By ESAM AL-AMIN
On Valentine’s Day in 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri left in his motorcade along the seaside highway, cruising towards his mansion. As the motorcade slowed down in front of the St. George Hotel in downtown Beirut, a huge explosion of a parked Mitsubishi pick-up truck detonated at 12:56 PM, killing him along with 22 others including his entourage, bodyguards and some passers-by.
Ever since that day the polarization in Lebanon has deepened between the pro-Western forces led by Hariri’s son Saad, his Sunni-led coalition with Druze and pro-American Christian allies, and the pro-Syrian block of the Shiite parties led by Hezbollah and their Christian allies of the Free Patriotic Front. Soon after, the pro-Western parties accused Syria of being behind the crime and immediately embarked on massive demonstrations and pursued the intervention of international powers in order to dislodge Syria from Lebanon after a twenty-nine year military presence.
Less than one month into George W. Bush’s second term, the U.S. president took advantage of the incident by applying immense pressure on the Syrian regime, which eventually culminated in a U.N. Security Council resolution on April 7, 2005 appointing an international tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination. From day one the tribunal, led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, accused Syria of being behind the assassination. The enormous political and public pressures resulted in Syria’s withdrawal by the end of April.
The politicization of the UN investigation was in full swing when the tribunal issued several reports accusing the Syrian regime, based on non-credible witnesses. It took four years for the tribunal to admit that much of “the evidence” used against Syria was fabricated by false witnesses, some of them even tied to Israeli intelligence (Abdelbasit Bani Odeh) or the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies (Ahmad Mari‘e and Zuhair Siddiq).
By the end of 2009, the whole case against Syria collapsed and the four senior security officers held for over four years were consequently released. In the mean time, the false witnesses were relocated outside Lebanon and given protection and new identities in different European countries.
Meanwhile, a new tribunal was appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in March 2009. The new team was led by Italian judge Antonio Cassesse and Canadian prosecutor Daniel Bellemare. On May 23, 2009, the German publication Der Spiegel published a report detailing the new direction of the second investigative team.
Basing their conclusions on leaks from the international tribunal, the German article, as well as many other subsequent Israeli media accounts, reported that members of Hezbollah were behind the assassination. In the spring of 2010, Prime Minister Saad Hariri told Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah that an indictment against members of his group was expected before the end of the year.
This development prompted Nasrallah to charge the reconstituted international tribunal of being a political instrument in the hands of the United States and Israel. This self-serving statement would have been easily dismissed except that the first tribunal was indeed used against Syria for political ends.
Moreover, the efforts since 2005 to disarm Hezbollah, including the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, have not only failed, but the militant group has become even stronger and better armed. Hence, the attempt to neutralize it through international pressure has accelerated within the last year.
On August 9, Nasrallah, gave a masterful multimedia performance pointing a finger towards Israel and accusing it of involvement in the assassination. He admitted that he did not have direct evidence but over the span of two hours he presented a case of circumstantial evidence that showed means, motive, and opportunity for Israel.
He displayed video testimony of several agents of Israel in Lebanon, demonstrating that at least since September, 1993, the Israeli Mossad had been tracking Hariri. The agent Ahmad Nasrallah (no relation), confessed that he had been planting with his security detail false stories that Hariri was a target of assassination by Hezbollah. Although the agent had been detained since 1996, he escaped from a Lebanese prison several years later and fled to Israel.
Furthermore, most of the 100 Israeli agents caught by the Lebanese internal security apparatus in the past few years have confessed to a fifteen-year spying operation by Israel, spanning from the surveillance of major Lebanese figures, including the Lebanese president, the head of the army, and heads of pro-Western political parties to surveilling and assassinating major figures in the Lebanese resistance camp.
But perhaps the major revelation in Nasrallah’s press conference was the ability of his group to intercept all reconnaissance images sent from the Israeli drones over Lebanese skies back to Israel. This technical feat achieved by Hezbollah since 1997 allowed them to analyze Israel’s major targets in Lebanon. For example he showed that in September, 1997, because of such interceptions, his troops were able to ambush an Israeli commando unit after entering Beirut by sea, and even videotaped the helicopter evacuation of fifteen dead and wounded soldiers following the botched raid.
