Disaster in Beirut: blame the other

Sent On: 
Wed, 2020-08-12
Newsletter Number: 

The August 4 explosion of 2700 ton of ammonium nitrate in the port of Beirut  has resulted in over 160 deaths, thousands of wounded, 300.000 people became homeless and hundreds of thousands facing damages to their property at a time that Lebanon’s economy is in shambles. Beirut’s port, one of the largest and busiest ports on the Eastern Mediterranean, has been wiped out. The grain silos in the port were damaged. Shipping new grain supplies to Lebanon is urgent but is no longer possible to Beirut. The nearest port Tripoli will need to become the new supply route for months and possibly years to come.

A helicopter putting out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, on Tuesday.
(Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)


We contacted our friends in Lebanon. All of them know people who have seen great damage to their property. Insurance for such a disaster does not exist and thus people need to find their own support. Many NGOs such as the Dutch Kerk in Actie and the Danish Danmission started a campaign to help rebuild Beirut. They do this through ACT Alliance, a coalition of 135 churches and faith-based organizations working together in over 120 countries. People are receiving food, water and clothes when needed. The buildings of the Near East School of Theology (NEST), Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) and the youth center Manara [Manāra] in Bourj Hammoud [Burj Ḥammūd] are damaged, in particular windows and wooden structures. Also, friends at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in Beirut reported damages.


People in Beirut are demonstrating against corrupt businessmen and politicians. The cabinet resigned.


The explosion is the result of a fire near the storage of the ammonium nitrate. The New York Times, August 7 and updated August 10, described how it came that such a large quantity of ammonium nitrate was poorly stored at a warehouse in the port of Beirut. The ammonium nitrate had come from a leaky ship called the Rhosos that had left Georgia in September 2013 with the aim of reaching Mozambique in East Africa. It made an unscheduled stop in Beirut with the intention to load additional cargo that was meant to be taken to Jordan. Local authorities seized the ship, claiming unspecified deficiencies. The cargo was stored in the port with no one apparently knowing what to do with it. The rusty vessel that had transported the cargo, never left the port and sunk at the northern edge of the Beirut port in 2018. Ammonium nitrate is used as fertilizer but when it is heated it can explode as a bomb. No one at the port had in all these years realized how dangerous a fire near such a large quantity of ammonium nitrate could be. When the fire occurred the ammonium nitrate exploded with the power of a small atom bomb.


It is unfortunately very common for politicians to blame their enemies for any disaster. President Donald Trump claimed on August 5 that he had been briefed by unnamed generals that this was an attack. US defense officials contradicted this the same day.


Saudi editorials quickly followed with claims that their archenemy Hezbollah [Ḥizbullāh] is responsible for the explosion [MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8881]. Hassan Nasrallah [Ḥassan Naṣr Allāh], leader of the Ḥizbullāh, denies any involvement. He said Ḥizbullāh has no arms in the port and neither had any control over the port. Former al-Sharq al-Awsat editor Salman Al-Dosari [Salmān al- Dūsarī], published on August 7 an article in which he blames Qatar since they are supporting Ḥizbullāh [MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8885]


Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Political Bureau Chief Anwar Abdul Hadi [Anwar ʿAbd al-Hādī] claimed immediately after the blast on Aletejah TV (Iran) that Israel “may be behind the Beirut explosion.”  Israelis, he said, “have a 'fake Biblical' mentality that they are the chosen people and so are capable of any crime (MEMRI TV Clip No. 8192).


General Michel Aoun [Michel ʿAwn] (1935), the aging president of Lebanon since 2016, asked French president Emmanuel Macron for satellite images around the time of the disaster in order to see if enemy aircraft was involved. Aoun feels the widespread anger of the Lebanese people and he too is seeming to bend the story into the direction of a foreign perpetrator.


These claims that outside perpetrators were involved are both sick and dangerous. It can result in new conflicts that Lebanon certainly does not need. Brent Hamoud, Programs Coordinator of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) commented that “there is definitely need for a thorough, transparent investigation into how this tragedy happened. We resist the tendency to resort to conspiracy theories that so often reinforce flimsy narratives and block real change and progress from taking place. A host of unanswered questions remain, and I believe a variety of possibilities remain probable. All of this does not dismiss the heavy blame that falls on the heads of the Lebanese state and its ruling class for allowing such combustible conditions to exist. The riddle of the 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate needs to be solved. There are many unknowns, and too much will likely remain unknown; the key is to sift through the mess and work along the lines of agreed knowns. I agree with your argument that throwing blame on outsiders and others is simply not productive.”


We fully agree with Brent Hamoud. The Lebanese anger towards the political elite is understandable. Large numbers of Lebanese politicians are also wealthy businessmen who either serve their own empires and/or the religious community they are from. This explosion is thus bound to have wider political ramifications. Non-Lebanese should do whatever they can to help the Lebanese people. Part of this is not giving credibility to conspiracy theories.



August 12, 2020


Drs. Cornelis Hulsman, Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report