Lebanese protesters hang a cardboard cutout of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, during a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 170 people and disfigured the capital Beirut. Photo: AFP

BEIRUT – The hard-won stature of Hezbollah in Lebanon is hanging in the balance after several high-profile critics opened a Pandora’s box this week, blaming Israel for sabotage at the port and accusing the Shiite militant group of allowing the capital to be turned into a target.

Senior United States envoy David Hale on Thursday (August 13) announced the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would participate in the ongoing Lebanese investigation into the “circumstances that led up” to the explosion on request of local authorities.

His announcement came after Lebanese President Michel Aoun rejected an international probe into the blast that killed 178 with dozens still unaccounted for. Over 6,000 were wounded in the massive explosion.

“Perhaps it was Israel that orchestrated yet another shady covert operation – along the lines of its undeclared operations inside Iran – targeting a certain hangar in Beirut Port,” wrote Raghida Dergham, a veteran media figure, in a column in Lebanese daily An-Nahar.

If found guilty, she said, Israel “must not go unpunished.”

But Dergham, whose own high-rise apartment in the luxury Skyline Tower was destroyed by the blast, reserved her greatest anger for Hezbollah and its allies – President Aoun, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.

“These three presidents, and every person previously involved in allowing the storage of explosive materials in Beirut Port amidst a civilian population, in leaving this port under Hezbollah’s control and for its own uses beyond State control, must be met with accountability and punitive measures,” she said.

Lebanon’s former Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, a leading figure in the Sunni Future Movement which opposes Hezbollah and who oversaw the country’s security apparatus from 2014-2018, on Wednesday (August 12) said it was “clear” the August 4 explosion was carried out by Israel.

“This operation in Beirut was carried out by Israel in a clear and explicit manner,” he told a press conference, adding: “It is clear we are looking at a crime against humanity, and therefore no one dares to claim responsibility for it.”

The double blasts, the second attributed to a mammoth stock of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, destroyed huge swathes of Beirut. The cause of the initial fire is central to the investigation, and Aoun has not ruled out sabotage.

Machnouk’s statement followed an appearance days earlier by Lebanese Retired Brigadier General Maroun Hitti, who told a news program he believed Israel was behind the explosion.

“Either it was a missile strike from a drone – and people including myself heard the sound of an aircraft – or it was an act of sabotage, and some agent planted an explosive,” he claimed.

“Israel was either ignorant [of the ammonium nitrate], or ignored it – and carried out this strike on a Hezbollah arms depot not intending it to have this impact. An impact which can be characterized as a war crime,” he added.

It would not be in Israel’s interest to claim such human devastation, the general said. For Hezbollah, blaming Israel would only invite deeper, unwanted scrutiny into its presence in the port, and the burden of carrying out a response.

That assessment has been echoed among Washington pundits.

“There are two scenarios,” said Hanin Ghaddar, a Lebanon analyst at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, a traditionally pro-Israel think tank.

“It was either an accident,” Ghaddar told Asia Times, or “Israel was behind it and were targeting one thing, like in Iran, and they didn’t really want to cause this explosion.”

Either way, she said, “the Israelis are not going to claim something that caused this much damage.” That has not spared Hezbollah from facing growing questions.

A woman sits amidst the rubble in her damaged house in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 6, 2020, two days after a massive explosion shook the Lebanese capital. Photo: AFP

Allies on the ropes

Nasrallah is scheduled to make a televised speech on Friday night, his second since the explosion occurred, in which he firmly denied any involvement in the port.

On August 8, protesters in downtown Beirut hung a cardboard cut-out of the Shiite leader, along with an entire cast of Lebanese politicians, on a mock gallows, a once unthinkable act due to Nasrallah’s unique dual status as a Muslim religious cleric.

After declining to name Israel as a suspect and rejecting any military use of the port last week, Nasrallah will be compelled to address mounting doubts over the semi-official narrative emphasizing ignorance and neglect when he speaks on Friday (August 14) evening.

