Even before the August 4 Beirut port explosion that devastated the heart of the Lebanese capital, Hezbollah commander Abu Karim was on edge at his post in the southern Lebanese hills, east of the ancient port city of Tyre. Tensions were high after a week of escalating Israeli attacks on Hezbollah in Syria, and the Party of God was ready to retaliate on the Lebanese-Israeli border. So when the monumental blast occurred, panicked orders came from the top and the commander found himself on the radio, calling his fighters to battle stations and bringing Lebanon’s powerful militia to the brink of war with Israel.
Speaking exclusively to The Nation, Abu Karim, a Hezbollah field commander stationed in southern Lebanon, and Abu Naim, a fighter on reconnaissance patrol in Beirut during the blast, depict an organization going from the depths of a military crisis to the center of a political one. (Both have taken a nom de guerre and insist on anonymity because Hezbollah fighters are barred from speaking to Western media.)
“In the first moments of the blast we thought we were under attack by Israel,” says Abu Karim. “We thought that this is it. It’s on!”
Leader of over 500 fighters, Abu Karim describes a frenzied rush to mobilize from the mountains to the coast in the south, where, in 2000, Hezbollah ended Israel’s occupation after an 18-year guerrilla resistance. “All troops were mobilized in the south. The rocket-system operators were ordered to their missile sites and told to be ready to fire.”
For the next 45 minutes, recalls the commander, battle-hardened during Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, his fighters waited nervously while senior commanders debated over the radio. As time passed, claims that Lebanon was rocked by an Israeli airstrike were increasingly countered by assertions that an explosion had happened inside the port. “Then the order came to stand down,” he says, with relief still reverberating in his voice.
The trepidation is warranted; another war with Israel would devastate both countries. Israel has repeatedly threatened Hezbollah that in the next round, its formidable military, one of the most powerful in the world, would bomb Lebanon with far greater fury than it did in the 34-day 2006 conflict. In that war it killed more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians, severely damaged infrastructure, and displaced a million people—a quarter of the population at the time.
Hezbollah, for its part, is now estimated to have more than 100,000 rockets, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies—many of them far more sophisticated and accurate, and with a far greater range capable of targeting all of Israel’s major cities, than the highly inaccurate Katyushas it was known for in the past. A central ally to the Assad regime, Hezbollah has put forces on the unoccupied side of the Syrian Golan Heights, which could become a second front. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s ground troops have been battle-seasoned in the Syrian civil war, where some 1,500–2,000 of its fighters have died; and it has expanded into training and assisting Iran’s allies in Yemen and Iraq.
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Rush hour was still bustling at 6 pm on August 4 in Beirut’s central neighborhood of Ras Al Naba’a. Abu Naim was carrying out what he describes as standard, unarmed reconnaissance in civilian clothes with the rest of his unit. Minutes later, the fighters were lying dazed in the street around their party office. They had been knocked off their feet by a blast wave full of broken glass, which transformed the city in an instant. Stunned and confused, Abu Naim scrambled to help the injured in his unit as orders blared on his hand-radio to head to base, gather weapons, and await further orders.
“Three of us were injured by the flying glass,” recalls the fighter. “We tried to protect our bodies but couldn’t take much cover. It was like a state of war within seconds. There was lots of blood and people injured. It was a horror movie.”
Abu Naim describes how, after helping treat his comrades and returning with them to base, they sat by the radio, armed and ready to fight, while contradicting explanations for the explosion crackled through the receiver for 20 minutes. “One minute we heard that it is an Israeli attack, the next we’re told that it’s not,” he says, about the confusion from high command, while fighters kept a nervous watch on the surrounding streets.
Soon, though, his unit received orders to stand down and assist in the emergency response by opening roads for ambulances, even as the south of the country remained on battle readiness.
Israel has denied any involvement in the explosion, and even Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, didn’t finger his bitter foe, instead indicating that the explosion was an industrial accident. After it quickly emerged that more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, stored unsafely for six years in a government-run port hangar, had caused one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, a shocked public became enraged. A furious and devastated nation focused its anger on a ruling class inherited from the 1975–90 civil war, enriched after the war through loyalty to the foreign patrons they fought for and clinging to power through sectarian division.
Economic collapse had already sparked a mass anti-establishment revolt in October, and the government’s inept handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has compounded popular outrage. The port explosion, however, exposed the Lebanese to the unfathomable cost of the corruption endemic in an establishment tethered to backers in Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and France. And Hezbollah—having grown from its guerrilla origins in the 1980s to become the most powerful military force in the country, not only dominating Lebanon’s political system but operating as a major player in regional politics—is at the center of this establishment, maintaining its rule.
“All the political forces lead the country to this point. It’s not just one,” says Ahmad Moussalli, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut who specializes in Islamic political movements. He was at home in the suburbs 15 kilometers from the capital when the mushrooming fireball shook his flat like an earthquake; it was felt as far away as Cyprus. “But because Hezbollah is so strong, there is a narrative acceptable to many people that Hezbollah, in one way or another, helped the corrupt class in order to keep its weapons and its plan for the country,” continues the professor.
Moussalli can’t see Lebanon’s governing elite and system of sectarian patronage surviving the political fallout from the explosion. “The political establishment in Lebanon is finished,” he contends. “It’s dysfunctional and it will not survive the current crisis.”
For Lebanese American University political science professor Imad Salamey, however, Lebanon’s establishment appears to be more resilient and able to retain power, despite overwhelming popular opposition.
