BEIRUT: The mysterious explosions in a building near Nabi Sheet Wednesday that reportedly killed three people is the latest in a series of blasts in recent years of suspected Hezbollah arms caches resulting from accidents or sabotage.
The explosion reportedly occurred in a half-built house in the triangle formed by the Bekaa villages of Nabi Sheet, Khodr and Khreibe. Hezbollah admitted that three of its fighters were killed and said the blasts occurred in a “munitions depot” where old artillery shells and ordnance were stored.
The incident bears the hallmarks of a previous explosion in a half-built house on the outskirts of Khirbet Silm in the south in July 2009. Then, as on Wednesday, a series of blasts – up to 60 recorded by UNIFIL – shook the village for several hours early one morning, badly damaging the two-story building and hurling unexploded ordnance up to 200 meters away. It remains publicly unknown what caused the blasts.
UNIFIL later determined that the munitions stored in the house were generally old, consisting of Israeli artillery shells, mortar rounds and 107mm Katyusha rockets. The arms cache was considered by the U.N. as a “serious violation” of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which forbids the storing of armaments south of the Litani river. Like its explanation for Wednesday’s blasts, Hezbollah said the armaments were leftovers from the 2006 war and had been stored for safekeeping.
Three months later, a small blast in a house in the southern village of Teir Filsay, also in the UNIFIL-patrolled border district, raised speculation that another arms dump had blown up. Israel released footage shot by an overhead drone purporting to show Hezbollah operatives removing what was described as a rocket from the building and transporting it to a garage in a neighboring village. In response, Hezbollah released video footage showing the “rocket” was nothing more than a rolled up metal door. No explanation for the blast has been given although UNIFIL noted the room where the blast occurred was torched with gasoline before any outside parties could inspect it.
Then, in September 2010, an unexplained fire broke out in a Hezbollah-owned house in Shehabiyah in the south. Once again, an Israeli drone was on hand to film suspected Hezbollah men removing unidentified equipment.
The unusual number of “accidents” at suspected Hezbollah arms stores between 2009 and 2010 spurred speculation that they could have been acts of sabotage by the Israelis. In the six years between Israel’s troop withdrawal from the south in May 2000 and the outbreak of war in July 2006, there was only one recorded instance in the south of an arms dump exploding. That incident occurred in February 2004 when a two-story building in Shehabiyah blew up. Sabotage was not suspected – the cause was put down to an electrical short circuit during a lightning storm.
Other than the comparative frequency of blasts in suspected arms dumps between 2009 and 2010, questions were raised about the speed with which Israeli drones were able to film the immediate aftermaths. More intriguing was a report published on the Khirbet Silm blast a month later by Israel’s Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a group with close links to Israeli intelligence and run by Reuven Erlich, who in the 1990s, during the years of Israeli occupation in the south, was deputy to Uri Lubrani, the Israeli government’s coordinator for Lebanon.
The report described the incident in Khirbet Silm and accused Hezbollah of flouting Resolution 1701 by storing arms south of the Litani. But the telling part of the report was the inclusion of two photographs of the stricken building. One overhead photograph, clearly taken by a drone following the explosions, showed the damaged building. Beside it, however, was another photograph of the same building taken sometime earlier showing it intact. The angle of the second picture suggested it was not an aerial shot but taken from the ground on the other side of the valley.
The question raised by this second picture is why the Israelis had a photo of this specific house unless they knew or suspected it was a Hezbollah arms cache. And if they knew it was an arms cache, could the blasts that destroyed it have been the result of sabotage?
Similar questions were raised as long ago as November 2000 when a house outside Nabi Sheet, purportedly home to a Hezbollah bomb expert, was destroyed in a powerful blast. The Daily Star was able to gain access to the building at the time and found some circumstantial evidence of a possible missile strike from metal fragments (there also was heavy Israeli air activity in the Bekaa that day). Hezbollah played down the notion of an airstrike but admitted it suspected sabotage.
It is widely known that since the start of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad the flow of arms from Syria to Hezbollah’s arsenals has accelerated. Israel has warned that it considers the provision of advanced anti-aircraft systems and chemical and biological weapons to Hezbollah as a “red line” that would require a forceful response. So far, the Israelis have stayed their hand.
Certainly, accidents do happen and it is possible Wednesday’s blast was nothing more than a deadly mistake. But if further mysterious explosions are recorded in the weeks and months ahead in areas under Hezbollah’s influence, it might suggest something more sinister.