Armed clashes between sectarian militias briefly turned Beirut neighborhoods into a war zone on Thursday, killing six people and raising fears that new violence could fill the void left by the near-collapse of the Lebanese state.
Rival gunmen, chanting in support of their leaders, hid behind cars and dumpsters to fire automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at their rivals. Residents cowered in their homes, and teachers herded children into the hallways and basements of schools to protect them from the shooting.
The fighting marked a new low in the small Mediterranean country’s descent into an abyss of interlocking political and economic crises.
Since the fall of 2019, its currency has collapsed, battering the economy and reducing Lebanese who were comfortably middle-class to poverty. Instead of finding solutions, the country’s political elite has resorted to increasingly bitter infighting. A huge explosion in the port of Beirut last year exposed the results of what many Lebanese see as decades of poor governance and corruption.
Thursday’s clashes broke out at a protest led by two Shiite Muslim parties — Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group that the United States considers a terrorist organization, and the Amal Movement. The protesters were calling for the removal of the judge charged with investigating the Beirut explosion and determining who was responsible.
As the protesters gathered, gunshots rang out, apparently fired by snipers in nearby high buildings, according to witnesses and Lebanese officials, and protesters scattered to side streets, where they retrieved weapons and went to shoot back.
The resulting clashes raged in an area straddling the line between two neighborhoods, one Shiite and the other a stronghold of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party that staunchly opposes Hezbollah.
Hezbollah officials accused the Lebanese Forces of firing the initial shots, and in a statement, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement accused unnamed forces of trying to “drag the country into a deliberate strife.”
The head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, condemned the violence in posts on Twitter, saying that the clashes had been caused by “uncontrolled and widespread weapons that threaten citizens in every time and place,” a reference to Hezbollah’s vast arsenal.
His group accused Hezbollah of exploiting sectarian tensions to derail the port investigation.
“Hezbollah must be taught a lesson now that it cannot desecrate the entire country, its institutions, people and dignity, in order to prevent anyone from expressing their opinion or carrying out their duties,” Antoine Zahra, a member of the Lebanese Forces’ executive board, said in a statement.
As night fell, the country’s president, Michel Aoun, gave a televised address calling for calm, condemning gunmen who fired at protesters and promising they would be brought to justice. “Our country needs calm dialogue, and calm solutions and the respect of our institutions,” he said.
Mr. Aoun also said the investigation into the blast at the port would continue, putting him at odds with protest leaders.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for a day of mourning on Friday, and ordered all government buildings and schools closed for the day.
Violence between religious groups is particularly dangerous in Lebanon, which has 18 recognized sects, including Sunni and Shiite Muslims, various denominations of Christians and others. Conflicts between them and the militias they maintain define the country’s politics and have often spilled over into violence, most catastrophically during the country’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
The Sunnis, Shiites and Christians are Lebanon’s largest groups, but Hezbollah has emerged as the country’s most powerful political and military force, with an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets pointed at neighboring Israel and thousands of fighters who have been dispatched to battlefields in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
After about four hours of fighting, the Lebanese army deployed to calm the streets and the clashes appeared to subside, but residents remained in their homes seeking refuge from the violence. In addition to those killed, about 30 people were wounded.
When the first shots rang out as protesters gathered on Thursday morning in central Beirut, it was not clear where they had come from, who was firing or why. But well before the streets descended in sectarian fighting, tensions had been growing for weeks over an investigation into the August 2020 port explosion.
The explosion killed more than 200 people and wounded thousands as wide swaths of the city were destroyed or damaged.
The blast was caused by the sudden combustion of whatever was left of 2,750 tons of hazardous chemicals that had been unloaded into the port years before. Many Lebanese saw the blast, and the efforts by powerful politicians to hobble the investigation into its causes, as a stark example of the country’s deep dysfunction.
Former Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned, and for a year the country was without a functioning government. In September, Najib Mikati, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, became prime minister.
But even as a new government took shape, tensions over the port investigation grew deeper.
The inquiry was suspended this week after two former ministers facing charges lodged a new legal complaint against the judge carrying out the investigation.
Families of the victims condemned the move, with critics saying that the country’s political leadership was trying to shield itself from accountability for the largest explosion in the turbulent country’s history.
Hezbollah has grown increasingly vocal in its criticism of Judge Tarek Bitar.
On Monday, the judge had issued an arrest warrant for Ali Hussein Khalil, a prominent Shiite member of Parliament and a close adviser to the leader of the Amal party. The warrant leveled serious accusations against Mr. Khalil.
“The nature of the offense,” the document read, is “killing, harming, arson and vandalism linked to probable intent.”
Two days ago, the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah issued some of his most scathing criticism of the judge, accusing him of “politically targeting” officials in his investigation.
The group’s followers joined the protest to call for the removal of Judge Bitar on Thursday when shots rang out. Witnesses said snipers were targeting the demonstrators.
