October 6, 2020
The militant group Hezbollah has inadvertently demonstrated its likely ownership of a missile-building facility in the heart of Beirut by inviting the media on a tour of the premises.
On Tuesday, September 29 the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used his address to the United Nations General Assembly to alert delegates to the existence of a suspected Hezbollah weapons factory located in the Janah neighborhood of the Lebanese capital.
Netanyahu’s video address to the UN came not two months after the Beirut Port explosion, which killed more than 200 people and wreaked devastation on tens of thousands of homes in Beirut and occurred at a facility widely thought to be used by Hezbollah for storing ammonium nitrate.
In the pre-recorded video, the Israeli said: “I say to the people of Janah, you’ve got to act now. You’ve got to protest this. Because if this thing explodes, it’s another tragedy… Iran and Hezbollah have deliberately put you and your families in grave danger. And what you should make clear is that what they have done is unacceptable. You should tell them, tear these depots down.”
The militant group was quick to respond, with its media department issuing a statement inviting the media to visit the building in Beirut. In a televised address, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said he hoped this could take place soon so the findings would be “credible”.
A Hezbollah spokesman, Muhammad Afif, went further still by telling reporters at the building: “This site doesn’t belong to Hezbollah. Its owners are here, and you can ask them.”
On Friday, journalists and camera operators were invited inside to freely explore the factory. Footage of the visit was broadcast by the Hezbollah-affiliated al-Mayadeen television station – which the Israel Defense Forces seized on. Pointing to the recorded presence of such items as a laser hydraulic cutting machine – used to create missile stabilization fins, casings and warheads – and a bending machine of the type used to form engine and navigation component casings, as well as other equipment only partially covered up with cloths, the IDF argued that the very equipment shown inside the factory proved it was, in fact, a missile depot.
Asked by a visiting reporter whether he worked for Hezbollah, an employee inside the so-called “civilian workshop” replied: “I want to be very clear on this subject: I’m not a Hezbollah operative.” The IDF identified him as Muhammad Kamil Fuad Rimal, a Hezbollah operative.
In a tweet summarizing its findings, the IDF wrote: “Turns out you need more than one hour to evacuate a Precision Guided Missile (PGM) manufacturing site, so Hezbollah hoped the reporters just wouldn’t notice. Well… we did.”
Dangerous Facilities Hiding in Plain Sight
The Janah workshop is located in a relatively wealthy and majority-Shia residential area of Beirut, made all the more dangerous by its close proximity to a gas station. Matthew Levitt, director of The Washington Institute’s counter-terrorism and intelligence program, told IranWire that many of those in the area would be members of Lebanon’s Shia-leaning Amal Movement or indeed “high-ranking Hezbollah officials… It’s likely that they wouldn’t have known this was happening near their homes and their children. Hezbollah doesn’t want people to know about this for a very good reason. It will create discontent.”
On the Tuesday night, after Netanyahu’s address, the IDF also revealed drone footage of two other locations in Beirut that it claimed were Hezbollah missile sites. One, it said, is an underground facility built beneath four seven-story apartment buildings in which 70 families live, east of Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport and close to a church and a medical center. The other is under a complex of five apartment buildings occupied by some 50 families. It then released footage of what appeared to be a convoy of large vans or SUVs travelling between the sites, confirming a link between them.
Dr. Levitt told IranWire that since 2006, when Hezbollah-backed construction companies entered Beirut en masse to take on post-war rebuilding projects, the militant group has increasingly moved its activities into urban areas where civilians can be used as “human shields”. “Israelis are not likely to blow up a residential building in Beirut,” he said. “It’s a means of protection. The first of such facilities was removed several months ago and these will not be the only ones.”
In September two explosions took place in southern Lebanon that revealed the existence of other covert Hezbollah arms stores in residential zones. One of the blasts happened on September 22 at a house in the town of Ain Qana, which was immediately surrounded by Hezbollah operatives who tried to shield the destroyed building from prying eyes.
This is also not the first time Prime Minister Netanyahu has used a UN address to draw attention to Hezbollah’s covert weapons facilities in civilian areas. In 2018, he told the General Assembly about three separate sites in Beirut being used to build a long-range precision ground-to-ground missile force – including one concealed under the stadium of a Hezbollah-affiliated football team.
“The Israelis are very fixated on this,” Matthew Levitt said, “because these are ultimately weapons intended for Israel. It’s entirely possible that there are more facilities like this that they don’t know about – or others they know about, but don’t feel sufficiently empowered to act on.”