What is driving the tensions and what is Hezbollah’s role in the matter?
Bitar is the second judge to run the judicial investigation into the explosion, in which more than 200 people were killed and thousands wounded after a large amount of ammonium nitrate improperly stored at the port caught fire and detonated in one of the largest nonnuclear explosions in human history.
Bitar followed in Sawan’s footsteps and issued charges against a number of officials, including Khalil, Zaiter, former public works minister Youssef Fenianos, and former prime minister Hassan Diab, among others. Most have refused to show up for questioning.
The case has already been suspended three times under Bitar due to allegations of bias filed by the charged officials, with the latest suspension coming on Tuesday.
IN ORDER to understand why Hezbollah may be hesitant for an investigation to progress, it’s important to understand the background of the explosion itself.
The ammonium nitrate in question was carried by the Rhosus, whose declared destination was Mozambique. Investigative journalist Feras Hatoum found the ship was owned by a shell company linked to Syrian-Russian businessmen sanctioned by the US for acting on behalf of the Syrian government. At least until shortly before it arrived in Beirut, the ship was owned by an individual linked to a bank accused of dealing with Hezbollah and the Syrian government.
When the ship arrived, it was deemed at risk of sinking, and the chemicals were removed and stored at the port in an unsafe way.
Human Rights Watch found that multiple Lebanese officials were, at minimum, criminally negligent in their handling of the weapons-grade ammonium nitrate. The report found some officials foresaw the deadly risks and accepted them. Officials also repeatedly failed to accurately disclose the dangers posed by the chemicals.
The HRW report listed officials who were aware of the dangers, including President Michel Aoun, Diab and Khalil. The report additionally mentioned that at least four people who had knowledge about the chemicals or the explosion have died in suspicious circumstances.
An FBI probe found the amount of ammonium nitrate that exploded at the port was only a fifth of the amount that arrived on the Rhosus, raising questions of where the rest had gone.
The links of the possible owners of the Rhosus to Hezbollah and the fact the chemicals were weapons grade and had largely been siphoned away from the port by the time of the explosion, among other factors, caused HRW and many others in Lebanon and around the world to question whether the chemicals were actually meant for Mozambique, or had been meant to arrive in Lebanon all along.
Hezbollah also has a strong hold over Lebanon’s ports, with many relevant officials coming from either Hezbollah or its allies. Even if the movement did not purposefully import the ammonium nitrate, it or its allies may still be found responsible for the explosion due to negligence.
THESE DETAILS may be behind the decision to charge the Hezbollah-affiliated officials, although at least one Hezbollah opponent has been charged as well.
Hezbollah has expressed outrage at the charges and is demanding Bitar be removed. Recently, rhetoric against Bitar has escalated, with Hezbollah members and allies threatening to leave the government and even use force to get Bitar off the case.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah attacked Bitar on Monday, saying the judge is using the case for political goals and does not want to reach the truth about the explosion. Nasrallah also questioned why Bitar questioned only certain ministers and not others.
Hezbollah security official Wafiq Safa reportedly threatened Bitar in September, saying the movement would remove Bitar by force if the judge displeases them.
“We have had enough of you. We will go to the end of the legal path, and if that does not work, we will remove you by force,” said Safa to Bitar, according to Edmond Sassine, a journalist with Lebanon’s LBCI news.
Safa was sanctioned by the US Treasury in 2019 for exploiting Lebanon’s ports and borders to smuggle illegal drugs and weapons into Beirut and facilitate travel on behalf of Hezbollah.
Khalil told the Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen TV on Tuesday that Bitar’s investigation “is unlawful and surpasses many of the protocols that must be followed.” The MP additionally claimed that the judge had met with a foreign delegation minutes after issuing the arrest warrant for Khalil, implying influence by foreign powers.
The MP warned there would be a “political escalation, and perhaps [an escalation] of another kind,” adding that “all possibilities are open,” including taking to the streets.
Khalil claimed the investigation may be part of a regional and internal plan to try to “change balances,” and that he had information that indicates that the investigation has a goal for a certain political group “at the behest of external parties.” On Wednesday, Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah-affiliated MP, outright accused the US of interfering in the investigation.
A government meeting set for Wednesday was postponed, reportedly due to an inability to reach an agreement about what to do with Bitar.
The secretary-general of the Lebanese Parliament announced on Wednesday that all the measures taken by Bitar against presidents, ministers and deputies were considered an infringement of powers.
Sources from Hezbollah and the Marada movement told the Lebanese Al-Jadeed TV news that Bitar was preparing to accuse Hezbollah directly of responsibility for the explosion. The sources added that if Bitar is not removed, they will leave the government.
HEZBOLLAH’S FIGHT against Bitar may impact its relationship with Aoun as well, with Al-Jadeed reporting Aoun stormed out of a meeting on Tuesday, expressing anger at Hezbollah’s threats of force. Aoun reportedly has insisted on a separation of powers and refused to interfere in the judiciary.
The head of Lebanon’s Kataeb Party, Sami Gemayel, on Wednesday asked the government of Lebanon not to “bow to Hezbollah’s intimidation.”
Samir Gaegea, a Christian opponent of Hezbollah, called on the “free people of Lebanon” to prepare for a peaceful general strike if Bitar’s opponents attempt to impose their will by force. While Gaegea stressed his statement was not a threat, he added he would never accept a “certain reality” being imposed by force.
The families of the blast victims warned against replacing or intimidating Bitar, “no matter how high the threat level,” telling officials to “keep [their] hands off the judiciary.”
Former MP Mustapha Allouch warned on Wednesday, in an interview with Voice of Lebanon, that an international investigation is needed, and that the current situation is repeating the situation of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, as Hezbollah feels the threads of the investigation pointing at it.
All of these factors are leading to concerns that Lebanon’s newly formed government may already be on the brink of collapse, which would leave the country leaderless yet again as it deals with an ongoing economic crisis.
Concerns are rising that the tensions could explode into violence, especially if Hezbollah continues to obstruct the investigation or tries to use force to remove Bitar.
Lebanon is set to hold elections in the spring, although there are concerns they could be delayed. The elections will pose yet another test for the country in crisis, as it will face the opportunity to elect new leaders.
Lebanon will also be faced with the challenge of keeping the elections safe and unaffected by corruption amid an increasingly charged environment that will likely only get more tense as elections near.