That was the spark that set off some of the worst sectarian clashes in years. By late afternoon, the guns had fallen silent after four hours of gun battles, but the streets were still tense, as residents cowered in their homes.
In classrooms, students hid under their desks and huddled in hallways shaking from the unrelenting barrage of gunfire outside. It started with the pop of a sniper rifle and then exploded into a cacophony of pistols, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Ambulances wailed as panicked residents — many who had lived through years of civil war and are now struggling to find basic necessities like food and fuel — did their best to hide.
Leena Haddad and her daughter huddled in their home, hoping it would shelter them from the fighting.
“We stayed in the bathroom for hours, the safest part in the house,” she said as the gunfire subsided on Thursday evening.
As the fighting raged, her daughter had tried to catch a glimpse outside, wondering whether it was safe to move.
“I tried to push her back from the window — she wanted to take photos,” Ms. Haddad said. “The sound of shooting was really loud,” and all she saw was men in black running in the streets.
Amer Salman, 22, a television producer, left home to go to work, but before he reached his car, the sound of gunfire sent him sprinting back to his seventh-floor apartment. He cowered for hours with his mother, his brother and a friend, unable to tell where the bullets were coming from.
“I should be thinking about my future, not hiding underneath a table because I’m scared for my life,” he said. “These political forces are fighting one another for reasons that are irrelevant to me. I deserve to live in a country where I can be safe.”
Lebanon is suffering through a convergence of economic, political and societal crises, and the view from her window evoked grim memories of the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990.
“I lived the civil war in the past,” she said. “I know what civil war means.”
It means more images like those playing on the televisions of people trapped in their homes on Thursday. A man laid out on the street, a bullet jolting his body as he took his last breath.
It means people shot in their homes as they hid, like at least one of the victims on Thursday.
It means fires sending up plumes of black smoke, shattered windows, bullets whipping overhead. And it means death. Several of those killed on Thursday were shot in the head, according to Lebanese officials.
Hassan Diya, 64, does not have much hope for the future.
“This country will never be fixed,” he said, taking stock of the shattered glass that littered his shop after the spasm of violence ebbed. As parties fight for power, he said, “the poor Lebanese are paying the price.”
He will not be able to make repairs, he said, since he was unable take out money from his bank on Thursday after it suspended withdrawals. There were reports of runs on banks on Thursday as people desperately sought cash.
Since the fall of 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value, and inflation last year was 84.9 percent. As of June, prices of many consumer goods had nearly quadrupled in the previous two years, according to government statistics.
“The whole situation is ready for civil war,” Mr. Diya said.
The three groups involved in the lethal gun battles in Beirut on Thursday are familiar with armed conflict: the Shiite Muslim political parties Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have long stood on the opposite side of Lebanon’s divided sectarian politics from the Lebanese Forces party, made up of Maronite Christians.
Hezbollah supporters accused gunmen from the Lebanese Forces of attacking their supporters at a protest on Thursday. The Lebanese Forces denied that they started the shooting, and accused Hezbollah and its allies of stoking sectarian violence to try to derail an investigation into the Beirut port explosion last year.
Backed by Iran and led by the charismatic cleric Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah may be the most powerful single force in Lebanon. It has dominated Lebanese politics in recent years through an alliance with Amal and Christian politicians.
But Hezbollah is also effectively a state-within-a-state that often operates beyond the reach of the Lebanese military, judiciary or other parts of the official government. Hezbollah has its own militia, hospitals, business networks, welfare system and other social services.
Hezbollah grew out of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon as a militia bent on expelling Israeli forces from southern Lebanon through guerrilla warfare. Its anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian cause was for years a rallying cry across the Arab world, even among Lebanese who identify with other sects and other parties. It was rare to hear a critical word against it, whether out of genuine support or fear of the consequences.
But its actions have often come at a cost to Lebanon. In 2006, its skirmishes with Israel along Lebanon’s southern border led to a devastating summer war. Its occasional clashes with Israel still provoke fears that Lebanon will be drawn into another war.
The group also sent thousands of fighters into neighboring Syria over the last decade to help Iran prop up the government of Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian civil war.
Since Hezbollah joined the government in 2005, it has been increasingly seen as part of the corrupt and dysfunctional system that has led to the current economic and political crisis.
Over the last two years, amid widespread anti-government protests, the port explosion and a catastrophic economic collapse, pushback against Hezbollah become widespread.
Its antagonist on Thursday, the Lebanese Forces, also has a bloody history that began with the Lebanese civil war, when it was founded as a right-wing Christian militia. As with many of the country’s parties, it got into politics when the fighting stopped in 1990 with a power-sharing agreement among the various Lebanese factions, turning warlords into politicians.
The Lebanese Forces’ leader, Samir Geagea, has been one of Hezbollah’s most vocal opponents for years. He has also feuded with President Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s chief Christian ally.
