Israeli officials have offered aid while denying any involvement in the huge explosion in Beirut’s port which left more than 100 dead and thousands wounded on Tuesday.
Lebanon’s President Michael Aoun said the enormous blast was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which is used for fertiliser but also in improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The haul had been confiscated from an impounded ship in 2013 and was being stored unsafely in a warehouse, which Lebanon’s prime minister said was “unacceptable”.
Israel was among the countries offered humanitarian and medical aid via third party mediators, with Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi saying they approached Lebanese leaders through diplomatic channels.
Hospitals in the north of Israel offered to treat Lebanese victims of the blast, given that Beirut’s main hospital – more than a mile away from the explosion – was so severely damaged that it could not receive victims. The offer drew no response.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat to ask UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov what help Lebanon needed from Israel.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tweeted: “We share the pain of the Lebanese people and sincerely reach out to offer our aid at this difficult time.”
Senior Israeli officials have said that the country was in no way connected to the explosion, which Lebanese militia Hezbollah also confirmed, as Israeli media outlets speculated that the store may have been a Hezbollah weapons depot.
In October 2018 Israel identified three Hezbollah sites in Beirut that were allegedly being for the assembly of precision-guided missiles, and Israel’s intelligence agencies are likely to have known about the ammonium nitrate.
Despite occasional skirmishes, both Israel and Hezbollah have appeared keen to avoid an escalation of hostilities in recent months, although tension have been high for two weeks since an airstrike over Syria – attributed to the Israelis – killed a Hezbollah operative.
Despite Israeli officials denying any involvement, commentators said Israel would benefit from the destruction of the ammonium nitrate in a port that the Times’ Beirut correspondent Richard Spencer said was “controlled by Hezbollah”.
Writing in Forbes, analyst Michael Peck said suspicion of Israeli involvement was “inevitable… If any nation has cause to wish destruction of a Lebanese warehouse filled with explosives used by suicide bombers and to create IEDs, it’s Israel.”
Lina Khatib of the Chatham House think-tank said: “It is plausible that Hezbollah might have some sort of link to the ammonium nitrate but it’s too early to tell.”
Former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt caused anger on social media by tweeting that “even Israel” was offering aid.
Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Orit Farkash-Hacohen replied, saying: “Why are you surprised? Israel defends itself from its enemies, while helping the civilian population wherever it can.”
She added that Israel offered aid to Turkey in 2011, to Syria from 2013 to 2018, and offered aid to both Iran and Iraq in 2017.
Lebanon’s economy has been in freefall since last year, with soaring inflation leaving Beirut bankrupt. With 300,000 now homeless, its port destroyed and large areas in need of rebuilding, aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian disaster.
The country imports almost all the goods it needs, including grain, but its grain silos were destroyed in the blast and the port through which grain arrives has been virtually wiped out, triggering fears of a major crisis on Israel’s northern border.