Detonating Lebanon's War Files

The Belgian Court Case and the Beirut Car Bomb

by Laurie King-Irani | published January 31, 2002

It is hard to say which news surprised Beirutis more on January 24: the previous evening's report from Brussels that a war crimes case against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and others had moved one step closer to trial, or the sickeningly familiar roar of that morning's car bomb that killed Elie Hobeika, one of the most ruthless political survivors of Lebanon's bloody civil war of 1975-1990. Just 48 hours before his violent death, Hobeika, commander of the right-wing Lebanese Forces during the war, had met with two visiting Belgian senators to stress his willingness to testify in the landmark Belgian case that is reopening the troubling files of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres. Claiming that his testimony would clear his own name while establishing Sharon's guilt, Hobeika voiced growing fears for his physical safety. The chronology of events immediately filled Lebanese newspapers and cafe discussions with speculation about the links between the court case in Belgium and the car bombing in Beirut.

Top Lebanese officials and Syrian state-run radio quickly accused Israel of eliminating a key witness to and participant in the slaughter of 1000-2000 unarmed Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Hobeika, after all, knew more than virtually anyone else about what really happened in Sabra and Shatila. Then intelligence head of the Lebanese Forces, Hobeika was the primary liaison between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers and personnel surrounding the camps and the Christian militia members inside who undertook an orgy of murder, rape and torture from the evening of September 16 until the early afternoon of September 18, 1982. Walkie-talkie and binoculars in hand, Hobeika, just 26 years old, had helped to orchestrate the unfolding massacre. In one infamous instance (recounted by an IDF soldier who gave testimony before Israel's 1983 Kahan Commission inquiry), Hobeika coldly commanded a militia member who had radioed to ask what he should do with 40 women and children his unit had rounded up: "You know exactly what to do with them. Don't ask me a question like that again!" Despite his wartime history, Hobeika was elected to the Lebanese parliament after the war, and served as minister of electricity and displaced persons in postwar governments.

Legal Accountability, Command Responsibility

The crucial question posed in the case filed last June by massacre survivors under legislation that incorporates the Geneva Conventions and the principle of universal jurisdiction into Belgian criminal law centers on the issue of command: who gave Hobeika his orders? Who commanded the Israeli army to block all entry and exit points to the two camps before, during and after the massacres? Who gave the orders to launch flares into the night skies, assisting the killers in their gruesome tasks? Who allowed militia units to cross security lines between East and West Beirut and along the airport road? Who decided, even after being informed that a massacre was in progress, that the Lebanese militiamen could remain in the camps to continue "mopping up"?

The central argument of the plaintiffs' case hinges upon Ariel Sharon's command responsibility as general of the IDF contingent that fully controlled Beirut when the massacres took place. Although the killings were carried out by Lebanese militia units affiliated directly or indirectly with the Israeli-backed Christian Lebanese Forces (also known as the Phalange), the plaintiffs argue that the legal and military responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila atrocities ultimately rests with Sharon under recognized principles of international law. The case lodged in Belgium represents one of many recent attempts to realize and implement the principle of universal jurisdiction for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide that is enshrined in the Fourth Geneva Convention and in international customary law. Similar cases have been brought against Rwandan officials, Chile's ex-president General Augusto Pinochet, Chad's former president Hissein Habre and former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

According to Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese lawyer representing the survivors of the massacres together with two Belgian lawyers, Luc Walleyn and Michael Verhaeghe: "Command responsibility is more severe than the direct responsibility of those who pulled the trigger. A commander sitting miles away would be much more responsible for the crimes committed in the camps than the people actually doing the killings." The crimes committed in Sabra and Shatila have never been investigated in any court of law. Relatives of victims and survivors have yet to be indemnified. The Kahan Commission inquiry in Israel lacked judicial force and did not prescribe legal censure or punishment. Rather, it blamed the actual killing on the Lebanese—singling out Hobeika for special mention—while assigning the less serious charge of indirect responsibility and professional neglect to Sharon. As a result of the commission's findings, Sharon was relieved of his ministerial portfolio in 1983.

"Who Benefits?"

To the query posed in the wake of the car bombing—"Who benefited?"—it seems patently obvious that Israel, and particularly Sharon, would be the primary beneficiary of Elie Hobeika's permanent silence. The rumors now circulating inside and outside Lebanon that Hobeika was ready to testify that Israeli units had participated in the actual killing in the camps have strengthened this interpretation. Recent revelations that the car used in the January 24 bombing was purchased by two men using false identities from a car dealer in the southern Christian stronghold of Jezzine—formerly a key military intelligence post during Israel's occupation of south Lebanon—also seem to support this theory. But Hobeika had many enemies: Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese as well as Israelis. Other issues, and half-remembered wartime files besides Sabra and Shatila, may help to identify Hobeika's assassins.

