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AnalysisNasrallah cancels speech; has threatened Haifa ammonia tanks

Beirut blast may see Lebanese scrutiny turn to Hezbollah’s weapon stores

Terror group liable to catch flack for keeping its explosives in civilian areas; IDF closely monitoring fallout of explosions, still bracing for possible border attack

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The massive blast in Beirut’s port on Tuesday evening appears to have been caused by a deadly combination of corruption, incompetence, negligence and 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. At this stage, the explosion has no direct connection to Israel, the Hezbollah terror group or the current round of tensions between them, but it has the potential to enormously impact all three.

The blast claimed the lives of over 100 people, injured thousands more to varying degrees, and battered the homes of at least 300,000 people in the city. In the hours following the explosions, likened by residents of the Lebanese capital to an “atomic bomb,” many of the basic questions surrounding them remain unanswered, including how exactly the ammonium nitrate was detonated and why such a dangerous quantity was being stored there for so long.

The chemical compound — used in fertilizers, as well as explosives — had been impounded at the port in 2014 after being confiscated from a Russian-owned cargo ship called the Rhosus, which experienced technical difficulties at the Beirut Port.

Although Lebanese officials knew of the dangers associated with the material, it remained in storage there as the owners of the Rhosus battled with the state of Lebanon in court over ownership of the volatile cargo.

Ammonium nitrate is not ordinarily flammable, but can detonate if exposed to intense heat. Initial reports from Lebanon indicate that a fire that caused a smaller explosion in a warehouse containing fireworks may have provided the burst of heat needed to set off the ammonium nitrate. Others have speculated that Hezbollah weapons caches may have played a role.

The investigation into the cause of the blasts has only just begun. However, early on one important fact was established: Israel had nothing to do with them.

Both Israeli officials and sources close to the Hezbollah terror group swiftly dismissed the notion that the Jewish state had a role in the blasts, despite persistent, wholly unsubstantiated rumors that fighter jets were seen in the area before the explosions and that a missile was spotted striking the port.

A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Anwar AMRO / AFP)

The rapid denial by both sides marked a significant development, as over the past several weeks tensions between Israel and Hezbollah have been at their highest point in nearly a year, with the terror group threatening to attack the Israel Defense Forces over the death of one of its fighters in an airstrike attributed to Israel outside Damascus last month.

In light of those threats, the IDF went on high alert all along the Lebanese and Syrian borders, both girding defensively for a possible attack by Hezbollah — keeping troops away from areas vulnerable to attack and stepping up surveillance along the frontiers — and preparing to respond forcefully if such an assault occurred by deploying infantry, special forces and artillery reinforcements to the area.

Israeli soldiers work on tanks near the Lebanon border on July 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

As of Wednesday afternoon, the military remained at this heightened level of preparedness while watching the events in Lebanon unfold to see if the explosions will cause Hezbollah to abandon — or at least postpone — its vendetta, allowing the IDF to scale back its readiness along the border.

Lebanon already on the brink

The longer-term implications that the devastating blast will have on Hezbollah, the Lebanese government and the wider Middle East are impossible to predict at this early stage, when people in Beirut still remain missing and trapped under rubble.

The timing of the explosions could not be worse for Lebanon, coming amid the country’s economic collapse, the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing popular protests against corruption and incompetence. Before the blasts, Lebanon did not have enough fuel to keep the electricity running to its hospitals full-time without the use of back-up generators, let alone to average citizens.

The wide-scale destruction in the Lebanese capital, the near-absolute destruction of its most important port, and the fury of the Lebanese populace at a government that allowed this to happen will undoubtedly have lasting consequences on a country already in the throes of political turmoil.

Anti-government protesters run away as the riot police fired tear gas against them during a protest in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, December 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Will it lead to a more capable, technocratic government, able to set the country on a more stable track, preferably — for Israel, the West and the anti-Iran Arab coalition — without Hezbollah as a key player in the country’s politics? Or will we see a reversion to the violent sectarianism that led to Lebanon’s decades-long civil war and the current incompetence and corruption? It’s far too early to say.

Though much of the anger already expressed by the Lebanese population has been directed toward the government in general, as the country picks itself up and fully assesses the situation, Hezbollah may quickly find itself facing criticism over its practice of storing weapons and explosive materials in civilian areas — including large quantities of ammonium nitrate.

A Lebanese army helicopter drops water at the scene where an explosion hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Hezbollah’s history of storing weapons in people’s homes and inside densely populated cities is well-documented by the United Nations, the Israeli military and Western news outlets, as well as international human rights groups.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, most homes in Shiite towns along the Lebanese border contain some kind of weapons cache, for guns, rockets or other materiel.

A satellite image released by the Israel Defense Forces showing three sites near Beirut’s international airport that the army says are being used by Hezbollah to convert regular missiles into precision-guided munitions, on September 27, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

In 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also revealed the locations of sites inside Beirut that he said Hezbollah was using to manufacture and store precision-guided missiles, including one next to Beirut’s Rafik Hariri airport.

By hiding its arsenals among civilians, the terror group likely hopes to use those people as human shields to prevent Israel from conducting strikes against them out of concerns for collateral damage.

Hezbollah storing of explosives near civilians reportedly extends internationally. Earlier this year, German authorities uncovered hundreds of kilograms of ammonium nitrate after reportedly receiving a tip from Israel’s Mossad about a Hezbollah bomb plot in the country. In 2015, over eight tons of the material were found in the possession of a Lebanese-Canadian man suspected of being a Hezbollah operative. Roughly three tons of it were confiscated in London that year, with the terror group reportedly planning to use it for an attack on Israeli or Jewish sites in the United Kingdom. Additional stores of ammonium nitrate were also found in possession of suspected Hezbollah members in Thailand during that same period.

Rafik Hariri (photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to potential criticism for its strategy of storing weapons and explosives in populated areas, Hezbollah this week may also be accused of having assassinated former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Four alleged members of the terror group are on trial in absentia at a UN-backed tribunal in the Netherlands over the massive Beirut suicide bombing attack that killed Hariri and 21 other people. The potentially pivotal verdict for the case is due to be released Friday.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group, gives a televised speech on August 25, 2019. (Screen capture: YouTube)

In the meantime, Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah — who also famously threatened to bomb Israel’s stores of ammonia, that were once located in Haifa’s port — have so far kept their heads down in the aftermath of these explosions.

Nasrallah, who was meant to deliver a speech on Wednesday, canceled the event on Tuesday night.

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