On Sunday night, a bomb detonated outside the Banque du Liban et d’Outre-Mer (BLOM), in the Verdun neighborhood of Beirut. The bomb reportedly was placed behind the bank, not during the business hours, but at the time of the Ramadan iftar meal, which meant that the area was essentially empty. The target of the blast, which did not result in any deaths, appears to be the bank building itself.
The bombing comes as Lebanese banks, in compliance with U.S. law, began closing accounts of individuals and institutions belonging to or affiliated with Hezbollah. This includes Hezbollah parliamentarians, as well as the group’s major hospitals (like al-Rasoul al-A’zam) and foundations like the Martyrs Foundation (Lebanon’s version of an Iranian foundation by the same name) and Imdad Committee (the local branch of Iran’s Imam Khomeini Relief Committee).
The U.S. Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, passed in December 2015, threatened sanctions against individuals and entities found to be financing Hezbollah. This left Lebanese banks with a binary choice – serving Hezbollah or maintaining access to the global economy – and they wisely chose the latter. Unsurprisingly, the banks’ moves provoked Hezbollah’s ire.
The Central Bank of Lebanon has established a special investigative committee in an attempt to placate the organization. In cases in which a bank decides to close a private account, the committee has 30 to 60 days to decide whether the activity constitutes a violation. Still, Hezbollah is fuming.
In a statement by its parliamentary bloc last month, Hezbollah attacked Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, blaming his institution and “a number of banks” for participating in a “war of annihilation” against it on Washington’s behalf.
The way Hezbollah sees it, the banks are now targeting the socio-economic system it has established in Lebanon, and in the Shiite community specifically – from prominent Shiite businessmen to the broader instruments of Hezbollah’s patronage like health services, education, and media.
Hezbollah is now warning of “social instability” as a result of the banking measures. One day before the bombing, the pro-Hezbollah daily al-Akhbar ran the headline: “Hezbollah to banks: Enough conspiring.” The piece claimed that the measures were tantamount to an attack on the organization’s weapons, and its author singled out BLOM while other Hezbollah mouthpieces accused it of “leading the soft financial war on Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah has knowingly put Lebanon, and the Shiite community in particular, in Israel’s crosshairs in any future war with its southern neighbor by turning much of the country into a missile base. In the meantime, the organization is placing the Lebanese economy in similar peril, forcing its banking sector into an impossible choice: war with Hezbollah, or with Washington.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter: @AcrossTheBay