Massive blasts that struck Beirut were not caused by Israeli activity, sources in Lebanon and Jerusalem said Tuesday afternoon, as officials attempted to determine what sparked the huge explosions.
Lebanese officials indicated that an initial explosion was caused by fireworks stored at the port, and a second, even larger explosion may have been caused by the fire reaching explosive material that has been kept there for years.
The blasts came amid high tensions between Israel and Lebanon and hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a fresh warning to the Iran-backed terror group.
Senior Hezbollah officials told OTV Lebanon that social media rumors about an Israeli attack were false.
“There is no truth to rumors about an Israeli strike against Hezbollah weapons in the port,” a source told the station.
An Israeli official told journalists that Israel was not involved. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also indicated that Israel was not involved, telling the country’s Channel 12 news “I see no reason to not believe the reports that it was an accident.”
Despite the lack of Israeli involvement, there was still some speculation that the blast would have been caused by explosive materials stored by Hezbollah.
Yaakov Amidror, a former head of the National Security Council, indicated to Army Radio that the blast may have been the result of Hezbollah munitions exploding.
“You need to take a look at which irresponsible entity puts things like that in a civilian port,” he said. “Even if Hezbollah is responsible for this, it is not the worst thing it is doing to Lebanon.”
Lebanon analyst David Daoud said that he thought it was unlikely that Israel was involved in the explosion, saying that Israel has no interest in escalation at this point. At the same time, he noted that much still remains unclear about the situation.
“I’m skeptical that this is an airstrike. It’s not impossible, but we know the rules of the game between Israel and Hezbollah. If the Israelis did this, it is a declaration of war. What we know for certain is that there was a preliminary explosion and a secondary explosion, which is commonly associated with an airstrike…but it’s still very unclear,” Daoud said.
“This could just be a perfect storm of noise,” Daoud added.
With rising tensions between Israel and Lebanon in previous days, many Lebanese had leaped to blame Israel for the explosion. Some interviewed by Lebanese channel LBC said that they had seen a missile strike the port, with one woman adding that she had “heard a plane.” The Lebanese Air Force, however, had not reported any Israeli activity in its airspace since Monday night.
At least 30 people were killed in the pair of explosions, Lebanon’s health minister said. Lebanese Red Cross director George Kataneh told al-Manar that more than 2,200 people were wounded.
The initial explosion Tuesday afternoon sent plumes of smoke into the sky and then a huge explosion that rocked the city. Video footage of the second blast showed an enormous orange fireball that dwarfed nearby buildings and sent a devastating tornado-like shockwave ripping through the city.
The first explosion in Beirut, according to Hezbollah-linked television station al-Manar, began with an electrical spark.
Footage from the massive explosion in Beirut Port, Lebanon pic.twitter.com/bdvzrS05Qf
— Beirut Today (@bey_today) August 4, 2020
Beirut governor Marwan Aboud said that a team of first responders was dispatched to deal with the fire. The first fire, which burned for several minutes, led to a second, much more powerful explosion, which destroyed nearby buildings and shattered windows across the city.
The second explosion, according to Lebanese Customs Director Badri Daher, was caused by “nitrates.” Firefighters who were sent to the scene are still missing, Aboud said, possibly lost under the rubble in the collapsed port.
The incident came amid heightened tension on Israel’s northern frontier following a recent airstrike attributed to the Israeli military that killed a Hezbollah fighter in Syria, and anticipation that the Lebanese terror group would retaliate.
Following the airstrike, the Golan Heights was hit by explosives fired from Syria and Israel responded by attacking Syrian military positions and beefing up its forces in the area.
Last week, Israel also said it thwarted an infiltration attempt from Lebanon by Hezbollah operatives, setting off one of the heaviest exchanges of fire along the volatile Israel-Lebanon frontier since a 2006 war between the bitter enemies.
Then on Monday, the IDF announced that it had struck targets in Syria after militants tried to plant explosives along the border in the Golan Heights. The four suspects in the incident were believed to have been killed by an Israeli missile strike while carrying out the attempted attack in the pre-dawn hours of Monday.
Since 2011, Israel has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria, targeting government troops, allied Iranian and Hezbollah forces, and weapons heading to Lebanon while also vowing to end Iran’s military presence there. By contrast, though it sometimes uses Lebanese airspace to carry out attacks in Syria, Israel has avoided bombing in Lebanon.
What is claimed to have been a rare exception is an incident in August 2019, when a drone attack targeted a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut. The British Times newspaper reported the attack, which was attributed to Israel by Lebanese authorities, targeted the Lebanese terror group’s precision missile project.
Israel has said it will not allow Hezbollah to obtain advanced weapons, among them precision-guided missiles it says the Lebanese group is trying to develop with Iranian assistance.