Lebanon protests: why has shooting broken out over the Beirut port explosion?

Clashes began in areas that were the front lines during country's civil war

Supporters of the Iran-backed group Hezbollah and the Amal movement, a Shia political party, gathered outside Beirut’s Palace of Justice on Thursday to protest against an arrest warrant issued by the judge leading the investigation into the Beirut port blast.

Before the protest could begin, they were fired upon by unknown snipers, according to Lebanon’s Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi. In the ensuing armed clashes in Beirut, at least six people were killed and dozens injured.

The investigation into the explosion at Beirut port, which killed more than 200 people, is a political minefield, with Lebanon’s various political parties venting fury any time the finger of blame appeared to be twitching towards them. They are protecting political and financial interests built up over decades, and all want to avoid taking the blame for the national tragedy.

In their desperation to avoid being held to account over the blast, they have tried everything from threatening those leading the probe to hiding behind immunities offered by their memberships of parliament and the country’s powerful unions.

Why has fighting broken out in Beirut?

Political pressure led to the previous judge, Fadi Sawan, being removed from the investigation after he indicted two former ministers. He was replaced by Tarek Bitar.

In recent weeks, Mr Bitar has been battling to avoid the same fate as his predecessor after issuing arrest warrants and indictments against several high-profile politicians.

Yet it is one, in particular, that appears to have sparked Thursday’s clashes in Beirut. Mr Bitar first summoned Ali Hassan Khalil for questioning in late September, along with two others.

The former finance minister, Ali Hassan Khalil, is a close ally of Amal leader and speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, and has been described as the group’s “number two”.

A Human Rights Watch investigation found that Mr Khalil was aware of the deadly nature of thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which would later catch fire and explode, devastating the city.

Mr Khalil has previously been sanctioned by the US government for providing material support to Hezbollah.

Mr Bitar, has so far remained steadfast in the face of threats from Amal and Hezbollah, faced perhaps his greatest public criticism this week, when Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah publicly rebuked him in a televised address, accusing him of “politicising” the investigation.

Why are there so many guns in Lebanon?

Lebanon’s parties fought a brutal civil war between 1975 and 1990. The country was armed to the teeth, and anyone who could stand owned a weapon. The war was eventually bought to an end by the Taif agreement, or National Reconciliation Accord, signed in Saudi Arabia in 1989.

The Taif agreement also paved the way for the demobilisation of the country’s militias by offering a pathway to political representation in exchange for them standing down their armies. Yet the agreement essentially allowed Hezbollah to keep its weapons, on the grounds that the group was waging a campaign of national resistance against Israeli troops who occupied the country’s south until 2000.

Yet even after the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah held on to its weapons, maintaining a military force that is widely seen as stronger than the Lebanese Army, and that has been sent in recent years to fight in Syria in support of the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

Though Amal officially disarmed after Taif, like many of Lebanon’s other parties, it is believed to have secretly kept hold of some weapons.

What is the difference between Amal and Hezbollah?

Amal and Hezbollah are the country’s two dominant Shia political forces, though the two used to be one.

Hezbollah was formed by a splinter from the then-dominant Amal movement during the country’s civil war.

After the split, the two groups fought a bloody inter-Shia civil war that became known as the War of the Brothers.

Now there exists an uneasy coexistence between the two. Some days they are allies, other days they are rivals.

Today, and throughout the probe, they have been firmly on the same side, fighting the snipers. They accuse the Lebanese Forces, a rival Christian party which is vehemently anti-Hezbollah, of launching the attack.

Where is the fighting happening?

The clashes have reignited fighting along some of Beirut’s old front lines from the civil war.

The Tayouneh neighbourhood, where Amal fighters were filmed firing RPGs and assault rifles, is a Shia neighbourhood separated from the Christian area of Badaro and Achrafieh by Sami el Solh Road. The division closely traces the green line, which divided Christian east Beirut from the largely Muslim west Beirut during the civil war.

Updated: October 15th 2021, 5:34 AM
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