Amidst the political aftershocks of the devastating explosions that rocked Beirut last week, and as public anger rages against the ruling order and tensions seethe over options for the country’s future, the Lebanese are still naturally preoccupied with the cause of the disaster that wrought so much death and destruction.
While hopes for definitive answers are still pinned on impartial investigations, speculation continues. Although suspicion was initially directed towards either the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah or Israel, conjectures espousing a deliberate “attack” have receded in favour of the theory of gross negligence, which allowed a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate to become a bomb ready to be triggered.
Yet, even as the negligence scenario has gained currency, perhaps in part because it offers quicker paths to bringing persons to justice and placating public opinion, it has not silenced speculation inspired by the question of cui bono, or who stood to benefit?
Both Hizbullah and Israel were quick to put paid to the conspiracy theories focused on them. Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah denied in no uncertain terms that Hizbullah possessed or operated the warehouses in question or exercised any control over the port or the management of its operations.
His group was not responsible for the explosions or for the negligence that had led to them, Nasrallah said. In so saying, he also implicitly refuted the conspiracy theory targeting Israel, which, had also denied any connection with the tragedy in the immediate aftermath of the explosions. On the other hand, Lebanese President Michel Aoun refused to discard any possibility. In his first press conference after the explosions, he said that the investigations would determine whether they had been due to negligence or to a foreign agency.
Tensions between Hizbullah and Israel have been fraught for weeks as the two sides have ratcheted up military preparedness along the border between Lebanon and Israel. According to a Times of Israel report last weekend, Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said that the Israeli army would remain on high alert along the Israeli border with Lebanon despite predictions that Hizbullah would forego, or at least defer, avenging the death of one of its fighters during an air strike in Syria widely attributed to Israel.
Even so, commentaries in the press affiliated with both sides have denied that the explosions in Beirut were a factor in the tensions.
Observers in Cairo, including intelligence experts contacted by Al-Ahram Weekly, noted that both the statements made by Hizbullah and Israel were carefully calibrated and had not necessarily eliminated all shadow of a doubt regarding their lack of responsibility for the Beirut explosions.
According to one source, “it is clear that over the past five years Israel has shifted its attacks against Hizbullah to Syria in tandem with the shift of Hizbullah’s military weight to that arena. However, the recent cross-border incident at the Shebaa Farms has brought Lebanon back into the mutual escalation.”
According to another, neither Israel nor Hizbullah can be eliminated as possible suspects in the Beirut explosions. “Israel has certainly identified targets in Beirut, and it is fully aware of how an incident of this nature would impact on Hizbullah. In like manner, the fact that Hizbullah does not own or control sites in the port and its insistence that the explosions were entirely unrelated to the trial regarding the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri and other such claims do not necessarily clear it of suspicion,” he said.
Washington had initially hinted at a possible bomb attack in comments made by US President Donald Trump who said he had been briefed on the matter by US military officials. However, the US and even Trump himself then soon backed away from that theory.
The following day Trump said that “I don’t think anybody can say right now. We’re looking into it very strongly.” Washington also offered to help with the investigations, which reaffirmed doubts about the theory that the explosions were deliberate. On the other hand, some Lebanese commentators took the offer as an expression of doubt about the ability of Lebanese investigators to come up with convincing answers.
The French account appears to have gained prevalence. French officials and media quickly reached the conclusion on the basis of preliminary inquiries that the explosions were an accident. The French media unequivocally ruled out a missile attack, and the French news agency AFP posted videos that proved that videoclips ostensibly attesting to such an attack were photoshopped.
Washington appears to be in touch with the political sentiments in Beirut. “The Lebanese people have suffered too much and deserve to have leaders who listen to them and change course to respond to popular demands for transparency and accountability. We support them in their right to peaceful protest and encourage all involved to refrain from violence,” the US Embassy in Beirut said on its Twitter account on 8 August.
But there is still a connection between the more-prevalent government negligence scenario and the conspiracy theories, though this will remain on the back burner unless tangible evidence is produced to confirm a foreign hand. The Lebanese government, which may be the investigating authority, appears to have excluded the foreign-plot scenario if only because any evidence, or at least most of it, will have been lost as a consequence of the massive destruction.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the political explosion that is reverberating across Beirut it is unlikely that people will find a single acceptable narrative, and all versions of what happened will likely be greeted with scepticism and distrust.
Some intelligence analysts may be the most sceptical. They note the smaller explosion that preceded the one that created the huge mushroom cloud, and they also note the equipment and substances that were present in the vicinity.
In addition to the tons of ammonium nitrate, there were also other explosive substances at the port including firecrackers or materials for firecrackers and, according to some reports, there were also oxygen tanks, welding equipment, faulty wiring and possible electrical shorts.
It is impossible to ignore these things and their possible role in sparking the explosions, whether inadvertently or deliberately. After all, the port had all the makings of a huge bomb without the need for a manufactured one.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly