Bitar Investigates

On 14 October 2021, during a protest led by supporters of Hezbollah and the Shia Amal Movement, snipers allegedly affiliated with the ‘Lebanese Forces’ – a Maronite Christian militia – opened fire from the rooftops, killing seven unarmed demonstrators and wounding several others. The situation escalated, prompting an exchange of fire between residents of two nearby neighbourhoods. The embers of the civil war flared. At that moment its return seemed almost inevitable.

The Lebanese political climate is already saturated with the conditions for renewed inter-communal fighting, but so far no group has been willing to push the country into that abyss – partly because no other military outfit can rival the capacities of Hezbollah. Or so we thought. The Lebanese Forces and their leader – convicted murderer Samir Geagea – may now have achieved that status, thanks largely to the unprecedented support of the US and Saudi Arabia. Geagea and his fellow bandits have an extensive record of assassinations and genocidal activity during the civil war, including the infamous 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatila, facilitated by the Israeli army.

The incident on 14 October has received tremendous attention in the world media, especially in Europe and the US. But what was stunning about the coverage in the New York Times, Times of London, Le Monde, BBC, CNN etc., was the uniform tendency to misrepresent what has unfolded in Lebanon over the last few years, and convince readers that the suffering of the Lebanese people will dissipate the moment the Hezbollah’s hegemony is curtailed.

There is no denying that Hezbollah has been a formidable political and military force in Lebanon since the early 1990s. But to present the group as having an iron grip on the country elides the complex dynamics that animate its sectarian politics. In fact, Lebanon’s army, banking system, commerce, courts and judiciary, service and tourism industry, educational systems, health services and government agencies are completely outside the reach of the Shia militia. In many of these sectors, the US continues to exert more influence than any actor in Lebanon itself.

The events leading up to the 14 October protest were a case in point. Popular anger has focused on the conduct of Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the explosion at the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020. The current laws in Lebanon restrict the prosecution of senior statemen – especially presidents, prime ministers, ministers, and members of parliament – for misconduct while in office. Such offences must be referred to a special tribunal which has not yet been established (and maybe never will be). Bitar, however, has ignored these restrictions and insisted on questioning certain Hezbollah-aligned ministers.

This has created suspicions of chicanery on the part of the runaway judge. Many Lebanese are convinced that Bitar’s investigation is secretly executing a well-orchestrated plot against the broader political alliance around Hezbollah, which includes the likes of the Amal Movement (controlled by the Speaker of Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri), the Marada Party (led by the Maronite politician Suleiman Frangieh), and some senior Sunni politicians.

It is reasonable that eyebrows should be raised at Bitar’s pursuit of figures who are politically close to Hezbollah. Some have asked why the judge did not pursue other high-profile suspects who appeared to have a more of a direct role in the process by which 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate were improperly stored and detonated last year. It appears that in the early stages of the investigation Bitar did in fact pursue such potential culprits, until he was ordered not to touch them from on-high. Officials close to president Michel Aoun, the Lebanese army and the anti-Hezbollah camp have thereby gotten off the hook. In their place, it seems that Bitar has decided to go after those whom he believes to be the weakest link: Hezbollah. If this tells us anything about Lebanese society, it is that Hezbollah and its traditional allies have no control whatsoever over the judiciary, which remains in thrall to rival political forces.

Lebanese politicians tend to agree that investigating the explosion at the Beirut port should be a national priority. What they disagree on is the direction of the investigation. Each camp wants to move the spotlight off themselves and onto their opponents. Ordinary Lebanese, meanwhile, are suspicious about the politicization of the investigation: instead of finding and punishing those responsible, there is a widespread conviction that the US and its European, regional and local allies are exploiting the legal system in order to destroy Hezbollah’s political coalition and weaken the Shia militia. It is déjà vu all over again. We have seen such travesties before – when attempts by external powers to ‘safeguard Lebanese democracy’ turn out to be soft-power plots to undermine anti-US actors, such as the sham investigation and tribunal for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, used as a proxy battle for the Bush administration to weaken Shia influence.

The current US insistence on the ‘independence’ of the Lebanese judiciary can only be seen through this lens. Less than a year ago, the US pressured the Lebanese courts to free a war criminal by the name of Amer Fakhoury who, as an officer in the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army, was once the lead warden of the infamous Khiam jail, created by Israel and manned by SLA officers to torture and execute those who resisted the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. The US threatened Lebanese politicians and judges that they would be blacklisted and placed under economic sanction if they refused to release Fakhoury (himself a US citizen). Despite the enormous volume of evidence against him, including testimonies by former aides and prisoners, the Lebanese judge overseeing the case relented and released him, and Fakhoury was flown back to the US by private jet. The American hegemon’s project could not be clearer: to turn the Lebanese legal system into a tool in its war against Hezbollah and Iran, even at the risk of tearing the country apart.

Many questions about the port explosion remain unanswered, and it has become impossible for any investigation to acquire even a veneer of impartiality. The ammonium nitrate was, of course, stored at Beirut port following a court order to confiscate it from a ship whose owner had unpaid debts to a Lebanese merchant. So, naturally, the first person one would want to question is the judge who ordered the confiscation. But that judge has been shielded from the investigation by his superiors. In the absence of people to convict, the first culprit in this saga is the Lebanese legal system itself.

The second culprit, however, is the lineup of foreign powers with vested interests in Lebanon. To date, the US, France, UK and even Russia have refused to turn over satellite images documenting the explosion to the Lebanese authorities. They have provided the images from before and after the blast, but not the minutes when the event itself took place. Moreover, following the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah war, a huge fleet of UN observers was stationed in and around the Beirut port at the request of Israel and the US, as part of an agreement between the Lebanese government and the UN. They are assisted by a large cadre of intelligence officers from the US, UK, France and other countries, who work to intercept arms shipments to Hezbollah. Which begs the question: if Hezbollah managed to bring in 2,700 tons of explosives, how did this fail to catch the eye of these officials?

The Lebanese army also faces questions, although Bitar has opted not to ask them. A directive had been issued by the armed forces that any weapon or material that could be used in making explosives must receive special approval before it can be unloaded, stored or transported anywhere in the country (be that via a seaport, airport or land point). How, then, was the ammonium nitrate unloaded and stored without the permission of the army, which has its own observers and base at the site of the explosion?

Whether or not Bitar is personally corrupt, it is clear that he is either politically motivated or has been manipulated by external actors looking to settle scores with Hezbollah. The violence on 14 October took place in exactly the same location where 46 years ago militants from the Maronite Kata’ib party (the mother organization of the Lebanese Forces) ambushed and killed 27 Palestinians riding a bus back from a soccer game. The refusal of the Lebanese judiciary to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators led to retaliations and counter-retaliations, and eventually to civil war. The Lebanese legal system today finds itself in a similar position. Rather than delivering justice, Bitar is contributing to the many mayhems that are ravaging the country. Whatever his intentions, the consequences could be horrific.

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Mid-Point in the Middle East?’, NLR 38.