In the aftermath of the Beirut explosion on 4 August, fingers immediately pointed to the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah.
The theory was that the explosion was a message to Lebanese Future Movement leader Saad Al-Hariri ahead of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) announcement of its verdict in the case of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in which four Hizbullah members are being tried in absentia.
In some versions of the theory, Hizbullah had been smuggling explosive substances through the port of Beirut. In others, Hizbullah had kept the substances in storage for use in the next war with Israel or, alternatively, Israel had bombed the highly explosive ammonium nitrate as a means to get at Hizbullah.
Such conjectures have since given way to the semi-official version, which maintains that sparks from nearby welding works ignited the 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that have been housed in the port for several years.
But even so Hizbullah still remains in the public gaze. The group is widely seen as being responsible for the deterioration that has brought Lebanon to its present state. Even before the explosion and as the Lebanese economy plunged deeper into crisis, there was mounting criticism of Hizbullah militias.
But the explosion focused popular anger on the Shia militant group more intensely than ever before, especially after the Lebanese 14 March Alliance started to mobilise its supporters to demand the fall of the current government, which is perceived as being Hizbullah-controlled.
Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has denied allegations that the group controlled the port or stored weapons and ammunition there. “We do not operate or control the port. We do not intervene in its management. We do not know what happens or what exists there,” he said.
Nasrallah demanded a fair and transparent investigation of what had taken place and appealed for a united front and cool-headedness in response to what he described as an “exceptional event in modern Lebanese history” that should not be politicised.
While its management falls under the office of the president, currently Michel Aoun who is a Hizbullah ally, the Beirut port, like other national facilities, “is subject to the influence of the political forces, and this is determined by numerous factors,” an informed Lebanese source told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Basic government services and facilities are apportioned among the political forces. The port cannot be said to be controlled by any particular party by tradition. However, it is currently under the influence of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), given that Aoun is president.” Aoun founded the FPM in 1994.
“According to the available information,” the source continued, “Hizbullah does not exercise any exceptional influence over the port, in contrast to Beirut airport, which is situated near the predominantly Shia Dahieh district south of Beirut.”
Hizbullah has long exercised control over the airport, which the political party/militant organisation has designated as a red line. Defending that red line was one of the reasons it launched its takeover of Beirut on 7 May 2008 following the dismissal of the Hizbullah-affiliated security director at the airport.
According to the source, the very location of the seaport in Beirut limits Hizbullah’s ability to assert its control over it and use it towards its own ends. “For one thing, it is adjacent to Christian and Sunni neighbourhoods. For another, the Mediterranean teems with US and Israeli warships that inspect any vessel suspected of transporting military equipment or substances to Hizbullah,” he said.
“Hizbullah also has several ports in the south in predominantly Shia areas. More importantly, it relies on the land route from Syria, out of sight of western fleets, to obtain its needs.”
Would Hizbullah agree to relinquish its arms in order to bring Lebanon back from the brink of collapse?
“If forced to choose between a Lebanon reduced to famine and giving up its arms, it would choose famine,” the source said. “But this doesn’t mean that Hizbullah would not be open to making concessions. It knows as well as anyone else that Lebanon cannot survive the current crisis without international support. An indication of this awareness was seen in its positive reception of French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit.”
The Lebanese press reported that Macron, during his meeting with political party representatives at the French embassy during his visit to Lebanon, had had a separate conversation with MP Mohamed Raad, the head of the Hizbullah parliamentary group. Hizbullah sources have refused to divulge the substance of the conversation, which reportedly lasted several minutes.
The Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper described this as the first meeting between the French president and an official from Hizbullah, which Washington has designated as a terrorist organisation.
The Al-Jumhuriya newspaper reported that Raad had said that “we have no problem with regard to speaking to each other. The problem is that we do not carry out what we agree on. The proof is that we signed the Taif Accord, but we have not implemented it.” Raad was also reported to have described the French president’s propositions concerning what needed to be done in Lebanon as “realistic”.
The Hizbullah MP underscored the need to reinforce Lebanon and to preserve its strong points, “especially the power of the resistance that compensated for the inability of the state to fight for liberation, just as French freedom fighters did during the Nazi occupation” of France, he said, as quoted in Al-Akhbar.
It was also reported that Hizbullah had asked Iran to erase a tweet by the secretary of the Iranian Expediency Discernment Council, an Iranian government organisation, Mohsen Rezaee, criticising Macron’s visit to Beirut in the aftermath of the explosion. Hizbullah realises that Macron’s visit extended a last hope to salvage the Lebanese economy, and it wants it to succeed while having to make as few concessions as possible.
It appears that the conditions the French president made in order to martial international aid do not include the immediate disarmament of Hizbullah. However, they do include assurances of Lebanon’s “neutrality.” This is shorthand for the need for Hizbullah to refrain from intervening in the affairs of Lebanon’s neighbours and to cease its military adventures, already a tall order for the militant organisation.
According to some reports, Macron suggested deferring the question of Hizbullah’s arms until after the US and Iran had reached a new agreement over the Iranian nuclear programme. But while Macron’s proposal may be more consistent with Lebanese realities, it is unlikely to be acceptable to the US and Saudi Arabia, which both want to disarm Hizbullah and oppose keeping the question of Hizbullah’s control over the Lebanese state up in the air.
Aware of the potential resistance from Washington, Macron told US President Donald Trump that US sanctions against Hizbullah were counterproductive and that they only served to strengthen the very parties they sought to weaken.
On the eve of the international donors conference to support Lebanon, an Élysée Palace official said that Macron had told Trump by telephone that the US needed to “reinvest” in Lebanon in order to help with reconstruction. The French official added that his government believed there was sufficient evidence to presume that the explosion in the Beirut port was an accident.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was equally concerned over the precarious situation in Lebanon and cautioned against attempts to destabilise Lebanon and to exploit the crisis to pave the way for increased foreign influence. In remarks to the press, Maas spoke of “non-government agents” funded from abroad, such as Hizbullah, that could exploit the political and security vacuum in Lebanon.
The international donors conference was hosted by Paris on Sunday by video to secure pledges of financial support from participants and to discuss how to distribute aid in ways that reach its intended beneficiaries directly, rather than passing through the hands of corrupt officials.
Due to the urgency of the aid, it appears that European donors at least will not broach the question of Hizbullah’s arms and instead will focus on the fight against corruption, the need to empower Lebanese civil society and the need to hold new elections.
None of these issues present an immediate threat to Hizbullah’s influence. The group has extensive intelligence expertise, and it can continue to pursue its security and military activities despite a degree of foreign monitoring and plans to combat corruption.
Indeed, a not insignificant portion of civil society activists in Lebanon are close to Hizbullah. Ultimately, whatever concessions Hizbullah makes in order to ensure the arrival of Western funding, it is unlikely to lose much of its influence over the Lebanese state and society.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly