August 4 marks the one-year anniversary of the explosion that rocked the port of Beirut. Today, thousands of Beirutis are marching to the site in memory of the victims and in peaceful protest at continued government inaction. As Lebanon wrestles with political paralysis, a rampant pandemic and a wrecked economy, the authorities have provided no answers. To date, no one in a senior position has been held accountable for the blast that killed 218 people, injured more than 7,000 and displaced over 300,000 as large parts of the capital were laid to waste.
Beirushima: What Lebanon Needs to Survive
An FBI report from October last year (seen by Reuters at the end of July) concluded that the amount of ammonium nitrate left in the port warehouse by the time of the explosion constituted just one-fifth of the 2,754 tons seized by the authorities in 2013. The question the FBI did not ask was where the bulk of that shipment had gone. Arab Digest’s own account from July 20 suggests the likely destination: the regime forces of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Sources claim that Assad’s ally Hezbollah moved the ammonium nitrate into Syria over the years.
Buttressing our analysis is the fact that no insurance claim has ever emerged from the supposed destination, Mozambique, for the undelivered fertilizer. The Israelis, we postulate, in hitting a Hezbollah weapons cache in the harbor, unintentionally triggered the blast.
No Concrete Evidence
A new investigation published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) links to over 100 documents related to the Rhosus and its cargo, some of which have not been previously published. Once again, more questions than answers are forthcoming, including over such key issues as whether the ammonium nitrate was really ever, as has been asserted, intended for Mozambique:
“The widely reported narrative regarding the arrival of the Rhosus, a Moldovan-flagged ship, in the port of Beirut in November 2013 carrying 2,750 tonnes of high-density ammonium nitrate is as follows: the ship’s cargo was ultimately bound for Mozambique; it entered Beirut’s port to load seismic equipment it was then meant to deliver to Jordan before traveling onward to Mozambique; the ship’s owner was a Russian national, Igor Grechushkin; and the owner of the ammonium nitrate on board, Savaro Limited, was a chemical trading company in the United Kingdom. Upon examination, however, it is not clear that any of these assertions are true.”
The HRW report goes on to mention three possible reasons for the blast: that the explosion was caused when welding sparks caused a fire in hangar 12, igniting the ammonium nitrate; that the explosion was caused by an Israeli airstrike; or that the explosion was an intentional act by Hezbollah. The hypothesis that the explosion might have been caused by an Israeli attack that was not an airstrike is not one that is under official consideration, although in June, investigative judge Tarek Bitar told journalists that he was “80 percent certain” that the blast was not caused by an Israeli missile.
In July, we described how an Arab Digest member recalled the events of that day:
“Shortly after 6 pm, we heard a jet flying at low level from the west and an explosion from the direction of the port. A couple of minutes later came the deeper sound of a surface-to-surface missile followed by another explosion. The ground then shook violently — this turned out later to be the ammonium nitrate detonating — and we watched in disbelief the plume of smoke and debris soaring into the sky. The blast reached us a few seconds later, throwing us off our feet from the terrace into the flat and blowing in all the glass.”
For our member, it was a fortunate escape: bruised and cut, and astonished to find that, in the midst of the badly damaged flat, the internet was still working.
Now, a year on, there are still pressing questions about what caused the blast and who is responsible, questions that the suffering people of Lebanon deserve to have answers to. The second, and by far the most destructive explosion, occurred when a warehouse containing ammonium nitrate caught fire. A common explanation put about at the time was that the explosion had been caused by careless workers. But no concrete evidence has been brought forward to support that claim.
France had declared that it would conduct a major investigation. However, a French judge could not determine conclusively “whether the explosion was the result of an intentional security operation or whether it was the result of negligence in storing the ammonium nitrate and shortcomings that led to the devastating explosion.” According to Reuters, the FBI had arrived at the same inconclusive conclusion.
The French report raised the possibility of an attack — “an intentional security operation” — together with the claim that the explosion was an accident caused by negligence. The equivocation and failure to find answers didn’t prevent the French from patronizingly scolding the Lebanese. As the French ambassador in Beirut put it, “To all this country’s leaders, I want to say that your individual and collective responsibility is considerable, be brave enough to take action, and France will help you.”
The first Lebanese judge investigating the blast was forced out in mid-February after he had attempted to charge cabinet ministers and the prime minister in office at the time of the explosion. A second judge has made virtually no headway against entrenched political elites whose central goal is to protect themselves and their fiefdoms while evading responsibility and the truth.
