The details of the shootout in Beirut over the weekend which killed seven people and injured dozens remained unclear on Sunday morning, as the investigation and finger-pointing continued and as Lebanon prepared to mark two years since anti-government protests swept the nation.
The shooting began as Shi'ite Hezbollah and Amal supporters marched through the Tayouneh area of Beirut where it meets Ain El Remmaneh and Chiyah, a site famous for sectarian clashes between Shi'ites, Sunnis and Christians during the 1975 civil war in Lebanon, as it marked the border between east and west Beirut.
Hezbollah quickly pointed the finger at the Christian Lebanese Forces movement, claiming that the movement had sniped protesters from nearby rooftops in a planned ambush.
The Lebanese Forces have rejected the claims, saying the shooting was because of incitement caused by Hezbollah’s leaders against Tarek Bitar, the judge in charge of investigating the 2020 Beirut Port blast, and that the claims were an attempt to divert attention from Hezbollah’s invasion into the area.
The movement pointed out that Hezbollah operatives were clearly seen in many videos entering safe neighborhoods with automatic weapons, and stated that the shooting was an attempt to use violence and intimidation to overthrow the investigation into the port explosion.
Both sides have urged calm from their supporters in efforts to avoid a further conflict in the country struggling with a continuing economic crisis.
Lebanese Defense Minister Maurice Sleem told MTV Lebanon that a stampede and clash in Tayouneh led to the shooting which broke out from both sides, with eyewitnesses saying that young men entered the streets of Ain el-Remmaneh and shooting before the sniping began.
As of Saturday night, Lebanese security forces had arrested 17 Lebanese citizens and two Syrian citizens as part of the investigation into the clashes in Tayouneh on Thursday.
Eyewitnesses told MTV Lebanon news on Thursday evening that a number of young men came to Ain El Remmaneh through a small side street and began chanting Shi’ite slogans. They then started speaking with young men from the area and a fistfight broke out, leading up to one of the young men from the area bringing a Kalashnikov rifle and shooting toward the Shi’ite men, who rushed to bring weapons from their vehicles. The clash expanded throughout the neighborhood leading to the intensive clashes that lasted hours.
The eyewitnesses questioned why, if the protest was meant to be peaceful, the protesters had hundreds of weapons on hand, including RPGs. The eyewitnesses also claimed that the Hezbollah supporters deliberately entered the Ain El Remmaneh area to cause a provocation, comparing the incident to the May 7 violence that nearly sparked a civil war in 2008.
While it is still unclear who shot first, Lebanese media sources opposed to Hezbollah expressed outrage that a crowd of armed Amal and Hezbollah members had entered Ain El Remmaneh due to the historic sensitivities surrounding the site. The sources referred to the entry of the Shi'ite movements to the area as a deliberate provocation.
An article in the Lebanese Annahar newspaper expressed concerns that Hezbollah could escalate the situation in the coming days in order to prevent blame from being placed on the movement for the armed demonstration which the newspaper claimed sparked the clashes.
The Grand Mufti of Mount Lebanon, Sheikh Muhammad Ali Al-Jozo, warned that "Hezbollah has crossed the lines trying to expand its influence as a colonial power that owes allegiance to Iran, therefore the response was powerful and harsh, with intense gunfire and the deaths of a great number of victims who did not deserve to die in this way," according to Sawt Beirut International.
"Provoking the Lebanese is never a good idea," added the grand mufti, "The Lebanese are free people who do not keep quiet about their frustrations, as seen by what occurred in Ain Al-Remmaneh and Tayouneh.”
Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah warned that the clashes would have "great repercussions," according to the Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen.
“We are not used to leaving our blood on the ground and we know how to defend it,” said Fadlallah. "We will confront this criminal aggression in a manner that will not let these people be deceived by their arrogance and provocative rhetoric."
The Hezbollah MP claimed that the movement has received information for over a year about the alleged shooters preparing "sedition" and "boasting in front of the American and Saudi embassies," adding that "there are those who are performing the role required of them by the Americans and some Gulf countries."
Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad stated on Sunday that Hezbollah would not rush into a civil war or threaten civil peace, "but we also will not accept that this blood be in vain," according to Lebanon's National News Agency (NNA). Raad added that Hezbollah would wait to see what the state will do, "but we will not forget the blood of the innocent among our people."
The Lebanese Forces expressed regret at the statements by Raad and Fadlallah, calling them "indiscriminate, unjust attacks, devoid of any objectivity and full of fallacies, against the Lebanese Forces."
"We understand the embarrassment experienced by the leadership of Hezbollah following the conclusions of the moves it had called for last Thursday, with the aim of pressing to stop the investigation into the port crime," said the movement, pointing out that Hezbollah had threatened to remove Bitar by any means necessary.
The Lebanese Forces stressed that it also wanted a full investigation into the clashes and rejected the claims that it was behind the shooting, saying that all footage and investigations conducted by the media showed the movement was not responsible.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is set to speak on Monday at 8:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m. EST).
Video shared on social media showed a Lebanese soldier firing at protesters during the clashes, the Lebanese Army announced on Saturday, clarifying that the soldier is under investigation under the supervision of the competent judiciary.
Lebanese citizens marched to Martyrs Square in Beirut on Sunday to mark the two-year anniversary of the October 17 revolution, when protests against planned taxes, sectarian rule and a deteriorating economy swept Lebanon.
The protesters started their march in front of the Palais des Justice where they demanded that the investigation concerning the Beirut port blast remain transparent and separated from political interference, according to Annahar.
The protesters chanted slogans such as "clashing with the authorities is our only option to build a state" and "the march of the Lebanese resistance against the Iranian occupation."
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett referred to the events in Lebanon on Sunday, stressing that it "showed developments and trends emerging from below, of forces simply tired of Iranian control and influence."
"Remember, this is the Iranian touch - every place the Iranians enter goes into a whirlwind of violence, poverty, instability and failure," said Bennett. "I hope, both for the Lebanese people and for the Iraqis, that they will be able to break free from this stifling grip of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and build a better future for themselves."
The shooting and the protest anniversary come amid heightened concerns of sectarian violence as Hezbollah and its allies obstruct Bitar’s investigation, alleging that the judge is biased and working for political purposes.
A Lebanese court on Thursday dismissed the latest legal complaint brought against the lead investigator of the Beirut Port blast probe, allowing him to resume work, a judicial source and court documents showed.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah attacked Bitar on Monday, saying the judge is using the case for political goals and that he does not want to reach the truth about the explosion. Nasrallah also questioned why Bitar questioned only certain ministers and not others.
Sources from Hezbollah and the Marada Movement told the Lebanese Al-Jadeed TV news that Bitar was preparing to accuse Hezbollah directly of responsibility for the explosion. The sources added that if Bitar is not removed, they will leave the government.
The families of the blast victims have warned against replacing or intimidating Bitar, “no matter how high the threat level,” telling officials to “keep [their] hands off the judiciary.”