.
Every few years, a ‘massive explosion’ goes off in Beirut that is never explained. One of these many explosions was the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. A ‘massive explosion’ equivalent to roughly 2,200 pounds of TNT was detonated as Hariri’s motorcade passed a narrow strip of roadway in front of the St. George Hotel. Twenty-two people were killed. Fifteen years later and nobody knows who the culprit was. A dozen or so books have been published fingering the Mossad, Syria, Iran, or the Saudis as the guilty party. We will never know who the real culprits are.
The same goes for the horrific explosion seen yesterday in Beirut. The early evening blast at Beirut’s central port created a massive seismic shock that shook windows as far as Cyprus.Lebanon’s Health Ministry has estimated the death toll to 78 killed as well as 3,700 wounded. Those numbers are likely to markedly grow. Doctors are performing surgeries by flashlight. Five million people are without electricity. Half the city’s windows were shattered. Beirut was already enduring a year of social unrest, economic collapse, and pandemic. This catastrophe will surely bring about more suffering.
Many would argue, accidental explosions don’t happen in Lebanon unless Israel or Iran give a green light. To be abundantly clear, none of the regional actors have anything to be gained by the truth of the matter being exposed. Naturally, the primary suspect is Israel. Israel gallants around the region bombing targets in Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and of course, Gaza. Yet admission on part of the Lebanese government or the de facto power broker’s in the country Hezbollah would be analogous to admission that they are powerless against Israeli aggression. More importantly, it would demand a response by Hezbollah – a virtual subsidiary of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Israel is keen to avoid another embarrassment as it did in 2006 with Hezbollah winning the optics portion of the battle. Israel has made clear that it will hold Iran accountable for any attacks by Hezbollah. Hence, an admission of Israeli culpability by Lebanon or Hezbollah would result in a near instant war between Iran and Israel. Neither Iran nor Israel are ready to go to war with each other. In the absence of using its nukes at Dimona, Israel would eventually succumb to the much larger and less strategically vulnerable Islamic Republic. Ultimately, this would drag the U.S. into the conflagration predictably followed by Iranian patron Russia coming to its aid. All involved parties have every interest in avoiding war but continuing the intermittent bloodshed. Until there is a paradigm shift in the strategic balance, there will be no protracted war. Yet Israel seems determined to upend this balance. They want war, just not yet or not without U.S. support.
Israel has the largest interest in a destabilized Lebanon and has a habit of destroying Iranian munitions in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. On June 26th, the Israelis are accused of deploying another unexplained ‘massive explosion’ at the Khojir missile-production complex in Iran. Just four days later, another ‘massive explosion’ killed 19 people at a medical clinic north of Tehran. On July 2, a ‘massive explosion’ erupted at the underground Natanz nuclear facility. Though Israel has not officially taken responsibility, the head of Israeli intelligence, Yossi Cohen unabashedly proclaimed to the New York Times that Israel had detonated the bomb that caused the ‘massive explosion.’
Causing further suspicion and confusion are tweets made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few hours prior to the explosion.
The available details of Tuesday’s Beirut explosion are both contradictory and murky. There are reports from the Lebanese Prime Minister that “2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate” were stored in the port facility that exploded. Naturally, a formal Israeli denial of involvement was echoed by Hezbollah.
However, top U.S. military commanders initially appeared to be convinced that this was an attack, not an accident. President Trump repeated the assessment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “They seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.”
Let’s take a look at that 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate. This is the same chemical compound deployed in the Oklahoma City bombing. For perspective, Timothy McVeigh used 41 50-lb bags of ammonium nitrate for the OK City bombing — about 1 ton of explosives. The official story is that the ammonium nitrate was stored in the port warehouse and somehow detonated. This port facility is reported to be 500 meters underground. What’s clear is that there were indeed two explosions. Whether an aggressor could have fired a weapon at the facility or detonated the ammonium nitrate from within remains to be seen. Nonetheless, there is at the very least evidence of gross negligence by the Lebanese government. Records of inspection and acknowledgement of the danger of the stored ammonium nitrate are an utter embarrassment to an already ailing Lebanese regime.
Unfortunately, the truth of this matter will likely be confined to the heap of speculations around several decades of blameless explosions in the region. In Lebanon, it seems all anyone can ever do is speculate and mourn.