One year ago, a huge explosion occurred in the port of Beirut, killing 217 people. On the anniversary of the tragedy, thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to commemorate the victims and express their discontent about what is happening. The Lebanese people demand that those responsible for the tragedy be punished.
As noted by the American news channel CNBC, the Lebanese government has not conducted any investigation over the past year, and no one has been held responsible for the disaster.
At the same time, Human Rights Watch released a report alleging that senior Lebanese officials were not only aware that tons of ammonium nitrate were being stored in the port of Beirut with safety violations but also failed to protect their population in any way, showing “criminal negligence” that cost the lives of hundreds of people.
Meanwhile, the economic and political crisis is worsening in Lebanon, and the protests are not subsiding. Lebanon was in a deep economic crisis even before the 2020 Beirut port explosion – a crisis the World Bank has placed among the ten worst in the world since the mid-19th century. But the port disaster has made it much worse – the Lebanese crisis is now one of the top three. A year ago, Lebanon defaulted on its debt, the national currency lost about 90% of its value, and food prices jumped 400%. With the rapidly depreciating national currency, it is impossible to buy essential products, pharmacies are short of medicines, gas stations are short of gasoline, and houses are regularly cut off from electricity. In a recent report, the World Bank noted that most Lebanese live below the poverty line. With rising unemployment rates, an increasing number of households have difficulty accessing essential services, including health care.
The situation in the country, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), may deteriorate over the next month and a half due to disruptions in the water supply as well. Yukie Mokuo, a UNICEF representative in Lebanon, has expressed fears that the collapse of the energy sector and lack of funding for the maintenance of pumping stations could cause water supplies to stop at the end of August, putting at risk the lives of some four million people, a quarter of whom are refugees from other countries.
The situation in the country is aggravated by the fact that, since the explosion, the country has been without a government: a year ago, in the wake of the widespread protests that followed the explosion, the government of Hassan Diab resigned, but is still forced to perform its duties because it has not been replaced. Three prime ministerial candidates have already been replaced, the latest of whom, Najib Mikati, received a mandate to form a government at the end of July. Despite hopes that he could reach an agreement with President Michel Aoun, the politicians have not agreed on the distribution of government portfolios.
Najib Mikati, a Lebanese billionaire who headed the cabinet in 2005 and also in 2011-2013, is on the list of the wealthiest people on the planet. He ranks 446th with a capital of at least $2.6 billion. The most important question on the minds of Lebanese today is whether Mikati will be able to overcome the resistance of President Michel Aoun and his party (which is now run by the president’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil). And whether he will form a government without which no one in the West will give Lebanon a cent of aid. Notably, Mikati won the support of the Lebanese Hezbollah and Amal groups, securing enough votes – 72 out of 118 MPs – to form a government. So now, the new Lebanese prime minister will form a cabinet of ministers from the country’s warring political factions.
In parallel, the EU, led by France, is seeking to increase pressure on Lebanese politicians as part of an international effort to create a stable government capable of implementing essential reforms to emerge from the political chaos and economic collapse following the explosion that destroyed Beirut’s port. On July 30, the European Union said it had adopted a legal framework for a sanctions regime against Lebanese individuals and entities after a year of crisis that left Lebanon facing financial collapse, hyperinflation, and food and fuel shortages. The statement said that the framework includes the possibility of imposing sanctions on those responsible for undermining democracy or the rule of law in Lebanon. “However, it is essential that the Lebanese leadership put aside its differences and work together to form a government and take the steps necessary to guide the country toward a sustainable recovery,” the EU said in a statement.
On August 4, France organized the third online donor conference since the explosion to raise funds for humanitarian aid to Lebanon, which resulted in a $370 million allocation to Lebanon (specifically, about 118 million allocated by France, 100 million by the United States and about 47 million by Germany). These funds will have to go to meet the population’s basic needs in the areas of food, water, health, and education. But today, it is clear to everyone that no amount of foreign aid will suffice unless the Lebanese leadership commits itself to the hard but necessary work of reforming the economy and fighting corruption.
The army and police, who have the same difficulties as the rest of the population, have so far maintained their restraint and neutrality, limiting their actions to dispersing demonstrators who block the roads and maintaining general order.
However, the situation continues to escalate because of the actions of Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, who fired 19 rockets into Israel on August 6, the heaviest rocket attack against Israel in the 15 years since the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Hezbollah attributed these rocket launches to “countering the crimes of the occupation, including Israel’s malicious attacks on Lebanese territories.” In response, the IDF launched large-scale strikes against southern Lebanon, mostly with artillery, but also with fighter-bombers, something the Israeli army had not done in years. The Beirut-based Hezbollah TV channel Al-Manar reported that Israeli aircraft carried out two raids on the outskirts of El Mahmoudiyah, Lebanon, some 12 kilometers from the border with Israel. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (banned in the Russian Federation) issued a statement in support of the Hezbollah rocket attack on Israeli territory. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Yemeni Hussite Ansar Allah designation also supported Hezbollah’s actions. In the aftermath of the shelling, numerous videos circulated on social media, showing angry Druze from the Lebanese village of Hasbayya stopping a convoy of cars with rocket launchers, pulling out Hezbollah fighters with their bare hands, and massacring them. Participants in this action accused Hezbollah of endangering the lives of people living in the area bordering Israel with its actions. The Lebanese army later released a statement confirming that it had seized the launcher and arrested the four men involved in the rocket launch. Although both Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces claim no interest in any significant military action, the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) said the situation remains “very dangerous.”
Vladimir Platov, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.