Twisting the knife in the wound: How some states take advantage of Lebanon’s weakness for its own interests

by Karin Leukefeld, Bonn and Damascus

The blast in Beirut on 4 August 2020 killed more than 200 people, thousands were injured, hundreds are still missing, and tens of thousands lost their homes, businesses and livelihoods. Even more people have to bear heavy damages on and in their houses and apartments due to the enormous shock wave, only few have the money for the necessary repairs.


Since autumn 2019, the Lebanese economy has been on a downward trend, dragging the Lebanese pound down with it. This development is due to decades of mismanagement and corruption by the ruling clan elites. In addition, there are the ever tightening economic coercive measures and sanctions imposed on Lebanon’s economic and financial sector, with which the European Union and the United States aim at isolating Syria and breaking it politically. They affect Lebanon and all the states in the region economically closely intertwined with the country.

“The blast in the port of Beirut left Lebanon collapsing under a heavy load. But instead of helping and giving the country room for a new start, Lebanon is being kicked. What the governments in Paris, Berlin and Washington are promoting through the media as ‘helpfulness’ and ‘solidarity’ is nothing more than twisting the knife in Lebanon’s open wounds.”

    Many Lebanese lost their jobs and their savings even before the blast in the port of Beirut. Tens of thousands don’t know how to feed themselves and their families. Since March, Lebanon has been suffering from increasing numbers of corona infections. The country has been subjected to a strict lockdown, schools and universities, stores, companies and craftsmen had to close. The airport of Beirut – the second gateway to the world for the cedar state after the port of Beirut – had been closed for three months. The health system was already at its limit before the blasts in the port of Beirut, and now, the clinics have to cope with even more victims.
    Besides the Lebanese, more than one million Syrian refugees are affected, 40 of whom lost their lives in the port blast alone. In addition, there are Palestinian refugees who have been roaming around the Levant, the eastern Mediterranean, in search of protection since various wars and their expulsion in 1948, 1967 and 1973. The UN organisation for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, speaks of officially 200,000 Palestinians whom it cares for in Lebanon. In fact, the figure is likely to be around 500,000 if the Palestinians are included who fled Iraq in 2003 when US troops invaded. And those who fled Syria in 2012 when the jihadists aiming at overthrowing the government in Damascus did not even stop at the Palestinian camps in Yarmuk, Daraa, Aleppo and elsewhere.
    The severe economic and financial crisis in Lebanon is accompanied by a massive political crisis leading to social upheaval and the formation of camps. This in turn leads to distrust, rivalry and struggles for power.

International investigation as a leverage

The fires in the port of Beirut had not yet been extinguished, nor had all the dead been recovered, when Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for an international investigation of the blasts. The protest movement took up the demand, and quickly the old fronts reappeared. The old elites and clans, from Christians to Druze and Muslims, took up the demand of Western human rights agencies and turned to their sponsors in France, Germany and the USA for help.
    Current Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun rejected international interference and announced that Lebanon would ask for support but would itself present an investigation report.
    The response of the “street” was prompt: Ministries were stormed, gallows were set up and politicians were symbolically hung from there. The government resigned and announced new elections. However, the violent demonstrators demanded a complete overthrow and – like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch – an international investigation into who was responsible for the explosions.
    The sequence of the blast to be followed on video first showed a column of smoke above the harbour, which indicated a fire not far from the prominent large grain silo. Sparks flashed, many thought of ammunition or fireworks having caught fire. Suddenly, however, a huge white, spherical cloud expanded, from the centre of which a huge explosion shot out. Then a brown-pink-red-orange column of smoke rose into the sky. About ten seconds later, the huge shock wave followed.
    Speculations about how the blast might have occurred have been circulating since day one. Many are convinced that it was not the first small fire, but an external impact that caused the explosion. Several Lebanese claimed to have seen airplanes over the port before the explosion. Some even thought they saw missiles being fired at the site of the fire. Others still wondered how the first fire ever started and how the first blast occurred. One interviewee stated that the second blast could have been caused horizontally by a missile being fired into the fire underwater. Further considerations concluded that an explosive could have been triggered by a time fuse or by remote ignition.
    Immediately after the explosion, Israel felt compelled to make a statement. Israel didn’t do it, said an unnamed “official” according to the Israeli reporter Gili Cohen. “Not every blast in the Middle East has something to do with us,” the message continued. This is usually a way of the Israeli Defense “to explain something”. Israeli Defense Minister Gabi Ashkenasi, former head of the Israeli Armed Forces, stated on the same evening on TV station Keshet 12 that it was probably an “accident”.
    Presumably, intelligence from all four corners of the earth have still been active in Lebanon looking for contacts to army and security circles, both officially and unofficially and in disguise, and that they found them – for cash. The danger of the cargo had been repeatedly referred to, and this should not have escaped the attention of intelligence circles. There was enough time to make plans of all kinds with the material.
    Maybe less than 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded? Because hundreds of tons had possibly already found their way into the war in Syria on the known smuggling routes? In exchange for cash payment?
    Furthermore, there is the question to be answered why in 2013 an obviously unseaworthy ship set sail at all to bring such an amount of explosive material to Mozambique? Why did the ship head for the port of Beirut and not for the port of Mersin in southern Turkey? Why had the ship been lying in the port of Beirut for so long as a “ticking time bomb”, where did the ship owner disappear to, why had there not been an investigation into the events surrounding this ship long ago? There are many more questions to be answered.

