Lebanese government on the brink of collapse – what is Hezbollah’s role? -analysis

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Tensions have soared in Lebanon as Judge Tarek Bitar, who is leading the investigation into the Beirut port explosion in 2020, issues accusations and warrants against a number of senior officials, including allies of the Hezbollah.

What is fueling the tensions and what is Hezbollah’s role in this matter?

Bitar is the second judge to lead the judicial inquiry into the explosion, in which more than 200 people were killed and thousands injured after a large amount of ammonium nitrate improperly stored in the port caught fire and exploded in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history.

The first judge, Fadi Sawan, was removed from the case for “legitimate suspicions” of his neutrality, due to the fact that his house was damaged by the explosion. Sawan was removed from his post at the behest of two of the officials he indicted, MP Ali Hassan Khalil and MP Ghazi Zaiter, both allies of Hezbollah.

Bitar followed in Sawan’s footsteps and brought charges against a number of officials, including Khalil, Zaiter, former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos and former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, among others. Most refused to appear for questioning.

The case has already been suspended three times under Bitar due to allegations of bias filed by the indicted officials, with the last suspension taking place on Tuesday.

Smoke rises above the Beirut port area as seen from Sin-el-fil, Lebanon, September 10, 2020 (CYNTHIA KARAM / REUTERS)

IN ORDER to understand why Hezbollah may be reluctant to advance an investigation, it is important to understand the background to the explosion itself.

The ammonium nitrate in question was transported by Rhosus, whose declared destination was Mozambique. Investigative journalist Feras Hatoum discovered that the ship was owned by a shell company linked to Syrian-Russian businessmen sanctioned by the United States for acting on behalf of the Syrian government. At least until shortly before arriving 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 unsafe to sink and the chemicals were removed and stored in port in an unsafe manner.

Human Rights Watch found that several Lebanese officials were, at a minimum, criminally negligent in their handling of military-grade ammonium nitrate. The report found that some officials anticipated the fatal risks and accepted them. Authorities have also repeatedly failed to accurately disclose the dangers posed by the chemicals.

HRW’s report listed officials aware of the dangers, including President Michel Aoun, Diab and Khalil. The report further mentioned that at least four people with knowledge of the chemicals or the explosion died under suspicious circumstances.

An FBI probe discovered that the amount of ammonium nitrate that exploded in the harbor was only one-fifth of the amount that arrived on the Rhosus, raising questions about where the rest had gone.

The links of the Rhosus’ possible owners to Hezbollah and the fact that the chemicals were military grade and had largely been diverted from the port at the time of the blast, among other factors, caused HRW and many others to Lebanon and around the world. whether the chemicals were actually intended for Mozambique, or had been intended to arrive in Lebanon from the start.

Hezbollah also has a strong grip on Lebanese ports, with many concerned officials coming from either Hezbollah or its allies. Even if the movement did not intentionally import the ammonium nitrate, he or his allies can still be held responsible for the explosion through negligence.

THESE DETAILS may have been behind the decision to indict officials affiliated with Hezbollah, although at least one Hezbollah opponent has also been indicted.

Hezbollah has expressed outrage at the accusations and is calling for Bitar’s withdrawal. Recently, rhetoric against Bitar has intensified, with members of Hezbollah and allies threatening to quit the government and even use force to remove Bitar from the case.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah attacked Bitar on Monday, saying the judge is using the case for political purposes and does not want to uncover the truth about the explosion. Nasrallah also asked why Bitar only interviewed some ministers and not others.

Hezbollah security official Wafiq Safa reportedly threatened Bitar in September, saying the movement would forcibly remove Bitar if the judge displeased them.

“We’ve had enough of you. We will go to the end of the legal path, and if that does not work, we will expel you by force ”, declared Safa in Bitar, according to Edmond Sassine, journalist with LBCI News in Lebanon.

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 Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen television on Tuesday that Bitar’s investigation “is illegal and goes beyond many protocols that must be followed.” The MP further claimed that the judge met a foreign delegation within minutes of issuing the arrest warrant for Khalil, implying influence from foreign powers.

The MP warned that there would be “political escalation, and perhaps [an escalation] of a different kind ”, adding that“ all possibilities are open ”, including taking to the streets.

Khalil said the investigation could be part of a regional and internal plan to try to “shift the balance” and that he had information indicating that the investigation had an objective for a certain political group “on demand. of external parties “. On Wednesday, Hassan Fadlallah, an MP affiliated with Hezbollah, bluntly accused the United States of interfering in the investigation.

A government meeting scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed, apparently due to the inability to come to an agreement on what to do with Bitar.

The secretary general of the Lebanese parliament announced on Wednesday that all actions Bitar took against presidents, ministers and MPs were considered an undermining of powers.

Sources from Hezbollah and the Marada movement told Lebanese television Al-Jadeed that Bitar was preparing to directly accuse Hezbollah of being responsible for the explosion. The sources added that if Bitar is not removed, they will leave the government.

HEZBOLLAH’S STRUGGLE against Bitar could also impact his relationship with Aoun, with Al-Jadeed reporting that Aoun withdrew from a meeting on Tuesday, expressing his anger at Hezbollah’s threats of force. Aoun is said to have insisted on the separation of powers and refused to interfere in the justice system.

The leader of the Lebanese Kataeb party, Sami Gemayel, on Wednesday called on the Lebanese government not to “bow to the intimidation of Hezbollah”.

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 try to impose their will by force. While Gaegea stressed that his statement was not a threat, he added that he would never accept that a “certain reality” be imposed by force.

Families of the blast victims have warned of replacing or intimidating Bitar, “regardless of the level of threat,” telling officials to “keep [their] do not touch justice.

Former MP Mustapha Allouch warned Wednesday, in an interview with Voice of Lebanon, that an international investigation is necessary, and that the current situation repeats the situation of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, while the Hezbollah feels the son of the investigation pointing the finger at it.

All of these factors raise fears that the newly formed Lebanese government is already on the brink of collapse, leaving the country without a leader yet again as it faces an ongoing economic crisis.

There are growing fears that tensions could escalate into violence, especially if Hezbollah continues to obstruct the investigation or tries to use force to oust Bitar.

Lebanon is expected to hold elections in the spring, although there are fears that they will be delayed. The elections will be a new test for the country in crisis, as it will have the opportunity to elect new leaders.

Lebanon will also face the challenge of keeping the elections safe and unaffected by corruption in an increasingly crowded environment that is only likely to become more tense as the elections approach.


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