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.
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. Local media reported that residents on buildings’ higher floors were descending to avoid gunshots targeting 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 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. In a speech Monday, Hezbollah’s leader Hasan Nasrallah called Bitar “biased and politicized,” and anger spiked after the judge issued an arrest warrant against a member of 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. 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.
After the fighting subsided, Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned the violence and declared a day of mourning. President Michel Aoun promised to hold those responsible accountable, calling the clashes “unacceptable” and insisting it would never happen again.
During the day, however, calls for vengeance filled al-Sahel Hospital near the scene 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 emergency room, 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 and 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 dead burst out of the hospital and screamed at the assembled television cameras. “May what happened to us happen to you!” he shouted as tears streamed over his face mask.
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. 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 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 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. 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.
Suzan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.