Netanyahu accuses Hezbollah of storing weapons in urban Beirut
NEW YORK – Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday accused Lebanon’s Hezbollah of storing weapons near a gas company in a residential Beirut neighbourhood, but the Iran-backed movement denied it.
Speaking in a video to the United Nations General Assembly, pre-recorded due to the coronavirus pandemic, Netanyahu warned the depot in the Jnah neighbourhood was “where the next explosion could take place.”
Lebanon has been pushed to breaking point by a financial meltdown and a massive August blast at Beirut port that killed nearly 200 people. Authorities have said highly explosive ammonium nitrate detonated after being kept in poor storage for years. Hezbollah has denied any involvement.
“Here’s where the next explosion will take place, right here,” Netanyahu said.
“I say to the people of Jnah … You’ve got to protest this. Because if this thing explodes, it’s another tragedy,” he added.
“Iran and Hezbollah have deliberately put you and your families in grave danger… You should tell them, tear these depots down.”
A photo displayed by Netanyahu during his speech, purporting to show the entrance to a missile factory, was taken on the ground in Beirut, suggesting an Israeli intelligence asset provided it.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah denied the existence of missile sites on Tuesday, accusing Netanyahu of trying to provoke Lebanese against the Shia movement.
“Whoever wants to go can go now. If Hezbollah is storing missiles in this facility, then there is not enough time to remove them,” Nasrallah said in a televised address.
“We don’t store missiles at the port or near gas facilities. We know where to store missiles.”
“We will allow media outlets to enter the facility so that the world knows that Netanyahu is lying,” he added.
Shortly after Netanyahu’s speech, Hezbollah’s media centre took a large group of journalists on a tour of what it said was the site, on a crowded residential street in Jnah. In the building, described by Hezbollah as a factory, there were machines used to cut metal and some gas cylinders.
Hezbollah spokesman Mohammed Afif, who led the tour, said the facility did not belong to the militant group.
“There’s not a speck of what Netanyahu said in this factory. This is a private factory that makes metal pieces, with laser cutting machines and such, that’s all,” said Mohammad Rammal, who said he runs the factory.
“These are lies, what more can I say?”
Speaking later on Tuesday to the General Assembly, Iranian diplomat Mohammad Reza Sahraei denied what he called Netanyahu’s “baseless and unfounded allegations.”
The Israeli military said in a statement it had reported the site, and others “numerous times, both to the UN and additional diplomatic networks, as well as via various media channels.”
It urged the Lebanese government to intervene.
The Israeli military also released detailed maps showing the site in Jnah and two other alleged missile depots it said were under residential apartment blocks.
It described all three as precision-guided missile manufacturing sites. The military provided precise locations of what it called weapons sites but gave no other evidence and did not say how advanced the manufacturing program is.
Israel has long warned that Hezbollah is seeking to manufacture precision-guided missiles or add guidance systems to its existing projectiles, something Israel insists is a red line that may require military action.
Hezbollah is believed to have massively expanded its arsenal in the years since it fought Israel to a month-long stalemate in 2006.
Israel believes Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets and missiles capable of hitting virtually anywhere in Israel, but precision guidance would make them far more lethal.
Netanyahu said another depot had exploded just a few days ago in the southern Lebanese village of Ain Qana, near the port city of Sidon. It is not clear what caused that explosion, which sent smoke billowing into the sky but did not cause any casualties.
The Israeli prime minister usually uses his annual address to the United Nations to highlight Israel’s concerns about archenemy Iran and its nuclear programme.
And he does it in a distinctive manner. In contrast to most leaders, who typically sit behind desks or stand at podiums, he often uses visual aids such as maps and diagrams to make his points.
This year, talking about potential explosions, he delivered his speech against the backdrop of a Jerusalem street scene filled with intense oranges and yellows.
This year, Netanyahu said the recent decision by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel showed that Israel and Arab countries “stand together in confronting the greatest enemy of peace in the Middle East — Iran.”
Netanyahu claimed that Iran would have “enough enriched uranium in a few months for two nuclear bombs” after it recently began exceeding limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Iran began publicly exceeding those limits after President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran. Iran insists it has never sought nuclear weapons and that its atomic program is for civilian purposes.
Netanyahu, a staunch opponent of the nuclear deal, praised Trump’s decision to withdraw from it and called on the world to follow the US in snapping back sanctions.
He also reiterated his willingness to negotiate peace with the Palestinians on the basis of Trump’s proposal to end the conflict, which has been rejected by the Palestinians.