Mr. Geagea has sought to capitalize on brewing opposition to Hezbollah since mass anti-government protests rocked the country in the fall of 2019, throwing his support behind the protesters.
But, as many demonstrators pointed out, Mr. Geagea was hardly an exception to what they were protesting: a dysfunctional system paralyzed by sectarianism and corruption, and ruled by a small number of aging men who were steeped more in violence than in governance.
Judge Tarek Bitar is the second judge to head the investigation to determine the exact cause of the August 2020 explosion at Beirut’s port and to hold those responsible for it accountable.
From the start, he was expected to face the same challenges as his predecessor: legal and public relations maneuvers by powerful politicians and other officials in Lebanon who have long operated with impunity, protected by laws that they argue shield them from prosecution.
Efforts to investigate the circumstances surrounding the explosion have proceeded slowly amid characteristically fierce resistance from politicians, leaving many Lebanese fearing that once again the powerful will escape any blame.
Since his appointment in July, Judge Bitar has summoned a range of powerful politicians and security officials for questioning as suspects. Many have refused to appear or filed cases seeking to have him removed, accusing him of politicizing the investigation.
He set multiple dates to question the former prime minister, Hassan Diab, who has refused to appear and traveled to the United States on what Mr. Diab said was a pre-scheduled trip before he was to see the judge.
Judge Bitar has also summoned for questioning or indicted Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of the General Security and Lebanon’s most powerful security official; senior army officers; and a number of lawmakers and former ministers, including a former finance minister, Ali Hassan Khalil; a former transportation minister, Ghazi Zaiter; and a former interior minister, Nouhad Machnouk.
Judge Bitar wanted to question the three former ministers on suspicion of homicide with probable intent and criminal negligence, the state-run National News Agency said at the time.
He also asked the bar associations in Beirut and Tripoli, the country’s two largest cities, to lift the immunity that is conveyed by membership for Mr. Khalil, Mr. Zaiter and a former transportation minister, Youssef Finianos.
At stake, legal experts said, was a political culture that has long protected powerful officials from legal scrutiny.
“There is no shortage of allegations of corruption and human rights violations against high level officials in Lebanon, but there has been a culture of impunity that has allowed to them to escape accountability for their actions,” said Aya Majzoub, a Lebanon researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Judge Bitar’s predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, encountered frequent attacks from powerful politicians and media organizations loyal to them who accused him of breaking Lebanese law after he sought to charge Mr. Diab and three former ministers — Mr. Khalil, Mr. Zaiter and Mr. Finianos — with criminal neglect.
A Lebanese court removed him based on a request by Mr. Khalil and Mr. Zaiter, basing its decision, in part, on the argument that Judge Sawan lacked impartiality because his home had been damaged in the blast.
Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country still haunted by a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, is in the throes of a financial collapse that the World Bank has said could rank among the world’s worst since the mid-1800s.
The crisis is closing like a vise on a population whose money has plummeted in value while the cost of nearly everything has skyrocketed.
Since fall 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value, and annual inflation in 2020 was 84.9 percent. As of June, prices of consumer goods had nearly quadrupled in the previous two years, according to government statistics.
The huge explosion a year ago in the port of Beirut, which killed more than 200 people and left a large swath of the capital in shambles, only added to the desperation.
The blast exacerbated the country’s economic crisis, which was long in the making, and there is little relief in sight.
Years of corruption and bad policies have left the state deeply in debt and the central bank unable to keep propping up the currency, as it had for decades, because of a drop in foreign cash flows into the country. Now, the bottom has fallen out of the economy, leaving shortages of food, fuel and medicine.
All but the wealthiest Lebanese have cut meat from their diets and wait in long lines to fuel their cars, sweating through sweltering summer nights because of extended power cuts.
A New York Times visual investigation looked into the causes behind the disaster, which killed more than 200 people and was so powerful that the second explosion was felt as far away as Cyprus.
Three developments since 2019 have worsened the situation in Lebanon.
First, the government tried to raise money by imposing a tax on all WhatsApp calls, which many Lebanese families use because phone calls are so expensive. The tax infuriated people — many of whom saw it as another example of government-imposed inequality — and prompted large and sometimes violent protests.
Second, the pandemic hurt Lebanon’s already vulnerable economy. Tourism, which made up 18 percent of Lebanon’s prepandemic economy, was hit especially hard.
Third, huge explosions at the port in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, in August 2020 killed more than 200 people and destroyed several thriving neighborhoods. A lot of people couldn’t afford to fix their homes.
Lebanon formed a new government last month, for the first time since the explosion. The prime minister is Najib Mikati, a billionaire who has held the position two previous times since 2005.
The French government and other outsiders have pushed the Lebanese government to enact reforms, but there is little evidence that it will. The Biden administration, focused on other parts of the world, has chosen not to become deeply involved.
Many Lebanese families are relying for their survival on money transferred from family members living in other countries.
The only thing keeping a lot of people in Lebanon afloat is that most families have relatives somewhere abroad.