“The political system here doesn’t go by public mood,” argues Salamey, who is skeptical that the mass protests have the leverage to force out the entrenched establishment and uproot the sectarian system. “The system here goes by global and regional forces that orchestrate the government.”
A specialist in ethnic and sectarian political polarization, Salamey describes how the shock wave from the blast brought back memories of running from bombardment during the civil war. He laments that his child now bears scars that echo his generation’s; his 18-year old son narrowly survived a building collapse in the explosion, afterward joining frantic efforts to rescue people from the rubble.
Salamey sees the current political crisis as similar to that of the mid-1970s, when mass protests demanding democratic political and social transformation faced an entrenched sectarian leadership that maneuvered to plunge the country into civil war.
Back then, a socialist upstart from the Druze community named Kamal Jumblatt led the charge against sectarian politics while embracing pan-Arabism. Today; his son, Walid—who took over the Druze-based Progressive Socialist Party after his father’s assassination by the Syrians during the civil war—is one of the pillars of the sectarian establishment that people in the streets want to tear down.
“If things get bad, they will go to civil war, establish their cantons, and run their own separate affairs,” Salamey says, about the willingness of the established parties to cling to power despite the depths of the national crisis. “As long as you see this regional dynamic of sectarian struggle going on, I don’t expect Lebanon to go against this momentum and form an alternative regime.”
Rooted in France’s colonial legacy, Lebanon’s political system is divided among the country’s Christian, Druze, Shia, and Sunni Muslim communities. After the 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended the 15-year civil war, Parliament altered from having a slight Christian edge to being balanced between Muslim and Christian, but the sectarian system remained in place, and the militia leaders became party leaders in it. They proceeded to enrich themselves through their control of the economy and corrupt rebuilding contracts, while neglecting the social safety net and infrastructure. So undrinkable tap water and daily power cuts across the electricity grid continued.
However, the recent mass, cross-confessional opposition in the streets—where protesters chant “all of them means all of them” as they demand the ouster of a corrupt ruling class—is now a major force in a bankrupt country, where police could hardly be seen during rescue efforts but were out in force to teargas protesters.
The movement already brought down a government in November; following the explosion, it forced the end of the appointed caretaker government. However, the August 31 selection of Mustafa Adib as prime minister–elect reflects the consensus of the embattled establishment on a choice that they hope will please the French and bring much needed foreign aid.
Abu Karim and Abu Naim are staunchly loyal to the movement inspired by the Iranian revolution and its base in Lebanon’s historically marginalized Shia community. Both still believe Israel is somehow behind the explosion. They say it’s an impression they are being given unofficially by their commanding officers, even as Nasrallah focuses attention on the investigation and struggles to publicly position Hezbollah as a voice of popular outrage against corruption. Nonetheless, both acknowledge that Hezbollah supporters are furious in the wake of the blast and generally believe it was rooted in negligence and corruption.
“There are people who support Hezbollah who say we’ve had it, enough is enough,” says Abu Karim. “But it is only a matter of time before they change their mind.”
Moussalli describes Hezbollah as in a corner, caught between its Iranian patron, which doesn’t want it to cooperate with international recovery efforts, and the needs of its Shia support base. It is why, he says, Nasrallah is striking a conciliatory tone toward the international community and the political demands in the streets, while trying to deny Hezbollah’s role in the system’s failure.
Most of Hezbollah’s base, Moussalli suggests, doesn’t believe that Israel was involved in the blast. He says it’s significant that only a small minority of hard-liners blame Israel, in a country where a long history of Israeli military aggression usually makes it a popular suspect when disaster strikes.
“Although the Shia community in general supports Hezbollah, I think everyone in one way or another is saying we can’t take it anymore,” Moussalli says.
But for some Hezbollah loyalists, it seems that change and accountability are rooted in a reckoning with its old enemy to the south. “We believe this is definitely sabotage; it was definitely a bomb detonated on purpose,” Abu Naim states in a tone of absolute certainty. It is a perspective reinforced by continued Lebanese-Israeli tensions, like the August 26 Israeli airstrike on a guard tower near the Syrian border. And yet he says that if he believed that Hezbollah knew about the ammonium nitrate in the port storage hangar or was involved in corruption leading to the explosion, he’d quit.
Abu Karim is less emphatic. Despite Nasrallah’s public denial, he acknowledges that Hezbollah had a clear and independent watch on the port and must have known about the dangerous substance that was stored in vast quantities in a place so central to its interests. While he struggles to explain why Hezbollah didn’t do anything about it, he is not concerned about the explanation.
“From inside the organization, no one cares much, because it’s a way of living,” he says about what shapes his perspective. “Without this organization, you will suffer financially. You keep your opinion to yourself.”
Moussalli believes that Hezbollah could be the only part of the establishment to survive the system’s collapse. He sees in its strong base of ideologically loyal supporters a movement that will remain as a powerful force in any new political system, regardless of the increasing internal and external dissent it’s facing.
“Probably if Hezbollah goes along, it will be the major player, not only by force and facts on the ground, but in a legitimized way,” he predicts, saying this is the reason the party is embracing the outrage of its base while keeping its fighters prepared for the next war. It is why, he says, Nasrallah has been open to international support for Lebanon and initiatives by French President Emmanuel Macron, despite strong Iranian opposition.
“Hezbollah is ultimately a Lebanese party, and its community and supporters are Lebanese,” Moussalli asserts. “Iran may be ready to sacrifice Hezbollah, but Hezbollah is not willing to sacrifice itself.”