For many residents of Beirut, Thursday's street battle reveals how far Lebanese armed groups can go to save some influential people who are being probed for last year's devastating port explosion.
On October 14, around 10:30 AM, as guns roared in Beirut, the city's residents couldn't help but recall the bad days of the "civil war" which ripped the country apart between 1975 and 1990. The memories of the war were evoked as a demonstration led by the supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement quickly turned violent. Their armed members opened fire in apparent retaliation against a Christian militia, which they accused of firing the first shot.
For many people in Beirut, however, the incident was nothing but a "show of strength" by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement to 'hamper' the judicial investigation into last year's Beirut port explosion.
“The demonstration and the clashes of today (Thursday) only mean that Hezbollah and the Amal movement want to reassert their power in Lebanon. They have had an image problem since the revolution of October 2019 and the 2020 port explosion. They now want to prove that they still have the supporters and the guns to rule the country and oppose any action against them, including judicial prosecution,” William Khozami, a 54-year-old resident of Ain El Remmaneh neighbourhood, told TRT World.
The Tayouneh roundabout, significant for separating the Shiite-majority areas of Chiyah and Christian dominated Ain al Remmaneh, turned into a battlefield. Gunmen from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, and gunmen from the Lebanese Forces Party exchanged fire while snipers were deployed on the roofs of neighbouring buildings, in a scene that seemed like a "clone" taken from the days of the civil war. As of Friday morning, seven people were declared dead and 30 others injured.
While Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, two Shia Islamist parties with full-fledged armed wings, together have 29 seats in the parliament, their rival the Lebanese Forces Party, a Christian group and former militia during the civil war, have 15 seats in the parliament.
Another Christian-based party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by Lebanon's President Michel Aoun, has 29 seats. FPM stayed away from Thursday's clashes, which President Aoun strongly condemned.
The city is still gripped by panic and frustration. Some citizens have barricaded their neighbourhoods.
How did it all begin, and why?
The judicial investigator of the Beirut port explosion, Judge Tariq Al Bitar, began prosecuting several politicians and officials in the Lebanese administration on charges of negligence that caused the catastrophic explosion, which killed 200 people and injured several thousand last year. Al Bitar's probe suggested that the prosecuted officials were aware of thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in the port of Beirut.
M. Ghazi Zeaiter and M. Ali Hassan Khalil, members of the Hezbollah and Amal movement, former minister Youssef Fenianos, member of the Marada Movement, and former minister, Nuhad Al-Machnouk from the Future movement, were summoned for an interview at the judge Al Bitar's office on October 12 and 13.
As the accused did not appear in the court, Al Bitar issued an arrest warrant against M. Ali Hassan Khalil and former minister Youssef Fenianos.
The four accused flexed their muscle in an attempt to browbeat Al Bitar. They filed counter lawsuits against the judge and their main aim was to discourage him from prosecuting them for their alleged negligence in the port explosion case. Previously, two of the accused, Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, had succeeded in having Al Bitar's predecessor Fadi Sawan removed from the case.
As the four accused failed to strongarm Al Bitar through a string of lawsuits, later rejected by the courts, Hezbollah and the Amal movement decided to take their fight to the streets.
In a speech broadcasted on October 11, the Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah explicitly called on the Supreme Judicial Council, the country's highest court, to dismiss Al Bitar. And in case the top judicial body did not heed their demand, Nasrallah asked the Council of Ministers to do the needful and find Al Bitar's replacement.
Nasrallah's demand made no impact. Instead, the Lebanese government responded by saying that the country's judiciary is independent and the ruling dispensation, including the Council of Ministers, cannot intervene on the appointment or transfers of judges.
On the morning of October 14, the Lebanese people woke up to a "security alert", with "Hezbollah'' and "Amal Movement" mobilizing their supporters to participate in a demonstration calling for the removal of Judge Al-Bitar. The night before, rumours of sectarian clashes were rife, causing unease across different religious communities. A Christian militia was seen preparing for confrontation in the Ain El Remmaneh neighbourhood.
As soon as the supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal movement started their demonstration, things went out of control. As per some local accounts, as the protesters reached the Tayouneh roundabout, they received gunfire. Both Hezbollah and the Amal Movement accused the Lebanese Forces Party of conducting "an ambush and direct sniping operations" to target the demonstration.
The head of the Lebanese Forces Party, Samir Geagea, rejected the accusation. His deputies said they never fired the first shot and held Hezbollah and "the free Lebanese" responsible for firing at each other. In the eyes of the Lebanese Forces Party, the free Lebanese are those who are neither associated with Hezbollah nor with the Amal Movement.
Almost everyone in the city was terrified and the gun battle raged. Civilians were evacuated from residential buildings near the Tayouneh roundabout. School children from the Freres School located next to the Tayyounah crossing were also rescued. Nevertheless, many of the city's children are still dealing with the psychological trauma inflicted by last year's explosion. And Thursday's violence left another scar on their childhood.
In this context, Raed, who is a caretaker of one of the buildings in the area, tells TRT World that most of the people in the neighbourhood have fled due to the violence as they feared the clashes might morph into another civil war.
Nada, a single woman who lives with her mother in the neighbourhood adjacent to where the clashes occurred, said as the sound of bullets grew louder, she and her mother hid in the toilet, believing that it was the safest area in the house and away from windows.
"For a while, I thought the war had begun," she said, fighting her tears.
“We already have enough issues in our life caused by the current (economic and political) crisis. We are not ready for another war and we don’t want it”.
The Tayouneh roundabout carried a symbolic weight as it was the starting point of the civil war that gripped the country for about 15 years. The place continues to be the centre of today's clashes, triggered by old religious and sectarian hatreds.
Ribal, another resident of the Tayouneh neighbourhood, said that he saw armed members of Hezbollah taking cover in his apartment building. As the bullets ricocheted off nearby walls, he hid in the kitchen along with his two roommates. The army rescued them amidst heavy gunfire.
The bullets shattered the windows of their living room, so was the car of one of his roommates. They haven't returned to their apartment yet. They are yet to muster the courage to see their damaged home.
During the gunfight, people read on social media how some of the city residents were hit by flying bullets even while hiding in their homes. For instance, one woman was killed when a bullet penetrated the window of her house.
"Demonstration of force"
Although many city dwellers ran to suburbs to escape the looming danger of yet another street violence, some residents were unmoved by Thursday's events.
Speaking to TRT World, Khalil, who lives in Ain el Remmaneh neighbourhood, said that the violence that shook Beirut was nothing but a "play" to display Hezbollah's street power.
“It won't take more than an hour for things to go back to the way they were,” he said.
Khalil, 57, owns a bakery shop in Ain El Remmaneh. For him, surviving the civil war was a miracle and the clashes he witnessed on Thursday are nothing compared to what he had seen during the civil war from 1975 and 1990, or when the Syrian army ruled the country from 1976 to 2005 with an iron fist.
Khalil said Hezbollah wanted to say "no" to the judicial investigator and to everyone who stood against their men, especially Ghazi Zeaiter and M. Ali Hassan Khalil, both of whom were summoned by the court last week.
A day later, gunshots still rang in the air in Beirut's Chyiah neighbourhood in the west, where Hezbollah was busy burying some of their supporters who died in Thursday's violence. For at least three hours, the armed group gave a gun salute to their fallen supporters, which caused panic in the neighbouring areas.