The powerful car bomb that exploded during the morning rush hour in East Beirut on Monday, killing at least 25 people, was the worst in Lebanon this year and came as Syria is stepping up its pressure on Lebanese President Amin Gemayel to resign.
The Christian eastern sector of Beirut has been the target of frequent car bombs ever since Gemayel, a Maronite Catholic, and Christian militia leaders in January led a rebellion that derailed a political settlement for Lebanon that Damascus had painstakingly negotiated with the country’s strongest Muslim leaders.
All the car bomb attacks in East Beirut have been in densely populated neighborhoods that are considered particularly loyal to Gemayel.
Swath of Destruction
Christian leaders have repeatedly accused Syria’s military intelligence of planting the bombs, a charge that Damascus has denied. Monday’s car bomb was extremely powerful and was described by police as the equivalent of 450 pounds of explosives. The blast cut a swath of destruction through the residential neighborhood of Ein Rummaneh.
The force of the explosion shattered windows for miles around, collapsed some buildings, crushing the occupants, and touched off fires in surrounding apartments as cooking gas canisters exploded. More than 100 people were injured.
According to news agency accounts from Beirut, the car bomb resulted in a now-familiar scene of mangled bodies and rescue workers firing guns into the air in a frantic effort to clear a path for ambulances and other vehicles.
A ‘Barbaric Crime’
Joseph Hashem, a leader of Gemayel’s Falangist Party and the minister of public health, toured the devastated area and denounced the bombing as a “barbaric crime.” He promised compensation to injured residents.
Tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities have escalated since a Syrian-sponsored peace plan began to take effect in predominantly Muslim West Beirut on June 28.
When a contingent of Syrian troops moved into West Beirut on July 4, there was a noticeable decline in violence, as most militia gunmen left the streets and longstanding barricades were torn down. Christian leaders, however, denounced the Syrian move as illegal, and East Beirut media attempted to portray the Muslim half of the city as a scene of continual mayhem.
Lack of Security
When unidentified gunmen on July 19 attacked an American University bus just inside the Muslim sector, near the so-called Green Line marking the boundary between East and West Beirut, Christian newspapers and radio stations openly gloated over the lack of security in the Muslim quarter and invited the university to move into the east.
Many political observers believe that the Syrians are growing increasingly impatient with Gemayel, and they expect Syria to attempt to unite the bickering Muslim factions in an alliance aimed at overthrowing the president, whose term ends in 1988.
Last week, political pressure on Gemayel was increased when a Greek Orthodox political figure, Abdullah Rassi, decided to take up his duties as interior minister after boycotting government activities for two years.
Rassi is the son-in-law of former Lebanese President Suleiman Franjieh. Although a Maronite, Franjieh is close to the Syrian government and has been campaigning for Gemayel’s removal.
Collapse of Peace Plan
Rassi immediately began meeting with Muslim Cabinet ministers, who have been refusing to meet with their Christian counterparts since the Syrian-sponsored peace plan fell apart in January.
The idea had been to get the three major warring militias to agree to end the fighting while a political solution was found. It was signed by Nabih Berri, leader of the Shia Muslim militia Amal; Walid Jumblatt, head of the Druze, followers of an offshoot sect of Islam, and Elie Hobeika, then the head of the Christian Lebanese Forces.
But Hobeika and the Syrians miscalculated Christian disenchantment with the proposed political settlement; Gemayel thought it made too many concessions to the Muslims. Gemayel and Samir Geagea, a Christian militia leader who frequently espouses radical views, joined forces two weeks after the agreement was signed and ousted Hobeika.