Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator looking into the 2020 Port of Beirut explosion that killed at least 218 people, injured over 7,000, and left an estimated 300,000 homeless, was the major subject of Beirut protests on Thursday.
It all started at the tail end of September, when Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite Islamist political party and militant group, publicly threatened Bitar.
According to CNN, Hezbollah and Amal, another Islamic Shia political party in Lebanon, have long opposed the actions of Judge Tarek Bitar, especially after he issued an arrest warrant for Ali Hassan Khalil, a top Amal official and former finance minister.
Ali Hassan Khalil was asked to come in for questioning, but after he did not show up, an arrest warrant was placed. The inquiry greatly upset Hezbollah, who then threatened to “replace” Bitar with a more “truthful and transparent” investigator. Times of Israel reported that Ali Hassan Khalil was being brought in for questioning on multiple counts of negligence that led to the 2020 port blast.
Recently, another high-ranking Hezbollah official, Wafiq Safa, threatened to “usurp” Judge Tarek Bitar, which erupted in armed conflict on Thursday morning.
“We’ve had it up to our noses with you,” the message from Safa to Bitar allegedly read, according to a source reporting for CNN. “We will stay with you until the end of this legal path, but if it doesn’t work out, we will usurp you.”
Wafiq Safa is the head of Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit. In 2019, the US Treasury placed him on a “sanctions list,” accusing him of having “exploited Lebanon’s ports and border crossings to smuggle contraband and facilitate travel” for the Shia militant group.
However, neither Wafiq Safa nor any high-ranking Hezbollah official has be named an official suspect of the investigation as of Thursday.
For many victims of the port blast, Judge Tarek Bitar is the only hope of finding answers. He represents a threat to the status quo of Hezbollah and Amal officials, and his investigation could potentially remove high-ranking members from their political positions.
“People are disturbed by his audacity,” an anonymous colleague of Bitar’s told France 24. “He’s something no one has seen before at the Palace of Justice.”
Before the protest on Thursday morning, a Lebanese court threw out a bid to replace Judge Tarek Bitar, forcing Hezbollah and Amal to suspend their campaign to “usurp” the investigation.
“Bitar does not fall under the court’s jurisdiction so it does not have the authority to consider requests for his dismissal,” a Lebanese court official said.
Hezbollah and Amal supporters took to the streets during a demonstration Thursday to protest the court’s decision, when heavy gunfire broke out killing at least six people. Over 30 more people were reportedly injured, with the numbers expected to rise as authorities investigate what happened.
Lebanon’s Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi told reporters that snipers had posted themselves on rooftops and “shot people in the head,” while rocket fire in the air escalated the violence.
The Beirut protest, which occurred in the historic Tayouneh district of the country’s capitol, was reported to be the “worst violence the crisis-ridden capital has seen in over 10 years,” according to CNN.
Lebanon’s military announced in a statement following the deadly protest that they were ordered to shoot anyone who was armed in the area where the violence took place, calling for everyone to vacate the streets immediately.
“It’s clear that those who fired at the protesters were organized armed groups who have been planning this attack since yesterday,” an unnamed high-ranking Hezbollah official told CNN. “We will not fire back. They want to drag us into civil strife, and we do not want to sow civil strife.”
In a joint statement from Hezbollah and Amal, the two groups called for “calm” from their supporters on the streets. It is currently unknown who is responsible for the violence at the Beirut protest.