A True Probe of Lebanon Port Blast Would Undercut Hezbollah

But the powerful Shiite militia and ally of Iran can use threat of force to fend off justice

It was déjà vu for a few hours Thursday in Beirut as memories of Lebanon’s vicious 1975-1990 civil war came alive in streets of the capital. Snipers fired on a mob, riflemen shot back from below, someone fired a rocket-propelled grenade, bystanders scrambled for cover and, after four hours, six people were dead.

And the mayhem took place along the so-called Green Line that had separated Muslim and Christian factions during the civil war.

It is unlikely that this outbreak will devolve to that level of sectarian warfare. Nevertheless, the spurt of violence highlighted a chronic and dangerous truth of Lebanese politics. Any effort to change Lebanon’s sectarian system, or weaken the power of its corrupt components, quickly attracts threats of unrest, or worse.

In this case, an investigation into last summer’s devastating explosion at Beirut port presents a challenge to the ruling establishment and especially to Hezbollah, the potent Shiite party and militia.

Hezbollah is resisting the likelihood that investigators would hold its members or supporters to account. Hezbollah’s autonomy, beyond control of the government or courts, permits it to run a state within the state.

Hezbollah’s s militia is the only one left over from the civil war. It not only operates freely inside Lebanon but pursues warfare outside. Having won prominence as defender of Lebanese territory against Israel, Hezbollah for the past several years took on the less popular role of military ally of the Syrian government as it fought off Islamic rebels.

The port blast, described as history’s biggest non-nuclear explosion, damaged buildings within 15 miles of the capital, killed at least 215 residents, injured 7,000 others, and coincided with a severe economic depression, recurrent shortages of food, electric power and fuel, and a deadly toll from the coronavirus pandemic.

The accidental ignition of a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate, a highly combustible compound, caused the explosion.

After months of delays and political interference, a fearless magistrate named Tarek Bitar has ordered the detentions of former government officials and some security agents. All have refused his calls to surrender or to appear for questioning.

Among them was Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister and high official of the Shiite Amal Party, a close ally of Hezbollah. On Tuesday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah railed against the judge’s actions; Thursday, Amal and Hezbollah followers marched on the Palace of Justice to bully Bitar out of office.

Aya Mazjoub, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, criticized the show of intimidation: “Lebanese are left with a false choice: stability with no justice, or justice without stability,” she said.

Hezbollah blamed the violence on the Lebanese Forces, a Christian faction that dates from the civil war. Lebanese Forces leaders denied all.

President Michael Aoun called out the army and by late afternoon the shooting stopped. With the possibility that sectarian violence might explode, Aoun moved to tamp down passions. Gunfire “is not acceptable,” he said in a televised speech. “The street is not the place to express objections.”

On the one hand, Aoun’s words appeared to reflect a break with his on-again, off-again ally Hezbollah, whose parliamentary votes helped make him president in 2016.

On the other hand, Aoun insisted that it’s up to the ruling cabinet to resolve controversies surrounding Bitar’s investigation. During the past two years, three successive governments have failed to resolve any of Lebanon’s crises. Besides failing to punish anyone for the port explosion, they were unable to make political and economic reforms demanded by Western countries before they provide aid.

Hezbollah is the main cause for the multiple deadlocks. The militaristic party, along with its ally, the Shiite party Amal, wielded veto power over government decisions. It opposed formation of a non-partisan cabinet of technocrats to manage government business and funds. Government money fulfills the need of Lebanese political factions to provide jobs and lucrative contracts to their followers.

In 2019, demonstrators in Beirut and across the country protested government mismanagement and corruption,. They loudly lumped Hezbollah in with the other despised establishment parties. In so doing, they struck a blow to Hezbollah’s self-image as a steadfast defender of the poor.

Moreover, protestors demanded an end to the sectarian system in which government jobs were handed out via religious quotas—an assault on the power bases not only of Hezbollah but every other party based on religious confessions.

Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement party were also the targets of angry criticism and as the demonstrations persisted, joined Amal and Hezbollah in opposition to the demands. Some militants roamed Beirut and beat up dissidents.

Since the end of the civil war, Hezbollah has consistently defended its interests with violence. The most notorious was the assassination of then-former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. A car bomb exploded on Beirut’s seaside boulevard, killing him, a former finance minister and bodyguards. Hariri had opposed the influence of Syria on Lebanon. Syria, along with Iran, are Hezbollah’s major allies.

In 2020, a United Nations Special Tribunal convicted a Hezbollah operative of killing Hariri. Nasrallah refused to turn him over to authorities.

Hezbollah flexed its muscles in 2008 when it sent allies to occupy the western part of Beirut after the then-government tried to remove a top militia agent from the airport where he managed delivery of arms from Iran and Syria.  The government also ordered Hezbollah to dismantle its private telecommunications network in the south of the country.

The occupation lasted four days. The Lebanese army, which was theoretically available to put down such civil strife, remained in its barracks. Officials feared the army would disintegrate into sectarian factions if called into action.

Hezbollah’s allies left the downtown on their own and government efforts to rein in militia activities came to end.

Is Aoun willing or capable to put Hezbollah under state control and also deliver justice to the Lebanese victims of the port blast? He reportedly quarreled with Hezbollah and allied cabinet members this week over what to do about the probe. Aoun stuck to his guns and announced Thursday that Bitar’s investigation must go on.

He also called out the army to restore order Thursday—a departure for any Lebanese government. It would be revolutionary if the army did more to deter Hezbollah intimidation.

But given that the ranks of military are, as in all government institutions, divided up along sectarian lines, that may be a step too far.

It would, in fact, trigger a new civil war.