As Lebanese anger grows, time for real answers

As Lebanese anger grows, time for real answers

A Lebanese protester waves the national flag during clashes with security forces in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020. (AFP)
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Everybody knows who controls Lebanon’s ports, airports and national borders. Everybody knows how hundreds of tons of Iranian weapons and explosives have made their way into Lebanon.

Everybody knows that it is Hezbollah’s standard practice to store its weapons, and establish military positions, in crowded areas, acting as a human shield against inevitable Israeli airstrikes. Not only that, but large consignments of ammonium nitrate stockpiled by Hezbollah were found in Germany this year and in the UK in 2015 — as well as being used for terrorist activities by the movement in Bulgaria, Thailand, Cyprus and elsewhere.

Today, we, the Lebanese people, deserve answers to some pressing questions.

Why did a Lebanese court take it upon itself to confiscate the contents of a Russian-owned ship laden with explosives traveling from Georgia to Mozambique? Why was this colossal time-bomb stockpiled in the heart of Beirut for six years, in a climate of abnormal secrecy and despite more than 10 warnings to the judiciary and government departments? And why have principal whistleblowers from the port administration been arrested?

Who incurred the extortionate costs of six years of storage in a prime location in the nation’s port? Why were Lebanese officials insisting for several days that this was an innocuous consignment of fertilizer, when the confirmed end use was as explosives?

Was Hezbollah involved in the mysterious arrival and impounding of these 2,750 tons of explosives? Were other weapons also stored at this site, and were these warehouses indeed under Hezbollah’s control? As security expert Hussein Ibish noted: “There are no prizes for guessing who in Lebanon might be interested in keeping such vast quantities of explosive material close at hand.”

President Michel Aoun’s comment that an international investigation would be “aimed at covering up the truth” is the kind of morally bankrupt nonsense we’ve come to expect from him. His acknowledgement that the threat from this time-bomb was raised with him personally as recently as July 20 is a damning indictment of the criminal lethargy of this regime. If, as Aoun suggested, foreign hands were possibly behind the incident, why isn’t he insisting on UN involvement? There must be a full international investigation in which all internal communications and incriminating documents are publicly disclosed.

Hassan Nasrallah vigorously denied Hezbollah involvement, saying: “Entities who oppose Hezbollah have started spreading lies that the hangar is a weapons, missile or ammunitions depot … we as Hezbollah know perhaps more about what goes on at the Haifa port than what happens in Beirut port.”

This is contradicted by the US Treasury, which in 2019 imposed sanctions on Hezbollah’s security chief Wafiq Safa for wielding control over Beirut’s port to facilitate the movement of narcotics and weapons. Given the nature of these activities, it is little surprise that Nasrallah is anxious to deny everything. Even if Hezbollah played no part in stockpiling these explosives, at the very least it failed to raise the alarm, despite its pretentions to act as Lebanon’s protector.

Nasrallah appears disconcertingly conscious of the catastrophic risks of ammonium nitrate stored in port facilities, ghoulishly threatening in 2016: “Several rockets are enough from us, combined with the ammonia containers in Haifa port. The result will be like a nuclear bomb in an area inhabited by 800,000 people, killing tens of thousands of them.”

The official account of these explosives’ arrival in Lebanon makes no sense: Lebanon was never originally cited as being on the ship’s route, but the captain made a sudden change of plan, apparently in order to make the voyage more profitable. But as soon as he ran into legal difficulties, he immediately abandoned the ship and its valuable cargo, without any apparent effort to sell it or recoup his losses.

Lebanon has deteriorated with such terrifying rapidity that it is now obvious to everybody that only a radical change of direction can save this nation. 

Baria Alamuddin

The ship was so unseaworthy that it later sank in Beirut port: Was it even capable of reaching Mozambique? Neither Mozambique’s port nor its transport ministry was given notification of the ship’s planned arrival, as legally required. With Beirut in ruins, the captain must be extradited to clarify who he was acting on behalf of.

We welcome the massive worldwide support, but kleptocrats are doing everything in their power to divert reconstruction funds, leaving ordinary Lebanese starving and homeless. These thieves seem to think they can help themselves: Kuwait donated thousands of masks to be distributed to the Lebanese. and within hours they were being sold in pharmacies.

It was telling that Nasrallah spent much of his speech fretting about citizens blaming Hezbollah for the devastation. This increasing loathing worries him, because Hezbollah’s ability to wield power is reliant on the collusion of key figures across the sectarian divide. It is in Nasrallah’s interest to read the warning signs and acknowledge that attempts to dominate Lebanon have backfired, having served only to unite citizens against the movement and drag Lebanon to the brink of collapse.

Nasrallah voices meaningless platitudes about “coming together.” No. This is a moment for taking to task the well-known elements who took our Lebanese cultural-economic marvel and viciously beat it to within inches of its life.

Lebanon has deteriorated with such terrifying rapidity that it is now obvious to everybody that only a radical change of direction can save this nation. Images of people who have lost homes and loved ones being tear-gassed by security forces speak volumes about the leadership’s inhuman contempt for its citizens.

The protest movement came close this year to forcing a reckoning with the state, until the coronavirus pandemic intervened. With the new nationwide outpouring of anger growing by the hour, this time around there must be no backing down.

Aoun and Nasrallah may be terrified of the damning conclusions that an international investigation would reach, but in its absence they should be 100 times more scared about the conclusions that the Lebanese people themselves are drawing — and how they intend to remedy this situation.

• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.

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