In his speech, Nasrallah matched the intercepted images with several assassinations carried out in Lebanon in the past decade evidenced by confessions of the captured Israeli agents in Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre. He then showed extensive images taken by the Israeli drones for over a five-year period of Rafik Hariri’s land routes across Lebanon- to and from his offices and residences in Beirut, his summer home in the mountains, and the coastal route to his brother’s residence in Sidon.
In all these routes there were no Hezbollah targets, offices or bases, leaving no doubt that Hariri was the target of the drones that were taking images from all angles, especially those close to the coastal areas, while pausing and zooming at the points of intersections.
The Hezbollah leader pointed out that just this past year the Lebanese authorities arrested several Israeli agents who confessed to penetrating the mobile communications network across Lebanon. In essence, the Israeli Mossad has had the capacity to intercept and plant any communications in Lebanon. He also exposed the most dangerous Israeli agent in Lebanon in the past two decades as being retired Army Brig. Ghassan Jirjis Al-Jidd.
He not only assisted missions logistically by picking up and driving Israeli assassination teams throughout Lebanon since 2004, but he was also an operational agent, carrying out several missions on behalf of the Israelis including carrying and planting bombs, as confessed by other captured agents. Al-Jidd was also placed at the scene of the crime on February 13, 2005 one day before Harriri was killed. But after he was exposed by Hezbollah in 2009, Al-Jidd was able to flee to France, then to Israel hours before he was to be apprehended by the Lebanese authorities.
Nasrallah finally disclosed that an Israeli reconnaissance plane and an Israeli AWACS were flying over Beirut on the day of the assassination for four hours from 10:30 am until 2:30 pm encompassing the 1 pm time of the assassination. He questioned whether it was a coincidence that an operational plane would be flying so close to the location at the time when the crime was committed.
The Israeli government immediately dismissed these accusations as baseless although many Israeli experts admitted that Hezbollah had been able to intercept Israeli drone images for many years, but they argued that the transmission of pictures have since been encrypted, making it very difficult to intercept.
Israel has a long and bloody history of successful assassinations in Lebanon since the 1970’s, including the killing of the former leader of Hezbollah in 1992, and the assassination of dozens of Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories, Europe and other Arab states including many leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the PLO.
Many of these assassinations were carried out secretly but some were exposed when agents were caught red handed as in the 1997 attempt to kill Hamas’ leader Khaled Meshal in Amman, or after leaving behind many clues as in the assassination of another Hamas leader in Dubai in January of this year. Often times Israel would conduct such assassinations in public and in cold blood without any fear of international condemnation or scrutiny, especially when carried out in the occupied territories.
Since its forced withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, Israel has had two primary objectives in Lebanon: forcing a withdrawal of Syria and hence reducing its influence, and secondly, disarming Hezbollah and other resistance groups. The first goal was achieved shortly after the Hariri assassination but the second has been difficult to accomplish despite employing a vicious military attack in 2006 as well as mobilizing all levers of local, regional and international political powers.
But pinning the assassination of Hariri on Hezbollah could be the trigger to a bloody sectarian civil war by exploiting the Sunni-Shi’a divide. At minimum Israel and its allies hope that under indictment Hezbollah and its friends would be on the defensive, thus forcing the disarmament of its militia or at least curbing their influence.
If anything, Nasrallah’s presentation succeeded in forcing the international tribunal to consider Israel as a possible suspect. Two days after the press conference a spokesperson for Bellemare asked the Lebanese government to submit all the evidence in the hands of Hezbollah. For his part Nasrallah promised that if a serious investigation were initiated he would present much more evidence and secrets that would take the investigation to a completely different route, in the direction of Tel Aviv.
Whether Israel had a hand in the Hariri assassination remains to be seen. But what is clear is that Israel has found its match in the grand chess game in Lebanon.
Esam Al-Amin can be reached at email@example.com