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Who killed Elie Hobeika? (Current Affairs).

On the morning of 24 January, the former Lebanese Forces militia leader and ex-electricity minister, Elie Hobeika, drove out of his house in Hazmieh, a suburb in the hills overlooking Beirut. In his Jaguar were three bodyguards, dressed in wetsuits for a day's diving with their boss, while 45 year-old Hobeika himself sported a flak jacket. As the car turned out of the driveway, a Mercedes parked further down the street, exploded; Hobeika's body was thrown 50 metres and the body of one of his guards landed on a second-floor balcony. Investigators say that a bomb containing 10 kilos of TNT was triggered by a wireless remote control, in other words, a slick and professional assassination. All four men in the car died, and, as if to remind the Lebanese of the reality of war, local television news did not flinch from showing the results of the attack.

The question on everyone's lips, of course, is `who killed Elie Hobeika?' There is no doubt detectives investigating the killing will find plenty of enemies to point the finger at, given Hobeika's long and, to say the least, controversial career. A previously unheard of group calling itself Lebanese for a Free and Independent Lebanon claims it carried out the attack, calling Hobeika a `Syrian agent'. The claim seems hardly credible given the nature of the attack, and has received scant serious attention.

At the time of writing, Lebanon's Internal Security Forces (ISF) had made five arrests in the Jezzine area in connection with the bombing. Among the men arrested, however, were the former owner of the Mercedes, the dealer who sold it and two men who witnessed the sale of the car. The ISF is now saying that, according to information, two men who provided false identity documents bought the car, and a description of the men has been obtained. In other words, the `arrested' men are witnesses and not suspects.

The Lebanese newspapers An Nahar and As Safir have reported that the ISF suspects the involvement of the Guardians of the Cedars, an ultra-nationalist Maronite group with strong links to Jezzine, Israel and the now-disbanded Israeli proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA). Its leader Etienne Saqr (nom de guerre Abu Arz) now lives between Israel, Cyprus and the US, and he and his group maintain close links to the Israeli government.

As is traditional in Lebanon, and in this case not without reason, Israel is the leading suspect so far. Hobeika was once on excellent terms with the Jewish state. During the civil war, as a senior lieutenant of Bashir Gemayel, one of his duties was to oversee the training of Lebanon Forces (LF) militiamen in Israel. He then worked closely with Israeli forces during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, by which time he was head of LF intelligence. After the assassination of Gemayel in the same year, the LF massacred civilians in revenge in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut's southern suburbs, under the command of Hobeika.

The Israeli army cordoned the camp and fired illumination flares to assist the LF in its massacre -- which left between 800 and 2,000 Palestinians dead, many of them women and children. The Israeli defence minister at the time was Ariel Sharon, now prime minister of Israel. The findings of the Israeli inquiry into the atrocity, the Kahane Commission, are summarised on page 15.

Two days before his death, Hobeika had met Belgian senators in Beirut to discuss the possibility of him testifying against Sharon, in a Belgian court case brought by a group of Palestinian survivors of Sabra and Shatila. It is ironic, and not a little bizarre, that Hobeika -- who is alleged to have conducted the massacre -- should testify against a minister a who bore political responsibility; common sense would suggest that Hobeika would be liable to incriminate himself. Nonetheless, at the time of his death, it seemed Hobeika intended to testify in Brussels, pending a judicial decision on whether or not to go ahead with the trial in March. He promised to reveal new information damning Sharon and provide `irrefutable proof' of his own innocence, which he was `saving for the trial'. In recent weeks, he reported feeling `threatened'.

It does, indeed, seem that Israel, and Sharon in particular, has an interest in Hobeika's demise. Yet it would be rash to jump to this conclusion as things stand; he had many enemies and it is not unheard of for assassinations to be carried out to discredit the party cui bono.

Another prime suspect might be the Palestinians; the news of his demise was greeted by celebratory gunfire in the refugee camps. Yet it seems unlikely that Palestinians would have chosen this moment to assassinate him, poised as he was to incriminate Sharon further, and thereby potentially inflict a serious wound on Israel.

