“Beirut as we know it is gone and people won’t be able to rebuild their lives,” said Amy, one of the city’s residents to the AP news agency as she helps to remove broken glass from the street. The number of casualties from the explosion has passed 145 and is, horrifically, expected to rise — there are many more trapped in the rubble. More than 5,000 residents were injured in the explosion and the homes of around 300,000 residents have been damaged or destroyed.
The Governor of Beirut, Marwan Abboud, said in an interview to Sky news that the disaster reminded him of Hiroshima and that he had never seen destruction so serious and so widespread, adding that half of Beirut was effected by the explosion. According to different estimations, the explosion was the equivalent of 0.8–1 kiloton TNT. In comparison, the 2015 Tianjin Port explosions in China were just 0.02 kiloton. The strength of the atomic explosion in Hiroshima 75 years ago was 15 kilotons — this gives some indication of the scale of the disaster.
Not all the details are clear at this stage, but the Lebanese authorities estimate that the scale of the explosion is due to the large amount of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in Beirut’s port since 2014 after it was confiscated from a ship. Now it has been revealed that merely half a year ago Lebanese officials checked the site where 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate were stored and warned that it could “blow up all of Beirut”.
Explosion fuels rage in Lebanon
It’s not surprising that the shock and the grief in Lebanon are now translated into rage against the negligence and the political elite responsible for it. Several angry protests have already taken place on the streets and in front of the Lebanese parliament in Beirut, where security forces fired teargas at demonstrators. On Wednesday protesters in South Beirut confronted the convoy of ex-President Saad Hariri, who resigned in late October 2019 due to the mass uprising that erupted in Lebanon.
That mass movement of workers and youth erupted against the corrupt political and economic system in the country, among other things, because of the criminal negligence of the infrastructure, the environment and public health. The storage of highly dangerous material in the heart of a highly populated city is in line with a whole number of sharp social and environmental crises that have hit Lebanon in the last years, including long periods when rubbish was not removed from Beirut and problems with the water and electricity supply.
Israeli governments have “contributed” their share over the decades to the horrors of life in Lebanon — a country stricken by poverty, crises and wars. Beirut has never fully recovered from the mass killings, the destruction and the demolition of infrastructure caused by the Israeli military invasions and bombings, and particularly the 1982 occupation of Beirut itself, and the bombing and shelling during the 2006 war.
In the 2006 war, around 1,300 Lebanese residents were killed, 30% of whom were under the age of 13, according to UNICEF. The widespread use of white phosphorus and cluster bombs, weapons which are aimed at causing as much destruction as possible, has caused prolonged damaged. Many have been killed by shells that continue to explode, even in the years after the war.
In first few hours after the explosion in the Beirut port, Israeli officials were busy denying any involvement, precisely because Netanyahu’s regime, which holds millions of Palestinians under occupation and under siege in Gaza, continue to threaten Lebanon with military attacks. The Israeli air force has casually violated Lebanese air space many times on its way to its notorious bombardments in Syria.
In the last weeks, the confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah was again escalating. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Gantz threatened to destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure if Hezbollah was to dare to revenge the assassination by Israel of one of its commanders in Syria last month.
This is the context to Netanyahu’s offer to provide humanitarian aid to Lebanon. The motive behind it is public relations — Netanyahu’s regime wants to blur the record of brutality of the Israeli regime in Lebanon and against the Palestinians. Former minister Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) from the Yemina party, while not in government, describes well the logic of the Israeli regime: “If we can gain political benefit from this and we score points on the international arena, and that’s in our interest anyway — then fine. But morally we have no obligation to give help to a distinct enemy state”.
It’s not surprising that Netanyahu’s aid offers have provoked cynical reactions and all out rejection by Lebanese residents on social media, including Palestinian refugees from 1948.
Lebanese flag over Tel Aviv city hall
While supporting Netanyahu’s aid offers, Smotrich and a whole number of right-wing politicians, both from the government and the capitalist opposition, have attacked the decision of the Mayor of Tel Aviv Ron Huldai to illuminate the municipality building with a Lebanese flag. Netanyahu’s son tweeted that “Lebanon is an enemy state officially. By law it’s a criminal felony to fly the flag of the enemy”, and called for a tax rebellion against the Tel Aviv municipality.
Huldai’s decision to illuminate the municipality building with the Lebanese flag is also hypocritical as he, a brigadier general and ex-commander in the Israeli air forces, would not consider expressing such solidarity with the residents of Lebanon or Gaza while they are being bombed by the Israeli government. In addition to that, his municipal policies have led to gentrification, and discrimination against Arab-Palestinian citizens in Jaffa (under Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality) and against asylum seekers. But those more right-wing elements that attack him fear the very legitimization of international solidarity, and are worried that a section of Israeli society refuse to see ordinary Lebanese as “enemies”.
Against the background of the growing political polarization in Israeli society, the huge Lebanese flag in the heart of Tel Aviv has become another symbol of protest against the Netanyahu-led coalition government. Many Israelis shared it on social media to express solidarity, notwithstanding the nationalist incitements against Lebanon. This is particularly significant when it happens when there is growing social discontent and demonstrations against Netanyahu’s rule.
Solidarity by medical staff
At the same time, a whole number of big public hospitals in Israel, despite the Coronavirus pandemic and the harsh shortage of resources as the result of Netanyahu’s policies, are offering medical aid to Lebanese injured by the explosion. According to one of Israel’s newspaper, a delegation of doctors is going to fly to Cyprus in the coming days to assist the treatment of the wounded from Lebanon.
Medical staff in Israel, both Jewish and Arabic, and their professional organizations and trade unions have on many occasions criticised government decisions since the start of the pandemic and have even taken protest and strike action for more staff, pay and equipment.
These organizations don’t have to wait for Netanyahu’s government and the defense ministry to grant them permission to coordinate international aid efforts with their colleagues and the workers’ organizations in Cyprus and other countries to help the Lebanese health system.
This kind of effort will not only be humanitarian but is an important political statement of class solidarity in the face of the nationalist cynicism and hypocrisy of Netanyahu’s rule. It would be better if the anti-government protests in Israel also take a principled stand in solidarity with the protests of the workers and the poor in Lebanon, in the occupied Palestinian territories and in the rest of the region, and in favour of an alternative of socialist change and peace.