Beirut witnessed the worst violence in more than a decade, as shooting erupted ahead of a controversial protest in downtown Beirut.
Dozens of supporters of Iran-backed Hezbollah and their Shiite allies, the Amal Movement, were marching toward the country’s Palace of Justice when unidentified gunmen and snipers fired from rooftops, causing protesters to hide and disperse.
Iran-backed Hezbollah had called for the protest on Thursday to demand the dismissal of Tariq Bitar, a popular judge leading an investigation into last year’s port explosion that killed more than 200 people. The judge issued arrest warrants for some high-ranking officials, including a high-ranking official from the Hezbollah-allied Amal movement.
Beirutis, savvy with war and with a sixth sense for impending violence, were already preparing for the worst. As soon as the sniper fire started, masked men in black, apparently affiliated with the protesters, began firing rifles and RPGs, according to videos on social media.
At least five people were killed – some shot in the head – and more than 30 were injured. Smoke rose from the buildings that had been shot at. Lebanon residents glued to their televisions watched someone roll on the ground after being shot.
Children were sheltering in classrooms in nearby schools, according to social media posts, and civil defense units were reportedly evacuating residents holed up in their apartments. Local television stations also showed videos of people in underground garages, which were used as bomb shelters during the 15-year Lebanese civil war that ended in 1990.
The Lebanese government, army and protest organizers – Hezbollah and the Amal movement – called for calm. But for hours, cannon and missile fire kept popping up in the area, which lies near the cradle of civil war — a fact that the Lebanese have not lost after years of devastating economic crisis.
Thursday’s violence came as some in Lebanon’s ruling elite redoubled their efforts to remove Judge Bitar from his post. Hezbollah emerged as the judge’s most vocal opponent and – according to a source familiar with the conversation – sent him a threat to “rape” him.
Bitar has not sought to prosecute Hezbollah officials in the investigation so far. However, the Iranian-backed armed group’s campaign against the popular judge has created another political rift in the crisis-ridden country. He has positioned Hezbollah as the political establishment’s strongest defender against a judge considered by many in the country to be a hero.
It’s unclear whether Thursday’s violence will expand or abate, but another chapter of the political crisis is the last thing the stricken country needs.
Lebanon is in the midst of one of the worst economic depressions since the mid-19th century, according to the World Bank. Inflation and poverty rates have risen dramatically in the past two years, and basic goods are often hard to come by.