The key to Hobeika's career in the latter stages of the war, and in peacetime, was his decision to switch his allegiance to Syria in 1985. In signing the Tripartite Agreement and founding the Waad Party, he abandoned the LF and its Israeli backers for the power that would ultimately come to dominate Lebanon. In the `Christian wars', the final phase of the civil war, he fought Samir Geagea and his old comrades, the LF.

In 1991, the Lebanese parliament, seeking an end to the civil war, pardoned Hobeika for any and all atrocities he may have committed in the war, on the basis that if peace promised only prison or death, warlords would have a powerful incentive to continue the war. Moreover, by this stage, his cooperation with Syria was well established. He was made minister for the displaced, and then electricity minister. According to a well-placed Lebanese source who declined to be identified by name, "as electricity minister he enriched himself by $200 million and became a god in the eyes of many Lebanese. He who has the power and the wealth can do no wrong. His demise sends a necessary signal: violence and crime do not pay in the end."

But by 1990, when Hariri returned as prime minister, Hobeika's fortunes were on the wane. He lost his seat in the election, and therefore his ministerial post. Other warlords retain a political and confessional constituency: Speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, still leads Amal and many of Lebanon's Shias; Walid Jumblatt remains the ancestral chief of the vast majority of the Druze. The same was not true of Hobeika, who had minimal Christian support and therefore had less and less to offer the Syrians.

Hobeika's funeral was a study in the Alice in Wonderland nature of Lebanese society, and its ruling elite in particular. Environment minister Michel Musa placed the medal of Commander of the National Order of the Cedars on his coffin, while Bishop Tobiya Abi-Aad said "he never closed his heart to those in need, never refused any charity organisation." He was, he went on, "a devoted son, faithful to his wife, caring for his son, and loyal to his family and friends. Whoever has these characteristics will receive God's mercy." A number of prominent politicians were present, but notable by their absence was the President, and anti-Syrian politicians such as Amin Gemayel. Rafiq Hariri paid condolences before the service, but did not stay.

In many ways, Hobeika can be viewed as an opportunist, a Maronite of modest social origins who became part of the new oligarchy that replaced Lebanon's aristocratic zuama class during the war. The same Lebanese who would court him to sort out their electricity problems, would mock his clothes and his manner, and dismiss him as a war criminal -- although arguably his crimes have simply been better publicised than those of many now-respectable Lebanese. And it would be naive to suggest that he ever placed much store in the Maronite Christian cause, having smoothly crossed to the Sryian camp and then fought other Christians with enthusiasm. In the end, with his flirtation with international justice, he seemed to be intent purely on his own survival, something he had hitherto shown great skill in. His death was the final chapter in a peculiarly Lebanese morality tale.

THE KAHANE COMMISSION

After the Sabra and Shatila massacre an Israeli public enquiry -- the Kahane Commission -- apportioned blame for the killing of 800 Palestinians. Palestinian estimates tend to be closer to 2,000 victims. Its executive summary is as follows:

Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the events at the refugee camps in Beirut, 8 February 1983.

The Commission determined that the massacre at Sabra and Shatila was carried out by a Phalangist unit, acting on its own but its entry was known to Israel. No Israeli was directly responsible for the events in the camps. But the Commission asserted that Israel had indirect responsibility for the massacre since the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) held the area, Mr Begin was found responsible for not exercising greater involvement and awareness in the matter of introducing the Phalangists into the camps. Mr Sharon was found responsible for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge when he approved the entry of the Phalangists into the camps as well as not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed. Mr Shamir erred by not taking action after being alerted by communications minister Zippori. Chief of Staff Eitan did not give the appropriate orders to prevent the massacre. The Commission recommended that the defence minister resign, that the director of military intelligence not continue in his post and other senior officers be removed.

There is plenty of material damning Hobeika for directly ordering the LF unit to kill civilians. For example, a Lt Elul testified that when asked on the radio what to do about 50 women and children in one area of the camp, Hobeika replied `this is the last time you're going to ask me a question like that, you know exactly what to do', to `raucous laughter' from other LF commanders. The report accepts that IDF commanders were aware of this attitude and this particular exchange. Although the report calls for Sharon's removal as minister, which occurred shortly afterwards, it otherwise says little about him, concentrating instead on local IDF commanders.

Tom Owen reports from Beirut
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Author:Owen, Tom
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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