Observers of Lebanon's complex political scene have quietly presented alternative theories about who might have ordered Hobeika's elimination. Samir Qassir, writing in the pages of al-Nahar, voiced doubts that Israel was behind the car bombing. Noting that an act of assassination undertaken on foreign soil would have required a discussion, if not a vote, during an Israeli cabinet meeting, Qassir hypothesized that, given Sharon's controversial history in Lebanon, it was unlikely that such a decision could have been taken unanimously, let alone never leaked to the press.

Sateh Noureddine, political affairs editor of al-Safir, a newspaper that usually adopts a Syrian line, contradicted the prevailing view in Damascus by boldly stating that Hobeika's killing was an "inside job." Noureddine cited economic dimensions as well as the wrath Hobeika incurred among the right-wing Christian rank and file when he switched his allegiance from Israel to Syria in the mid-1980s. In fact, the only group to claim responsibility for Hobeika's elimination was the previously unknown Lebanese for a Free and Independent Lebanon, which accused Hobeika of being a "Syrian agent." The group's communique averred that the bombing was meant to protest Syria's influence over Lebanese affairs and the presence of 25,000 Syrian troops in the country.

Some pundits, noting that Hobeika had effectively exchanged politics for business after losing his parliamentary seat and his ministerial position in the 2000 national elections, suggested that his killing was probably an act of revenge for a business deal gone bad. Yet others opined that Palestinians had finally exacted vengeance for Hobeika's role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres. Each of these theories is plausible, and it is entirely possible that, among the dignitaries attending Hobeika's funeral mass last weekend, there were a few individuals who know much more than they will ever admit about how and why Hobeika met the sort of end he had orchestrated for so many others.

Unopened Files, Unvoiced Truths

What no one has yet written or stated publicly and unequivocally in Beirut is that many people—Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Americans, not to mention Israelis—dread the opening of Lebanon's wartime files. Over the last decade, other countries emerging from tortuous civil wars established truth commissions and official commissions of inquiry to come to terms with the blood-soaked past, assign accountability, effect a transition to a new government or establish just compensation policies. But Lebanon's long war—which resulted in 120,000 deaths and the disappearance of over 17,000 civilians, still missing—has yet to undergo such unflinching public scrutiny. The tentative opening of Lebanon's wartime files is largely left to the realm of popular culture: the sardonic music of Ziad Rahbani or the compelling feature films of Jean Chamoun and Randa Sabbagh. Even in the cultural arena, frank discussion of the war arouses considerable controversy.

When Beiruti conversation turns to the case lodged by the Sabra and Shatila survivors, another question often comes up: "What will be the impact of such a trial on Lebanon's 1991 General Amnesty Law?" That law, rapidly passed by the first postwar Lebanese parliament of warlords and Syrian appointees, effectively excused any Lebanese citizen or official from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between 1975 and 1990. According to the criteria of international customary law and the Geneva Conventions, Lebanon's General Amnesty Law is insupportable. Opening the Sabra and Shatila files risks opening all of Lebanon's wartime files, thereby depriving the postwar, Syrian-backed regime of what little legitimacy it has ever possessed. Since 1990, Lebanese politics has hinged primarily upon a Syrian balancing act: pitting this group against that in one context, that group against this in another, by means of threats, incentives and the construction of complex, overlapping patron-client relations within Lebanon and between Lebanon and Syria. A full airing of who did what to whom during the war years would destabilize this delicate game. Furthermore, Lebanon's currently moribund economy and massive unemployment makes the country especially vulnerable to serious political upheavals.

Explosive Ruling?

Hobeika's assassination is a grim reminder that many others—Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli—have enjoyed, and hope to continue enjoying, impunity for the massive and systematic war crimes committed in Lebanon from 1975-1990. For their part, the Sabra and Shatila massacre plaintiffs and their lawyers stated on January 24 that they are undeterred by Hobeika's assassination and will continue to seek justice in a Belgian court. The lawyers are increasingly confident that the case lodged against Sharon and others for the atrocities committed in Sabra and Shatila will proceed to the trial stage—if judicial and legal criteria are the sole bases of the decision to be rendered by three Belgian judges on March 6. The legal and political implications of such a ruling are likely to prove every bit as explosive as any car bomb from the perspective of those in the upper reaches of the Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian political establishments.

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