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- Lebanese engineer, academic and minister of higher education
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As if the Lebanese haven’t suffered enough. For months, they have been caught between an economic meltdown, crumbling public services and a surging pandemic. Now they must count the dead and survey the extensive damage to their capital after two giant explosions on Tuesday.
The blasts, especially the second, were so huge they were reportedly heard and felt in Cyprus. At least 100 people are reported to have been killed — that number will almost certainly rise — and thousands injured. A large expanse of the port and its immediate neighborhood lies in smoking ruin; miles away, streets are full of shattered glass.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government says the explosions were caused when careless welding ignited about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly combustible material used as fertilizer and for bomb-making. By comparison, Timothy McVeigh used about 2.4 tons of the same chemical in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The 2015 disaster in the Chinese city of Tianjin was caused by the explosion of 800 tons of ammonium nitrate.
The equivalent of 1,100 Oklahoma City-size bombs could indeed account for the devastation and the reddish mushroom cloud that plumed gaudily over the Beirut port. But it doesn’t mean Lebanese will simply accept that the explosion was an unavoidable, force majeure event.
Assuming the official account holds up, the disaster again exposes the rot that is destroying the country — an especially corrosive mix of corruption, ineptitude and malign intentions.
The ammonium nitrate was apparently seized in 2013 from a Moldovan-flagged ship traveling from Georgia to Mozambique. But someone — who, we don’t yet know — brought it into Beirut; instead of returning, auctioning or disposing of it, the port management inexcusably allowed it to be stored there for years.
There are no prizes for guessing who in Lebanon might be interested in keeping such vast quantities of explosive material close at hand. The U.S. Treasury and Israel both believe Hezbollah controls many of Beirut’s port facilities.
Diab, whose government is entirely dependent on political support from Hezbollah and its Maronite Christian allies, has vowed to hold those responsible to account. More than likely, some minor officials will be fingered for permitting improper storage of highly dangerous material.
Iran-backed Hezbollah, with its large and well-armed militia as well as its political hold on the prime minister, has nothing to fear from the state. But it will not escape public opprobrium: Most Lebanese will assume the ammonium nitrate belonged to the militia, for use in Syria and against Israel.
Why the chemicals exploded is another matter, rich with possibilities of conjecture. In the court of public opinion, the usual suspects will be rounded up from the ongoing shadow war between Iran and Hezbollah on one side and Israel on the other. President Donald Trump, who can be relied upon to make everything worse, speculated it was a deliberate attack. This will be picked up and amplified by conspiracy theorists in the Middle East.
But suspicions of Hezbollah’s culpability will intensify on Friday when a United Nations special tribunal for Lebanon that has been looking into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is expected to issue verdicts in cases against four Hezbollah cadres being tried in absentia. The men are in hiding, and have not been seen in years; even if they are found guilty, no one expects them to be handed over. Hariri, remember, was killed in a massive blast.
A guilty verdict would increase domestic pressure on Hezbollah, its allies and the government. When Lebanese have finished mourning their dead, anger will return — the kind that fueled the massive street demonstrations that brought down Diab’s predecessor last October.
Even without the Beirut blasts, the timing of the verdict would have been awkward for Diab, who is struggling to negotiate an economic bailout with the International Monetary Fund: Among the hurdles is Hezbollah’s resistance to the necessary reforms.
Hezbollah finds itself uncomfortably positioned as the principal backer of the government presiding over a thoroughgoing collapse of the Lebanese state and society. It will not easily shake off blame for the Beirut blast, or for the Hariri assassination. Even in this country that has suffered so much and for so long, the latest of Lebanon’s tragedies will not soon be forgotten, nor its perpetrators forgiven.
(Corrects the number of Oklahoma City-size bombs that would equal the size of the Beirut explosion in the fourth paragraph.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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