BEIRUT — Gunmen opened fire on a Hezbollah-organized demonstration on Thursday in the Lebanese capital, killing at least six people and raising the specter of renewed violence and revenge attacks across the city.
The brazen assault on Lebanon’s most powerful party, both militarily and politically, 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, has accused the rival Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian movement, for the attack, setting up a showdown between the two heavily armed groups.
Hezbollah and its ally the Amal Movement said its 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.”
After hours of shooting and rocket-propelled grenades, which spread from the Tayyooneh 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.
While the Lebanese Forces did not claim the attack, Imad Wakim, a lawmaker for the group, said in a tweet that the confrontation is not between parties or sects but “between Hezbollah and what is left of free Lebanese from all sects, preserving what has remained of government institutions.”
Schools were evacuated as panicked parents flocked to pick up their children. Local media reported that residents on buildings’ higher floors were descending to avoid gunshots targeting the snipers believed to be on the rooftops. Many families were evacuated from buildings in the area by the army and the Lebanese Red Cross.
The demonstration had been originally to protest Judge Tarek Bitar after Lebanon’s highest court rejected a petition to replace him. He is the second judge to lead the investigation in the face of formidable opposition by various political parties in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.
In its joint statement, Hezbollah and Amal called on authorities to “arrest those who caused the killing operations whose names are known, and the aggressors who ran this purposeful operation from black rooms.”
During a news conference from the airport, 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 a $67 million of 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. Residential streets and the area around the Palace of Justice, where the protest was based, were stained with blood and littered with shell casings and shattered glass.
Calls for vengeance filled the air at al-Sahel hospital, just 10 minutes from the heart of the clashes, and the air was heavy with anger. Tall, bearded men in baseball caps and with Kalashnikov assault rifles slung across their bodies cried freely outside the ER, clutching each other’s shoulders. Many yelled 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 crying. Men lined up to offer him condolences near the parking lot, which was littered with bloodstained pieces of cloth.
At one point, the brother of one of the deceased burst out of the hospital and screamed at the assembled television cameras, “may what happened to us happen to you!” he said as the tears streamed over his face mask.
Lebanon’s politics is characterized by a tense power sharing agreement between its many communities that has left decision-making deadlocked while the economy and basic infrastructure has 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. But he also struggled to break through Lebanon’s culture of corruption and political influence that prevented the law from holding anyone of consequence accountable.
Government documents reviewed by The Washington Post earlier this year showed that officials were well aware of the dangers posed by the large chemical stockpile long before last year. The documents revealed that responsibility for the ammonium nitrate was for years passed among different public and private entities, including the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the judiciary, the army and even a private explosives company.
Bitar faced backlash after he issued an arrest warrant Tuesday for Amal movement member and former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil. 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. A Hezbollah-allied minister threatened that he and other cabinet members would stage a walkout if Bitar was not removed. Thursday’s protest was part of the party’s pressure campaign against the judge.