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How the Rafic Hariri International Airport describes Lebanon

Nadim Koteich

Published: Updated:

In September, an international scandal related the Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut broke out and another one followed later.

At the beginning of September, US television channel Fox News reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had recently used the airport to smuggle weapons (and definitely money) to Hezbollah. The report by identified two flights by Fares Air Qashem Company on the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut-Doha route as being behind this smuggling operation.

This company is considered as one of Iran's phony civilian airlines which is often used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Force to smuggle weapons.

The report identified the locations and timelines of Iranian flights as well as their routes which it described as "unusual" when compared to the routes taken by other airlines that travel to Lebanon. The General Directorate of Civil Aviation corroborated Fox News reports about the flights, but denied that they were used for smuggling weapons, claiming that the flights actually flew cattle to Qatar.

Claims and denials

In the last week of September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly that Israel had evidence that Iran was helping Hezbollah develop its missiles and showed pictures that he said were of three Hezbollah weapon warehouses containing 1,000 rockets.

He claimed that “the location is in the vicinity of Al Ouzai area (southern entrance of Beirut) near the airport”. After Netanyahu's statement and within the context of a systematic and organized campaign, the Israeli army posted on its official Twitter account five photos and a 76-seconds video of sites it said to be Hezbollah's missile project near Beirut airport.

We cannot be sure about the veracity of the Israeli claims, nor can we trust Hezbollah’s denial of these allegations. We cannot also trust the denial of the Lebanese official authorities which have to coexist with various forms of weaponry and money smuggling to Hezbollah which have built an arsenal over several years – an arsenal that’s more powerful than that of a traditional army – and whose practices are in violation of international resolutions and safety nets in this regard.

The Rafic Hariri International Airport has become important for Hezbollah in recent years, after smuggling from the sea has become very difficult because of international monitoring of the territorial security of Lebanese waters, as per UN Resolution 1701 after the July 2006 war.

The Rafic Hariri International Airport has become important for Hezbollah in recent years, after smuggling from the sea has become very difficult because of international monitoring of the territorial security of Lebanese waters, as per UN Resolution 1701 after the July 2006 war

Nadim Koteich

As for the land borders, Hezbollah’s pressure has succeeded in easing the UN resolution 1680 restrictions, which stipulated marking the borders with Syria and controlling them. What greatly managed them is in fact the Israeli warplanes which made it their task to prevent the smuggling of weapons between Syria and Lebanon to the extent of bombing an Iranian plane moments after it landed at the Damascus International Airport.

The case related to the Rafic Hariri International Airport has become the centerpiece of the recent acrimony between Israel and Hezbollah, which is a facility that was repeatedly bombarded by Israel. Both sides have used the airport to assert their authority and domination over the country. In fact, a portrait of Bashar al-Assad hung alongside the photo of the Lebanese president during the period of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon.

An icon of irony

One of the historical paradoxes is that the first manifestation of Israeli hostilities against Lebanon was in the airport on December 28, 1968, when a group of commandos landed there and blew up 13 civilian planes, in response to an earlier hijacking of El Al plane at the Athens airport by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was active in Lebanon.

According to Waddah Sharara, the goal was to raise the stakes because Lebanon played host to the Palestinian revolution, which ironically proved to be too high a cost for Lebanon over the decades.

The other irony in history relates to the earliest incident associated with Iran’s armed wing, we now know as Hezbollah, which also took place at this airport, when an American plane (TWA Flight 847) from Rome to Athens was hijacked and diverted from its course to the Beirut airport and this began a phase in which the airport has been under the control of various armed militias since February 1984.

It was then that the name of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyah came to the surface. The CIA accused him of hijacking the plane and killing an American passenger on board and then dumping his body on the tarmac of the Beirut airport.

Plot thickens again

It is as if the circle of confrontation has taken a dramatic turn and concluded after 40 years, just like the plot of a well-scripted film, and went back to the 1968 incident and to the policy of raising the stakes on Lebanon for hosting Hezbollah and its Iranian revolution instead of the Palestinian factions and their revolution.

When the late Rafic Hariri launched the project to revive the airport in 1994, the airport proved to be a symbol for the idea of Lebanon's resurrection from war, an insignia of modernity which Hariri attracted us to, similar to Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Çillerin who had invested heavily in infrastructure development, particularly the Istanbul airport.

Today, scandals are bedeviling the airport again. Another issue is passenger congestion, which is a sign that development plans are not being carried out to meet the volume of traffic. Things then worsened when a semi-clash happened between two official security apparatuses in the airport. It’s as if we are regressing back to 1984 and 1985. It seems that this airport describes us and sums up our situation.

This article is also available in Arabic.

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Nadim Koteich is a leading Arab satirist. His show DNA airs Monday to Friday on Future and Al Hadath channels. He is a columnist with Asharq Alawsat. He tweets @NadimKoteich.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.