Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows the UN General Assembly a map of the Lebanese capital and points to Hezbollah's alleged arms dump. Photo: screen grab

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Lebanon it should expect a new explosion to rock the capital, should they fail to tackle alleged Hezbollah military sites.

“We all saw the terrible explosion at Beirut port last month,” Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.

“The explosion happened here. This is the Beirut port,” he said, pointing to a map labeled “Hezbollah’s ‘ticking bombs’ in Beirut.” The prime minister appeared to insinuate that the stockpile of ammonium nitrate which detonated on August 4 belonged to the Shiite militant group.

“Two hundred people died, thousands of people were injured and a quarter of a million people were made homeless,” Netanyahu said. “Now, here is where the next explosion could take place. Right here.”

A second explosion symbol appeared on the map, near to the Rafic Hariri International Airport of Beirut, the only civilian airport in the country. Highlighting the location with a laser pointer, Netanyahu offered a warning.

“This is the Beirut neighborhood of Janah. It’s right next to the international airport. And here, Hezbollah is keeping a secret arms depot.”

Showing a zoomed-in satellite image of the area, the Israeli leader alleged that the depot was sandwiched between two gas companies, as well as a gas station, and located in the midst of multi-story apartment buildings.

“I say to the people of Lebanon, Israel means you no harm. But Iran does. Iran and Hezbollah have deliberately put you and your families in grave danger,” he said.

“If this thing explodes, it’s another tragedy.”

Netanyahu also brought up a blast that occurred in the southern Lebanese town of Ain Qana the previous week. That explosion, which leveled a multistory building, coincided with Israeli overflights reported by Lebanon’s national news agency. Local security sources said the target was a Hezbollah arms cache, which the Shiite group denied.

“Just a few days ago, one of these depots exploded at Ain Qana in south Lebanon,” said Netanyahu.

“And that is why the international community must insist that Hezbollah stop using Lebanon and Lebanese civilians as human shields.”

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Nasrallah responds

Netanyahu during his UN speech publicized coordinates of the alleged Hezbollah arms depot. Shortly after, the Israeli military also tweeted those coordinates, as well as two other “bonus sites” purportedly tied to Hezbollah’s military activities in south Beirut.

The alleged depot, located between two gas companies, has as neighbors bakeries, shopping malls, a recycling company and the embassy of Hezbollah’s patron Iran.

One of the “bonus” locations is between churches and mosques in Laylaki district on the fringes of the historically Christian district of Hadath. The other is just to the east of the airport, near a mosque complex.

“Here are the coordinates to put in your Waze. Let’s hope the journalists get there before Nasrallah’s moving trucks do,” the Israeli Defense Forces account tweeted, teasing a reference to an Israeli mapping application that, like all contact with Israel, is banned in Lebanon.

Hours later, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah – in a previously planned speech – denied all claims made by the Israeli prime minister.

“We don’t store our rockets at Beirut port, nor do we put them next to gas stations. We know very well where to put our weapons,” he said, deflecting Netanyahu’s thinly-veiled accusation that Hezbollah’s weapons brought on the August 4 explosion.

Israel has neither claimed nor officially denied either the August 4 port blast or the September 22 Ain Qana explosion. The Lebanese public has meanwhile kept its anger focused on its own political elites for negligence in allowing ammonium nitrate to remain at Beirut port for six years, rather than the reason for its entry or the cause of the initial blast.

Nasrallah, who has downplayed the idea of Israeli involvement in the port blasts and rejected any Israeli link to the explosion in Ain Qana, said that Netanyahu was only attempting “to incite the Lebanese people against Hezbollah.”

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

But citing the “sensitivity of the explosion which took place at the port”, Nasrallah said he would respond to the Israeli accusations.

Within the hour, the Hezbollah media office arranged for the Beirut press corps to visit the area of the alleged arms depot in Janah. An AFP photographer said he saw heavy machinery and large gas tanks, but no weapons.

“This is a normal industrial site,” Hezbollah media office spokesman Mohammad Afif told journalists.

Journalists tour the site of Beirut’s southern suburb of Jnah which Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said was a weapons depot belonging to the Shiite movement Hezbollah on September 29, 2020. Photo: Anwar Amro / AFP

The Israeli army, which has in the past said it had located three weapons factories in Beirut, said late Tuesday that one of the “bonus” sites in Laylaki district was under a seven-story apartment block and the other under a residential complex. Those sites were not included in the tour.

Maritime pressure valve

Lebanon and Israel, which remain officially at war, last saw major conflict in July 2006, when Israel launched a devastating bombing campaign after the killing of eight soldiers and abduction of two by Hezbollah.

The war resulted in at least 1,109 Lebanese deaths, the majority of them civilians, as well as 55 Israeli deaths, twelve of them soldiers, according to Human Rights Watch, which examined the extremely lopsided cost to civilian life in a 2007 report, “Why they died”.

In that report, Human Rights Watch urged Israel to “amend and revise policies and military strategies that authorize the IDF to target people or structures associated with Hezbollah institutions, regardless as to whether they constitute valid military objectives”.

The rights group in parallel called on Hezbollah’s leadership to “take all feasible measures to ensure that Hezbollah forces do not place civilians at unnecessary risk” and to avert the placement of weapons in populated areas.

Amid the renewed scrutiny following the August 4 explosion, Hezbollah appears to have conceded to a way to relieve Israeli pressure.

On Thursday, the Hezbollah-allied speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Nabih Berri, announced Lebanon would revive talks with Israel over the delineation of maritime and land borders.

The United States will act as a facilitator during the talks, which are due to be held in the southern Lebanon border town of Naqoura, Berri said without providing a date for the negotiations.

Reporting with AFP

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