Open Gunfire Leaves 6 Dead In Beirut

‘It took us back to the days that we said we would never forget and never repeat’

Heavy gunfire erupted in Beirut leaving at least 6 dead and dozens wounded. Clashes started at a rally organized by the Hezbollah and Amal movements to demand the dismissal of the lead investigator into last year’s port explosion, Tarek Bitar.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Beirut Palace of Justice, calling for the removal of Judge Bitar accusing him of political bias. They were marching towards the Palace when shots were fired by snipers on rooftops, forcing demonstrators to take cover.

An army soldier takes position after gunfire erupted in Beirut. [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

In a joint statement, Hezbollah and Amal have accused right-wing Christian party The Lebanese Forces of being behind the attacks. The Lebanese Forces party rejected those accusations. According to news reports, the Christian party has been a decades-long staple of Lebanon’s sectarian elite but wants to re-position itself as an anti-establishment party.

Soldiers were deployed on the streets as an undeclared truce brought calm to the capital, after nearly five hours of heavy gunfire, describe Tamila Varshalomidze and Arwa Ibrahim from Al Jazeera. As of now, the Lebanese Army has arrested nine people.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun has pledged to catch those responsible for the violence. “It took us back to the days that we said we would never forget and never repeat,” he said in a televised statement.

Between 1975 and 1990 the country was immersed in a cruel civil war that claimed more than 100,000 people, made nearly 1,000,000 displaced, and caused several billion dollars worth of damage to property and infrastructure sustained.

Today, Friday 15, is a day of public mourning for those killed yesterday in Beirut.

What is behind the turmoil?

Since his appointment in February, the judge has sought top political and security officials for questioning in the Beirut blast probe. He is the second judicial investigator to head the investigation. His predecessor, Fadi Sawan was removed on similar grounds in February after accusing former ministers of negligence.

Hezbollah has been a stark opponent of Bitar. This judge has issued arrest warrants against lawmaker Ali Hassan Khalil, a top Amal official, and former finance minister; against MP Nouhad Machnouk, an ally of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and an ex-interior minister, and more high-profile politicians such as the head of the country’s main intelligence apparatus and former Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

His task has come to be the biggest legal challenge to Lebanon’s ruling elite in decades. ​Many in the ruling elite have immunity in the investigation by virtue of Lebanon’s constitution, but there have been growing calls for that immunity to be lifted for the purposes of this probe.

Meanwhile, several legal petitions to remove Bitar have been unsuccessful, the last one being on Thursday 14. The new government of the Lebanese prime minister, Najib Miqati, is under increasing pressure to either abandon the investigation or replace the lead judge.

Political impunity has plagued Lebanon and, for years, crimes implicating its powerful brokers have almost never been solved. Lebanese citizens are frustrated with a political class that they see as incompetent, negligent, corrupt, and guilty of the 2020 port explosion.

Thursday’s violence is “another manifestation of underlying structural weaknesses”, as director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut, Rami Khouri said to Al Jazeera. This has been present since the 50s.

“For years now, people in Lebanon threaten civil strife if their demands are not met. It is a terrible situation where violence has become the currency of the political situation. It is a system that does not serve most people anymore,” he added.

For over two years, Lebanon has been submerged in a catastrophic economic depression that has led to skyrocketing inflation, poverty rates, and unemployment, as well as the rapid decay in infrastructure. Because of this people have been protesting and demanding the reform of the system as a whole.

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