Armed clashes between sectarian militias briefly turned Beirut neighborhoods into a war zone on Thursday, killing six people and raising fears that new violence could fill the void left by the near-collapse of the Lebanese state.
Rival gunmen, chanting in support of their leaders, hid behind dumpsters to fire automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at their rivals. Residents cowered in their homes, and teachers herded children into the hallways and basements of schools to protect them from the shooting.
The fighting marked a new low in the small Mediterranean country’s descent into an abyss of interlocking political and economic crises.
Since the fall of 2019, its currency has collapsed, battering the economy and reducing Lebanese who were comfortably middle-class to poverty. Instead of finding solutions, the country’s political elite has resorted to increasingly bitter infighting. A huge explosion in the port of Beirut last year exposed the results of what many Lebanese see as decades of poor governance and corruption.
Thursday’s clashes broke out at a protest led by two Shiite Muslim parties — Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group that the United States considers a terrorist organization, and the Amal Movement. The protesters were calling for the removal of the judge charged with investigating the Beirut explosion and determining who was responsible.
As the protesters gathered, gunshots rang out, apparently fired by snipers in nearby high buildings, according to witnesses and Lebanese officials, and protesters scattered to side streets, where they retrieved weapons and went to shoot back.
The resulting clashes raged in an area straddling the line between two neighborhoods, one Shiite and the other a stronghold of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party that staunchly opposes Hezbollah.
Hezbollah officials accused the Lebanese Forces of firing the initial shots, and in a statement, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement accused unnamed forces of trying to “drag the country into a deliberate strife.”
The head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, condemned the violence in posts on Twitter, saying that the clashes had been caused by “uncontrolled and widespread weapons that threaten citizens in every time and place,” a reference to Hezbollah’s vast arsenal.
Violence between religious groups is particularly dangerous in Lebanon, which has 18 recognized sects, including Sunni and Shiite Muslims, various denominations of Christians and others. Conflicts between them and the militias they maintain define the country’s politics and have often spilled over into violence, most catastrophically during the country’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
The Sunnis, Shiites and Christians are Lebanon’s largest groups, but Hezbollah has emerged as the country’s most powerful political and military force, with an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets pointed at neighboring Israel and thousands of fighters who have been dispatched to battlefields in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
After about four hours of fighting, the Lebanese army deployed to calm the streets and the clashes appeared to subside, but residents remained in their homes seeking refuge from the violence. In addition to those killed, about 30 people were wounded.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm as the army urged civilians to leave the area, warning that soldiers would shoot anyone who opened fire.
When the first shots rang out as protesters gathered on Thursday morning in central Beirut, it was not clear where they had come from or who was firing. But before the streets descended in chaos, tensions over an investigation into the August 2020 port explosion had been growing for weeks.
The explosion killed more than 200 people and wounded thousands as wide swaths of the city were destroyed or damaged.
The blast was caused by the sudden combustion of whatever was left of 2,750 tons of hazardous chemicals that had been unloaded into the port years before. Many Lebanese saw the blast, and the efforts by powerful politicians to hobble the investigation into its causes, as a stark example of the country’s deep dysfunction.
Former Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned, and for a year the country was without a functioning government. In September, Najib Mikati, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, became prime minister.
But even as a new government took shape, tensions over the port investigation grew deeper.
The inquiry was suspended this week after two former ministers facing charges lodged a new legal complaint against the judge carrying out the investigation.
Families of the victims condemned the move, with critics saying that the country’s political leadership was trying to shield itself from accountability for the largest explosion in the turbulent country’s history.
Hezbollah has grown increasingly vocal in its criticism of Judge Tarek Bitar.
On Monday, the judge had issued an arrest warrant for Ali Hussein Khalil, a prominent Shiite member of Parliament and a close adviser to the leader of the Amal party. The warrant leveled serious accusations against Mr. Khalil.
“The nature of the offense,” the document read, is “killing, harming, arson and vandalism linked to probable intent.”
Two days ago, the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah issued some of his most scathing criticism of the judge, accusing him of “politically targeting” officials in his investigation.
The group’s followers joined the protest to call for the removal of Judge Bitar on Thursday when shots rang out. Witnesses said snipers were targeting the demonstrators.
That was the spark that set off some of the worst sectarian clashes in years. By late afternoon, the guns had fallen silent after four hours of gun battles, but the streets were still tense, as residents cowered in their homes.
In classrooms, students hid under their desks and huddled in hallways shaking from the unrelenting barrage of gunfire outside. It started with the pop of a sniper rifle and then exploded into a cacophony of pistols, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Ambulances wailed as panicked residents — many who had lived through years of civil war and are now struggling to find basic necessities like food and fuel — did their best to hide.
Leena Haddad and her daughter huddled in their home, hoping it would shelter them from the fighting.
“We stayed in the bathroom for hours, the safest part in the house,” she said as the gunfire subsided on Thursday evening.
As the fighting raged, her daughter had tried to catch a glimpse outside, wondering whether it was safe to move.
“I tried to push her back from the window — she wanted to take photos,” Ms. Haddad said. “The sound of shooting was really loud,” and all she saw was men in black running in the streets.
Lebanon is suffering through a convergence of economic, political and societal crises, and the view from her window evoked grim memories of the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990.
“I lived the civil war in the past,” she said. “I know what civil war means.”
It means more images like those playing on the televisions of people trapped in their homes on Thursday. A man laid out on the street, a bullet jolting his body as he took his last breath.
It means people shot in their homes as they hid, like at least one of the victims on Thursday.
It means fires sending up plumes of black smoke, shattered windows, bullets whipping overhead. And it means death. Several of those killed on Thursday were shot in the head, according to Lebanese officials.
Hassan Diya, 64, does not have much hope for the future.
“This country will never be fixed,” he said, taking stock of the shattered glass that littered his shop after the spasm of violence ebbed. As parties fight for power, he said, “the poor Lebanese are paying the price.”
He will not be able to make repairs, he said, since he was unable take out money from his bank on Thursday after it suspended withdrawals. There were reports of runs on banks on Thursday as people desperately sought cash.
Since the fall of 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value, and inflation last year was 84.9 percent. As of June, prices of many consumer goods had nearly quadrupled in the previous two years, according to government statistics.