The speech will also come midway through the visit of US Undersecretary of State Hale, who will likely play a leading role in deciding America’s response.

Since June, a Republican task force in the US Congress has pressed for sanctions against Hezbollah’s allies, namely Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, a prospect that would rob the Shiite group of its Christian allies and interlocutors.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, meanwhile, neither denied nor confirmed responsibility for the port explosion.

On August 11, however, he warned that the catastrophe could be replicated if Hezbollah refuses to relocate its arms depots in the coming period.

“In order to prevent disasters like the one that occurred at Beirut port, the explosives and missiles that Hezbollah has hidden must be removed from all concentrations of civilian population in Lebanon,” a Tweet from the Israeli premiers’ office read.

The loaded advice came days after Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon granted a rare interview to the Saudi-0wned newspaper Elaph, outlining Israel’s take on the situation.

“Hezbollah controls the port and nothing can pass there without Hezbollah’s approval. They are the ones who decided to store their missiles in the heart of residential neighborhoods, and it is they who will decide whether there will be a war or not,” he told the Arabic-language outlet.

This combination of pictures created with footage filmed from an office building at the moment a massive explosion rocked Beirut on August 4, 2020. Photos: AFP/Gaby Salem

Ya’alon said it was “clear to everyone that there was a warehouse of weapons and ammunition belonging to Hezbollah” in the port, as well as a store of ammonium nitrate, a notoriously weaponizable fertilizer.

“Do you know where else they have found this stuff? They have found it in the possession of Hezbollah cells in Europe,” he said.

Israel, Ya’alon emphasized, has long warned Lebanon over the militarization of its port and the storage of weapons and ammunition factories and labs in civilian areas.

There has been no direct Israeli denial over the Beirut explosion, though Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi has suggested it was caused by a fire. Unnamed Israeli officials have been quoted by various outlets saying the country had nothing to do with the blasts.

“If it was us,” said former Knesset member Moshe Feiglin, “then we should be proud of it; with that we will create a balance of terror.”

This combination of pictures taken August 8, 2020 shows (L to R) cardboard cut-outs of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, former Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on the gallow in downtown Beirut following a blast that killed more than 170 people. Credit: AFP

The “balance of terror” doctrine was first put forward by Nasrallah, who in 2016 said his group’s missiles were capable of hitting ammonium stores at the Israeli port of Haifa and setting off the equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

Hezbollah’s concession

Hezbollah, observers say, must now determine its response to perhaps the biggest threat to its presence in Lebanon yet.

“They’re going to realize their allies have been burnt completely. So either they take the country by force, or they have to seriously compromise. They finally won the country and now they have to compromise now because of stupid mistakes,” said analyst Ghaddar.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who since the explosion has been serving as a central diplomatic go-between with Iran, appears to be crafting a plan that would offer Hezbollah a dignified off-ramp, block Turkish President Erdogan from swooping in and put a US-palatable government in place.

But the US and its ally Israel may be looking for more than cosmetic reforms.

“We’re here not just for one day, we’re here for the long haul,” US Ambassador Dorothy Shea was seen on TV telling survivors of the double blasts in the Gemmayzé district of Beirut earlier this week.

Among Hezbollah’s menu of options would be to scapegoat veteran member Wafiq Safa.

The US Department of the Treasury sanctioned Safa in July last year for allegedly facilitating the entry of weapons, drugs and other illegal items into Beirut port and misdirecting import duties and revenues.

But the major concession on the table is Hezbollah’s long-sought blessing for the demarcation of Lebanon’s maritime boundary with Israel, an accord which would establish an official border and represent a step toward normalized relations.

On August 13, Israel announced it had made peace with the United Arab Emirates, the first such deal with an Arab state in a quarter-century and a potential indicator of where the Arabian Peninsula is heading.

In a clear olive branch, Aoun, just three days after the blast, told Trump by phone he hoped the US could help resolve the Israel sea boundary issue, once and for all.

Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.