On July 14, Amnesty International called for the removal of immunity for senior politicians as well as government and military personnel: “The protesters’ demand is simple: let justice take its course. We stand with these families in calling on Lebanese authorities to immediately lift all immunities granted to officials, regardless of their role or position. Any failure to do so is an obstruction of justice, and violates the rights of victims and families to truth, justice and reparations.”
Despite pleas and protests by the families of the victims, justice is unlikely to be allowed to take its course. The judiciary itself is deeply compromised and beholden to numerous sectarian, business and political factions, a malignant legacy of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. As an article on Just Security forensically elucidates, “the corruptibility of the judicial system is no accident. Instead, the convoluted structure of the judiciary complements the structure of the rest of the political system — in that it facilitates impunity at the highest levels and protects those who have retained power in the aftermath of Lebanon’s civil war.”
In the absence of an independent investigation, with all the foot-dragging and obfuscation it entails, speculation abounds about what caused the explosion. There are those, including our member, who believe that what happened on August 4, 2020, was the unintended consequence of an Israeli attack on a Hezbollah weapons dump in the port. The cache was located adjacent to the warehouse holding the ammonium nitrate. The first blast, with its eerie resemblance to fireworks going off, set off the fire that caused the major blast which leveled the port and damaged much of Beirut.
The Arab Digest member, who is familiar with both the Israeli air force tactics and their consequences, is convinced it was a missile strike: “We compared notes with a friend who had observed the jet banking away from the attack and another friend who actually saw the surface-to-surface missile flash past her office window.” The member says that, according to detailed work done by Lebanese citizen activists in the wake of the attack, the ammonium nitrate aboard the Rhosus had landed in Beirut under a cover story in 2013.
The shipment was subsequently seized by port authorities. The supposition put forward by the activists is that it was then trucked to Syria by Hezbollah to provide the regime forces of Bashar al-Assad with the raw material for the improvised barrel bombs they began dropping on opposition-held cities having run short of conventional ammunition. The member quoted expert sources who estimated that over several years, the original 2,750 tons had been reduced to about 400 tons at the time of the blast, which is in line with the FBI’s findings.
Richard Silverstein, who describes himself as a writer who “focusses on the excesses of the Israeli national security state,” wrote in his blog, Tikun Olam, just after the blast:
“A confidential highly-informed Israeli source has told me that Israel caused the massive explosion at the Beirut port earlier today which killed over 100 and injured thousands. … The source received this information from an Israeli official having special knowledge concerning the matter.
Israel targeted a Hezbollah weapons depot at the port and planned to destroy it with an explosive device. Tragically, Israeli intelligence did not perform due diligence on its target. Thus they did not know (or if they did know, they didn’t care) that there were 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a next-door warehouse.”
Tikun Olam referred to comments of then-President Donald Trump who, in a hastily arranged press conference, said he had met with some of his “great generals” and “they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.” His comments caused consternation at the Pentagon, with Silverstein arguing that Trump had let slip “highly classified information,” i.e., that the Israelis had informed Washington that they were going to carry out an attack on a Hezbollah weapons cache.
Silverstein, though a controversial figure, is viewed by some experts as a useful source on Israeli defense information that would otherwise be censored by the authorities. When contacted by Arab Digest, Silverstein thought it “not likely” that the Israelis would have used a fighter jet to carry out the alleged strike. He thought it too obvious and reckless. He pointed to the modus operandi used against Iranian targets where explosives were placed and then detonated remotely as a more likely approach. He said his source had not mentioned anything about using a fighter jet. “It might have been triggered by a drone,” Silverstein suggested.
But Silverstein was certain of the attack itself: It was carried out by the Israelis. His source, he said, had been contacted by a cabinet minister in the Netanyahu government (the “Israeli official having special knowledge”) shortly after the explosion. Silverstein told Arab Digest that he was “totally confident about the source.”
Should this version, or variations on it, be the true narrative, it is understandable why Hezbollah and Israel would not want it to see the light of day. Less understandable and puzzling is why major news outlets have not touched the story when it was presented to them by reputable sources. Part of the answer may lie in the fact that the sources, either for professional or personal security concerns, have not wanted to go on the record.
A truly independent investigation might answer the questions and uncover the truth. But for the Lebanese people, battered by an economic crisis and stalked by the COVID-19 pandemic, finding out what happened that terrible day in Beirut must join a disheartening queue. In a country that has for too long been abused by its political elites and used by foreign powers for their own purposes, seeking answers is a long and arduous task with little hope at its end that justice will be served.
*[This article was originally published by Arab Digest, a partner organization of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.