Scapegoat Hezbollah

Meanwhile, interested parties are spreading their own explanations. First and foremost Israel, which is currently working on either tightening or ending the mandate for UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping mission along the border between Israel and Lebanon. A few days ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ashkenazi claimed that Hezbollah was behind the explosion.
    “To avoid disasters like the one in the port of Beirut, we must confiscate the explosives and missiles that Hezbollah has hidden in Lebanon’s inhabited areas,” Netanyahu said according to “Jerusalem Post”.
    If UNIFIL’s mission was not tightened in this way, the Israeli army would have to be allowed to operate on Lebanese territory in order to track down Hezbollah arms caches. Ashkenazi had brought twelve UN Security Council ambassadors to the Lebanese border to underline Israel’s concern: “Israel cannot remain inactive in the face of Hezbollah’s attempts to attack Israeli sovereignty and its citizens,” Ashkenazi said.
    “Hezbollah operates in urban and inhabited areas using Lebanese citizens as human shields. We have seen this in the unfortunate incident in which hundreds of innocent Lebanese civilians were injured last week,” said the defense minister. Obviously, the blast in the port of Beirut was meant.
    French MP Meyer Habib made a speech during a debate on the status of Palestine at the National Assembly in Paris.
    German CDU politician Elmar Brok picked up the ball and expressed in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio that Hezbollah “stored these chemicals there because Hezbollah, but also Iran, had prepared explosive material from these products for attacks in the past”.
    Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah had already made it clear in his public address on 7 August that “Hezbollah has no missiles, no ammunition, nothing” in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah neither had control over the port nor did it have any influence on its authorities, Nasrallah continued. The investigation would reveal the truth about the explosion. He called on the Lebanese people not to believe rumors.
    The blast in the port of Beirut is used to push own interests against Lebanon and its sovereignty. France, Germany and the USA promised to help, provided there were fundamental political reforms. The approximately 250 million euros collected by European states, the USA and some Gulf states were not to be handed over to the government and its institutions, but to the civilian population and non-governmental organisations. The statement said, that an international, independent investigation was necessary and supported.
    German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who visited the ruins in the port of Beirut shortly after French President Emmanuel Macron, demonstratively presented a check for one million euros to the Lebanese Red Cross. There is no more obvious humiliation for the government and the president and the people of a country in such a situation. Only a few hours after Maas, David Hale, former US Ambassador to Beirut and now Deputy US Secretary of State for Political Affairs in the US State Department, flew in. He was followed by the French Secretary of Defense, Florence Parly.
    In contrast, China, Russia and Iran are offering help, but they remain politically in the background. The battle between Europe and the USA for Lebanon is in full swing. France wants to rebuild the port of Beirut, Germany wants to take over the power supply (for Siemens), the USA want to establish Lebanon’s maritime border with Israel, so that Israel – and thus US companies – can profit more from the gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean than they are entitled to. The European states want to prevent further flows of refugees and use several million to ensure that people stay in the country and somehow survive.
    Lebanon as a sovereign state is being ignored and weakened by foreign actors as it has been for decades. The actors’ long-standing partners – political elites and clans – which were strengthened and formed under the French mandate (1920-1943) are to be brought back into play in a new constellation, if they are willing to adopt the demands of the “civil society” supported by the West.
    Hezbollah, which had only emerged in the early 1980s as a resistance to the Israeli occupation, is not to be included. It is to be marginalised and fought against as the main culprit for the situation in Lebanon.
    The cedar state is supposed to submit to the rules of the IMF, privatising state enterprises and stopping state subsidies. Tens of thousands of so far still state employees and workers would lose their jobs and would not find new employment because there is neither significant industry nor agricultural production in Lebanon. Costs for electricity, for example, which are subsidised today, would multiply for ordinary consumers. The USA, however, would like to keep banker Riad Salamé, head of the Lebanese Central Bank since 1993 and responsible for the criminal plundering of the private accounts of the Lebanese population, untouched as the “red line”.
     The blast in the port of Beirut left Lebanon collapsing under a heavy load. But instead of helping and giving the country room for a new start, Lebanon is being kicked. What the governments in Paris, Berlin and Washington are promoting through the media as “helpfulness” and “solidarity” is nothing more than twisting the knife in Lebanon’s open wounds.    •

ef. Independent journalist Karin Leukefeld was born in 1954 in Stuttgart and has studied ethnology, islamology and political sciences. She has been reporting from the Extended Middle East for daily and weekly journals as well as German state sponsored radio programmes since the year 2000. She was accredited in Syria in 2010 and has been reporting on the Syria conflict since then. Since the beginning of the war in 2011 she moves back and forth between Damasucs, Beirut, other places in the Arab world and her hometown Bonn. She has published several books, such as “Syrien zwischen Schatten und Licht – Geschichte und Geschichten von 1916-2016. Menschen erzählen von ihrem zerrissenen Land (Syria Between Light and Shadow – History and Stories 1916–2016. People Narrate about their War-torn Country.)” (2016, Rotpunkt edition Zurich); “Flächenbrand Syrien, Irak, die Arabische Welt und der Islamische Staa” (Surface Fire Syria, Iraq, the Arab World and the Islamic State.) (2015, 3rd edition 2017, PapyRossa edition, Cologne). Her new book will be released soon: “Im Auge des Orkans: Syrien, der Nahe Osten und die Entstehung einer neuen Weltordnung” (In the Eye of the Hurricane: Syria, the Middle East and the Rise of a New World Order (2020, PapyRossa edition, Cologne).

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