Legendary American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow once stated, “No one can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices.” Morrow’s warning, while talking about the dangers of McCarthyism, sounds prophetic for the tragedy unfolding in today’s Lebanon. The government in Beirut is an accomplice to Hezbollah’s terrorizing of an entire nation. The Shi’ite Party of God has used the barrel of a gun, the bomb and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to take over the entire country. Hezbollah’s malignant hand touches every facet of life in Lebanon—from the banking system to the courts—and it has left the nation’s infrastructure economy teetering on collapse, endangering everyone who lives and visits the country.
Nowhere is the criminal deconstruction of Lebanon more evident than in the case of the Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport—the country’s sole international access point for civil aviation and an airport named after a Lebanese prime minister who himself was assassinated by Hezbollah. In the 1960s and ’70s, the airport was the launching pad for some of the world’s most notorious airline hijackings and terrorist operations. In the 1980s, Hezbollah terrorists blew up aircraft on the tarmac; they hijacked American airliners and murdered the hostages they seized.
Beirut airport, located in the southwest part of the Lebanese capital, is adjacent to the slums and refugee camps that are Hezbollah’s historic stronghold. Hezbollah uses the airport as its own—skirting border controls and security protocols to ferry people, weapons and other forbidden items into Lebanon. In June 2018, The Washington Post reported that Hezbollah’s takeover of Beirut airport is so rampant that the organization moves weapons and drugs, in addition to pro-Iranian fighters to other countries from the civil wars in the Middle East, without any consequences. Hezbollah allows the IRGC to use the airport as a base for Iranian regime operations against Western interests.
Hezbollah views the airport as a safe bet for its weapons storage, hoping that Israel or any other country that might need to act against the terror group will be reticent to strike a nation’s sole aviation access point, even though, according to International Humanitarian Law, the dual-use of an airport for both for civilian purposes and military purposes renders it as a legitimate military objective.
In stark violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, Hezbollah has obtained an arsenal of hundreds of thousands of rockets and other weapons, making it today the most powerful non-state actor in the world. Many of the launchers are hidden inside population centers within a few yards of the airport terminal. According to a recent report in Eurasiareview, a Hezbollah missile factory is located underneath a nearby soccer field, and a “Fateh 110” missile launch site is located near the runway.
One only need to look at the Aug. 4 explosion at the Port of Beirut—a blast due to incompetence, corruption, negligence and Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon’s infrastructure—as a harbinger of catastrophic destruction on a massive scale. Hundreds were killed, billions of dollars of damage incurred and a good part of the city destroyed as a result of the massive detonation. The disaster, which is still under investigation, occurred when a fire triggered the ignition of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been haphazardly warehoused. Only a month later, a huge blast ripped through a housing area in southern Lebanon caused by Hezbollah munitions hidden in buildings that were ignited.
International powers have been unsuccessful in thwarting Hezbollah. But perhaps U.S. law, and the prospect of criminal and civil liability for the foreign airlines that negligently and recklessly endanger the lives of their passengers by flying them into the airport, might be a game-changer.
In 2019 alone, before the COVID-19 pandemic crippled civil aviation, the airport handled close to 9 million passengers. It is the hub for Middle Eastern Airlines, Lebanon’s flag carrier. Eighteen other international airlines, including Emirates, Air France, Alitalia and Lufthansa, fly in and out of Beirut, and those carriers—knowing Hezbollah’s control of the airport and its surrounding areas—places their passengers and their planes in direct peril. Commercial airlines flying into Beirut are not only morally and legally responsible for the safety of their passengers, but they are inadvertently aiding and abetting the continued use of the airport by terrorists.
Hezbollah is designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, or FTO, by numerous countries around the world, including the United States. Under provisions of Chapter 113B of Title 18 of the U.S. Code (18 U.S.C. §§ 2331-2339D), it is a federal crime for an individual or a corporation to provide “material support or resources” to a designated FTO such as Hezbollah—material support or resources is broadly defined to include any type of service, personnel and transportation. In 2018, the U.S. Congress has passed the Sanctioning the Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act, focusing on Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s illicit use of this tactic. By operating routes to Beirut’s airport, one is knowingly flying passengers and crew into a hub of terror activity.
Airlines flying in and out of Beirut risk the potential of their aircraft being blown out of the sky by MPADS (man-portable air-defense systems), either purposely or accidentally launched at a civilian aircraft, such as in the case of the Ukrainian airliner shot down by an IRGC missile near Tehran in January 2020.
Lebanon, teetering on bankruptcy, desperately needs the foreign revenue that business, expatriate and tourist travel brings to the country. Perhaps by pressuring the airlines that they face substantial civil and criminal exposure to legal action courtesy of American counterterrorism laws, this will force the carriers to pressure the Lebanese government to once and for all eradicate Hezbollah’s control of their country.
The Shurat HaDin Law Center has taken an active role in attempting to obstruct Hezbollah from utilizing the airport and its passengers as human shields of its rockets and weapons. We have sent warning letters to the airline carriers that service the Beirut airport, as well as the insurance companies that provide them insurance. Shurat HaDin has revealed the reckless and cynical danger Hezbollah’s strategy of stockpiling the weapons in civilian facilities entails. And it demands that the airlines and insurance companies not allow themselves, their passengers and their planes be co-opted in this manner.
They have been placed on notice, and they have been warned.
To do nothing, as Edward R. Murrow warned, makes anyone facilitating travel through the airport an accomplice to terror.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner is an Israeli lawyer and the president of Shurat Hadin-Israel Law Center. Her best-selling book “Harpoon: The Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters,” co-authored with Samuel Katz, has just been released in Hebrew.