Lebanon’s last major war was in 2006, between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group and political party that remains committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. In recent years, Israel has launched frequent airstrikes on Hezbollah targets in neighboring Syria, but has mostly avoided bombing it in Lebanon to avoid setting off a cycle of retaliation that could lead to a new war.
Tensions between Hezbollah and Israel have flared lately on Lebanon’s southern border, leading many Lebanese to speculate that Israel had targeted materials connected to Hezbollah and hidden in Beirut’s port.
An Israeli official said that Israel “had nothing to do with the incident” on Tuesday.
The blasts emanated from Beirut’s port but were felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 180 miles to the west. They ravaged Beirut’s downtown business district, a nearby waterfront full of restaurants and nightclubs, and a number of crowded residential neighborhoods in the city’s eastern and predominantly Christian half.
Nearly all the windows along one popular commercial strip had been blown out and the street was littered with glass, rubble and cars that had slammed into each other after the blast.
Abbas Saleh, a 28-year-old driver, was in his car when he saw a flash and heard a boom, and his windshield shattered.
“You would never think it was an explosion,” he said. “More like missiles coming down on us.”
He ran out of his car and began helping Red Cross workers carry the dead and wounded.
All around, families struggled to get wounded relatives out of their buildings so they could be piled into ambulances or onto the backs of motor scooters. The Lebanese Red Cross said that every available ambulance from North Lebanon, Bekaa and South Lebanon was dispatched to Beirut, but so many roads had been rendered impassible that many of the wounded had to walk to the hospital themselves.
Space, medics and supplies were lacking. Hospitals in the hardest-hit areas were heavily damaged, with at least one shutting down altogether and others treating bleeding patients in their parking lots.
St. George Hospital in central Beirut, one of the city’s biggest, was so severely damaged that it had to send patients elsewhere.
“My friends, my friends,” Dr. Joseph Haddad, the hospital’s director of intensive care, said in a phone call. “This is Joseph Haddad calling you from St. George Hospital. There is no St. George Hospital anymore. It’s fallen, it’s on the floor,” Dr. Haddad says, as broken glass is heard crackling underfoot. “It’s all destroyed. All of it. Pray to God, pray to God.”
At Bikhazi Medical Group hospital in the center of Beirut, wounded patients streamed into a damaged hospital.
“The door to the entrance of the hospital is completely shattered,” said Rima Azar, the hospital director and co-owner. “The full ceiling fell on some patients in some rooms. The pressure was horrific. We heard a boom, then everything was shaking. There was a second blow that was super loud. Everything was falling from desks, from shelves.”
The 60-bed hospital treated 500 patients in the hours after the blast, she said.
Another hospital farther out received so many patients that medics lined them on the floor and in hallways. Those with non-life-threatening injuries had them cleaned and stapled shut before being sent on their way.