BEIRUT — Gunmen opened fire on a Hezbollah-organized demonstration Thursday in the Lebanese capital, killing at least six people and setting off hours of fighting that threatened to plunge the fragile nation back into factional violence.
The brazen assault on Lebanon’s most powerful party represented a dangerous escalation in a country that has been teetering on the edge of collapse for the past year.
Hezbollah, which held the demonstration to call for the removal of the judge investigating a blast that tore through Beirut last year, accused the rival Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian movement, of staging the attack, setting up a showdown between the two heavily armed groups.
Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal movement, both predominantly Shiite Muslim, said their supporters “faced an armed aggression by groups from the Lebanese Forces party, which had spread out in nearby neighborhoods and on building rooftops, and started its direct sniping operations to purposefully kill.”
The Lebanese Forces denied the accusation, calling it “baseless,” and said the clashes stemmed from Hezbollah’s provocation.
Marc Saad, the Lebanese Forces spokesman, told The Washington Post his party refused to allow “the streets and their country to be violated by thugs and terrorists who come with [rocket-propelled grenades] now just to oppose a judge who is doing his simple job to make justice heard.”
With the country already mired in an economic crisis and barely held together by a dysfunctional political system, the clash over an ongoing investigation into last year’s port explosion could be the final straw.
Elections are also set for next year, and the sectarian political parties have little interest in calming tensions as they rally their supporters, said Bassel Salloukh, a Lebanese political analyst at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.
“Instead of the pressure being on them, and the onus and responsibility of reforms being on them, they are dragging the country to sectarian games that they know how to play so well,” he said. He described the clashes as “a win-win situation for both groups because they can use this to mobilize their constituencies behind them, and in the lead-up to parliamentary elections.”
After hours of fighting with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, which spread from the Tayouneh roundabout — a fault line during the civil war decades ago — to several other parts of the city, the normally traffic-choked streets were eerily quiet, save for the distant sound of ambulances.
The Red Cross, which sent teams to the scene, said six people were killed and more than 30 wounded. It was the fiercest clash in the city since 2008, when tensions between the U.S.-backed government and Hezbollah escalated into pitched street battles in which dozens died.
Schools were evacuated as panicked parents flocked to pick up their children. According to local media, residents who lived on higher floors of buildings were moving down to escape gunshots from snipers on rooftops. The army and Lebanese Red Cross evacuated many families from the affected areas.
The demonstration that was attacked had been to protest Judge Tarek Bitar after Lebanon’s highest court rejected a petition to replace him. He has sought to lead the investigation of the 2020 Beirut port blast, in the face of formidable opposition by various political parties in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group. Tuesday’s speech by Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah described Bitar as “biased” and “politized.” Anger flared when a judge issued an arrest warrant for a member the Amal movement.
During an airport news conference on the conclusion of her visit Thursday to Lebanon, which coincided with the violence, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland expressed condolences for the day’s events and said of the blast investigation that “terrorists and thieves have robbed [the Lebanese] of hope for far too long.”
She announced $67 million in aid to the army, which has been struggling to weather the economic crisis that has ravaged Lebanon in the past two years.
Local television channels stressed a need for de-escalation to avoid a repetition of the civil war that destroyed much of the country between 1975 and 1990. The area surrounding the Palace of Justice where the demonstration was held were flooded with blood, littered by shell casings, and covered in smashed glass.
After the fighting subsided, Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned the violence and declared a day of mourning. Michel Aoun, President of the Republic of France, promised that he would hold responsible those who caused violence. He called it “unacceptable” but insisted that they will never again see such an incident.
During the day, however, calls for vengeance filled al-Sahel Hospital near the scene of the clashes, and the air was heavy with anger. The emergency room was filled with tall, bearded men wearing baseball caps, and carrying Kalashnikov assault weapons across their bodies. They cried out, clutching one another’s shoulders. Many shouted out about fighting back.
“I’m going to kill them one by one, I swear on my children,” said one man sitting on a motorcycle, bent over and crying. Near the car park, men lined up to express their condolences. It was covered in bloodstained cloth.
At one point, the brother of one of the dead burst out of the hospital and screamed at the assembled television cameras. As tears poured over his mask, he shouted “May what happened in our lives happen to you!”
Lebanon’s political scene is characterized by a tense power-sharing agreement among its many communities that has left decision-making deadlocked while the economy and basic infrastructure have gradually deteriorated.
The system has also meant that any serious investigations, such as the one into the Aug. 4, 2020, blast, which killed more than 200 people and devastated large portions of the capital, tend to go nowhere if they threaten the powers that be.
Bitar is the second judge assigned to the probe. Throughout his investigation, the first judge, Fadi Sawan, had focused on a question that has gripped much of Lebanon: Who was responsible for allowing 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate to be stored haphazardly in a warehouse, alongside fireworks and paint thinners, on the edge of a crowded city?
After trying to interrogate powerful former ministers and political leaders, Sawan was removed and replaced by Bitar. He also tried to overcome Lebanon’s corruption culture and political influence, which prevented any law enforcement from making anyone accountable.
Government documents reviewed by The Post earlier this year showed that officials were well aware of the dangers posed by the large chemical stockpile long before last year. Documents revealed that ammonium-nitrate responsibility was shared for many years by a variety of public and private organizations, such as the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and the Judiciary, and even an explosives business.
Bitar faced a backlash after he issued an arrest warrant Tuesday for former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a member of the Amal movement. In an interview the same day, Khalil said, “I am proud to be part of a political movement, that I am a soldier in the Amal movement.”
A cabinet meeting was canceled Wednesday after Hezbollah demanded urgent government action against the judge. Hezbollah’s ally minister threatened to walk out with other members of the cabinet if Bitar wasn’t removed. The party was trying to pressure Bitar.
Suzan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.