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By Jonathan Schanzer
Tuesday’s massive explosions in Beirut were a tragedy. But as is often the case in Lebanon, this tragedy was preventable.
The reported 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that sat unclaimed and uncontrolled since at least 2014 in a warehouse is yet another sign of failed leadership and mismanagement by the Lebanese political elite. At minimum, it was ineptitude.
The fact that a massive amount of explosive material was just sitting in the Port of Beirut – long suspected to be exploited by Hezbollah for illicit trade and smuggling – raises troubling questions about whether the Iran-backed terror group, which is the political glue that holds together Lebanon’s current government, had any intentions of deploying that material in an attack.
While we now know that the explosion was a terrible accident, most analysts of the region (whether they admit it or not) had to briefly wonder whether the explosion was a military strike. The notion that an outside actor, notably Israel, might have targeted a weapons depot at the Port was all too easy to imagine, given the history of conflict over the last four decades.
The Lebanese almost certainly understand that the inadvertent deaths of an estimated 135 Lebanese and the massive destruction of property could be a prelude to much, much worse for Lebanon. A terrible military conflict is still quite possible.
Hezbollah continues to stockpile weapons at an alarming rate. Estimates suggest that the group has an estimated 150,000 rockets of varying capabilities scattered across Lebanon, often in high-density population areas. The group has turned the Lebanese population into human shields for its arsenal that is designed to wage war against Israel. In recent months, Israeli officials have warned that Hezbollah is also stockpiling lethal precision-guided munitions (PGMs) that could evade Israeli defenses and hit sensitive targets that could lead to mass casualties. The Israelis have therefore made it clear that pre-emption might be necessary. In other words, they are warning of war.
To be clear, the Israelis don’t want war. For this reason, the Israeli military has held off on striking Hezbollah’s missile arsenal, even as it has expanded alarmingly in recent years. In the wake of Tuesday’s catastrophe, the Israeli military went to great pains to convey that it was not responsible, and that it was even willing to help. Defense Minister Benny Gatz took the unusual step of announcing on Twitter that, “Israel approached Lebanon through international defense and diplomatic channels to offer the Lebanese government medical humanitarian aid.”
This show of goodwill notwithstanding, the explosion in Beirut should be a wake-up call. If Hezbollah’s arsenal is not dismantled soon, more explosions are likely to come.
For Lebanon, the timing of all this could not be worse. Lebanon is more than $90 billion in debt, thanks to the corruption, greed and illicit financial activities of Hezbollah and the country’s political elite. The rescue package will not be easy to assemble, given the demands of the global coronavirus pandemic and a world economy in recession. A financial rescue is even harder to imagine while a terrorist group,
Hezbollah, remains at the center of Lebanon’s politics and economy.
Frustration is now boiling over in Lebanon. Many in the country are laying the blame for Tuesday’s blast at the feet of the political elite and Hezbollah. These frustrations are not unfounded, and they are not new. The people have been protesting against the government’s failures, off and on, for years.
The time is now to act on these sentiments, and to capitalize on the fact that the world has turned its attention to this tiny corner of the Arab world. International pressure can play a role in demanding political reform in Lebanon. But that will only happen if Hezbollah’s weapons, illicit finance and political influence can be diminished. The Arab world, in particular, has a leadership role to play. But ultimately, the prospect for meaningful change rests with the beleaguered people of Lebanon.