There is still much to be learned about the Beirut explosion

It all began with a distant thud. My first instinct, like many others in Lebanon, was to look up to the sky. As I stepped out from the pharmacy I was in and scanned the clouds, I was almost certain that I would see an Israeli aircraft.  

I am very familiar with the sound of Israeli jets – ominous rumblings that gradually grow louder and then fade away, often with an ear-piercing sonic boom. They illegally enter Lebanese airspace over 1,000 times per year to hit targets here or in neighbouring Syria or simply to conduct “mock raids” around the country to show their muscle.

After craning my head upwards for a few minutes, I could not spot anything, so I assumed it to be the latter, and casually started walking towards my car.  

Then, suddenly, I lost my balance. It was as if the sky folded onto itself in a deafening crackling that shook the ground like an earthquake. Thinking we were under attack, as we have been so many times before, I jumped into my car and stepped on the gas. 

As I sped home, my mind raced through memories: That day in 2006, when massive US-made bunker buster bombs pummelled Beirut, shaking every building in the city and its suburbs. That time in 1996, when I watched Israeli jets fire missiles at a nearby power station from my window. Then that day in 2005, when my office swayed from side to side as one tonne of TNT ripped through a former prime minister’s motorcade just a few blocks away. What is it going to be this time, I wondered, as black smoke began filling the sky. I hoped against hope that it was just a freak accident.

When I got home,  just 10 minutes after the massive blast which I could still feel vibrating in my bones, I picked up my phone to check the news. 

The first tweet I saw on my timeline was not encouraging. Addressing 100,000 followers, a DC-based journalist was reporting two explosions, one at the Beirut port, and another near the residence of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. A detail was added for context: the blast came a few days before the international tribunal verdict into the explosion that killed Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – the same explosion that shook my office building in 2005. This was an obvious insinuation of nefarious motives. But I was immediately sceptical. How could someone two oceans and 9,000 kilometers away know what happened here within a few minutes? 

And yet the claim was repeated ad nauseam. Many US journalists and pundits took it as fact and ran with it. In a matter of minutes, however, the claims in that initial tweet were proven to be false. It was confirmed that there was no explosion at the palatial residence of Hariri. It was merely damaged, like thousands of other homes across the city.

This did not stop some from continuing to claim that they knew what had happened. When it became clear that the Beirut port was the epicentre of the explosion, a chorus of op-eds and blog posts appeared, mostly in Western news sites and those owned by certain pro-Western regimes in the Middle East, blaming Hezbollah for Beirut’s devastation. The theory was that it was Israeli planes that targeted the port, to destroy a large arsenal of explosives that Hezbollah had supposedly and irresponsibly stored there. It was largely based on the testimonies of several persons who claimed to have heard “the sounds of planes” just before the explosion, just as I thought I had.

There was one major problem with this theory: The Lebanese army and United Nations forces in Lebanon regularly track Israeli aircraft, and provide frequent updates detailing their movements in Lebanese airspace. But no information has been released to indicate their presence in Beirut on the day of the explosion. It was also suspicious that the theory was being pushed in unison by media outlets that claim Hezbollah’s elimination is key to regional stability.  

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