As the smoke clears over Beirut, and rescuers struggle to aid survivors of a massive explosion that killed at least 78 people and wounded more than 4,000, an ominous question hangs in the air:
Was Israel responsible? The answer is, probably not.
Israel denies any involvement. Lebanon’s government and Hezbollah militants – never shy about blaming their arch-enemy Israel for any misfortune – say the disaster was an accident caused by volatile explosive material in a warehouse. If Israel were in fact responsible, the result could be a war with Hezbollah and Hezbollah’s patron Iran that could even embroil the United States and other nations in a vast Middle East conflagration.
Complicating matters is that U.S. President Donald Trump quickly asserted that the explosion was the result of an attack.
“Well it would seem like it based on the explosion,” Trump said at a press briefing Tuesday. “I met with some of our great generals and they seemed to feel that it was. This was not some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event. This was a, seems to be, according to them, they would know better than I would, but they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.”
Pentagon officials contradict Trump’s assertion. At best, Trump’s assessment seems hasty, given that details are still sketchy of the explosion, which occurred early Tuesday evening local time in a warehouse on Beirut’s waterfront. Video of the catastrophe shows what appears to be at least two explosions. At first, the video shows a tall plume of white smoke, as if from a fire, speckled with small flashes. Then a large orange blast of flame. Finally, a huge white ball of what might be smoke and steam envelops the area as a shock wave smashes buildings and windows.
Lebanese authorities initially blamed the blast on old fireworks, then Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced the cause was ammonium nitrate, a favorite of terrorist bomb-makers such as the American extremists who destroyed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The warehouse was allegedly filled with ammonium nitrate that had been seized by Lebanese authorities.
“It is unacceptable that a shipment of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate has been present for six years in a warehouse, without taking preventive measures,” Diab said. While the white ball slightly resembles that of an oceanic atomic test as at Bikini Atoll in 1946, conspiracy theories that the Beirut blast was caused by a nuclear weapon are ridiculous. A real nuclear bomb would have caused far more damage, and would leave easily detectable radioactivity in its wake.
Nonetheless, the question of Israeli involvement was inevitable. If any nation has cause to wish destruction of a Lebanese warehouse filled with explosives used by suicide bombers and to create IEDs, it’s Israel. The Israeli Air Force has flown numerous air strikes for years against targets in Syria. The air campaign aims to destroy arms depots and convoys used by Iran to ship weapons across Syrian territory to Hezbollah, which vows destruction of Israel and is the most powerful group in Lebanon.
There is no question that Israel had the capability to destroy that warehouse. It could have launched guided missiles from drones, jet fighters, Apache attack helicopters, Israeli navy missile boats and submarines, and even ground-launched ballistic missiles.
Or, Israel’s Mossad intelligence could have arranged a bomb or other sabotage. In recent weeks, there have been numerous explosions at nuclear sites, ballistic missile factories and power plants in Iran, including a key facility for making centrifuges needed for building a nuclear bomb. The Mossad is a top suspect.
However, like solving any crime, the problem with blaming Israel for the Beirut explosion is motive. Despite years of clashes, including a war in 2006, both Israel and Hezbollah have recently made clear that neither wants war – at least for now. Hezbollah has been stretched thin by years of sending its fighters to prop up the Syrian government against rebels, while the near-collapse of the Lebanese economy caused by U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus have sapped its resources and popularity.
For its part, Israel has been embroiled with the coronavirus outbreak and chaotic domestic politics, including corruption charges filed against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In addition, Hezbollah’s 150,000 rockets aimed at Israel are a powerful disincentive. While Israel has been able to conduct strikes in Syria without escalating tensions, Jerusalem is well aware that attacking Lebanon could result in a barrage of Hezbollah rockets and commando raids, forcing a bloody Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.
There have been a few recent border clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, including what Israel claims was an attempted infiltration by a Hezbollah squad. But what’s noteworthy is that Hezbollah denied the infiltration ever took place, while Israel merely responded with some minor shelling, with no casualties reported on either side. Both sides are trying hard to keep a lid on the violence.
What’s also notable is that Israel’s air campaign in Syria has been low key, with a few warehouses destroyed here, a few missile launchers destroyed there. Bombing the Beirut waterfront would be so public that Jerusalem would risk not just war with Hezbollah, but also antagonizing world opinion.
Of course, this analysis is based on logic. It’s possible, for example, that the Israeli Air Force targeted the Beirut warehouse without realizing just how much explosive material was stored there. But striking Hezbollah’s stronghold without reliable and up-to-date intelligence would be unusually sloppy for the Israelis.
If Israel wants to keep its northern front quiet, blowing up a Beirut neighborhood would be stupid. Whatever the cause of the explosion, it probably wasn’t Israel.
Source: Forbes/Michael Peck