Who killed Elie Hobeika?

In Beirut, they're blaming Ariel Sharon for the death of the Lebanese warlord and war criminal -- but in this bloody parlor game, there's a culprit for every political taste.

Published January 26, 2002 8:32PM (EST)

Of all the conspiracy theories floating around Lebanon following the assassination of former Christian warlord Elie Hobeika on Thursday, here's the one -- related to me by a cab driver -- that I find most unlikely: Moammar Gadhafi wanted to stir up trouble to get the March Arab League summit moved from Lebanon, whose Shiite community holds the Libyan president responsible for murdering their spiritual leader nearly 25 years ago.

Realistically, though, my cab driver's theory is a bit of a stretch. Gadhafi didn't have anything against Hobeika. But the Israelis, Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese -- that's another story.

Here in Beirut, the cafes are abuzz with intriguing theories about who killed Hobeika. There are plenty of plausible suspects to work with. Like Sir William McCordle, the randy millionaire who ends up dead in Robert Altman's new "Gosford Park," Hobeika had given almost everyone who sees fit to bump elbows at Lebanon's dinner table a reason to want him six feet under. Was it Mrs. Israel in the conservatory with the knife? Col. Syria in the bedroom with the candelabra? Mr. Palestinian in the dining room with the revolver?

The puzzle seems unlikely ever to be solved. This much is undisputed: Hobeika died early Thursday morning when he drove past a bomb-rigged Mercedes parked only 100 yards from his home in the Beirut Christian suburb of Hazmieh. No arrests have been made, and it doesn't seem like any are imminent. Investigators say the bomb -- 20 pounds of TNT -- was activated by remote control. Hobeika and his three bodyguards died instantly, their bodies, in pieces, blown from the car. According to explosives experts at the scene, the bomb triggered the subsequent explosion of five oxygen tanks in Hobeika's Range Rover. Apparently the man whose name, along with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's, will forever be associated with the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila, was going scuba diving.

It was a nasty end to a nasty life, one highlighted by one of the most brutal chapters in the blood-drenched history of the Israeli-Arab confrontation. For three days in September 1982, the youthful Hobeika, who was head of the security arm of the pro-Israel Lebanese Forces militia, presided over the protracted massacre of between 800 and 1,700 unarmed and helpless Palestinians -- men, women and children -- at the two refugee camps. But while the most prominent atrocity on Hobeika's bloodstained résumé, it was not the only one. Long before the 1982 Israeli invasion that triggered the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Hobeika had a long career of dispatching his Christian rivals. In 1978, at the tender age of 23, he helped Christian leader Bashir Gemayel get rid of his fellow Christian rivals, leading the forces that slaughtered Tony Franjieh, his wife and child and 25 of his followers.

After the war's end in 1991, with Syrians pulling the strings in Lebanon, he joined many other warlords in high office, serving in three successive Cabinet positions, before finally being voted out of Parliament in the 2000 elections. (Some Lebanese believe that Hobeika switched over to the Syrian side earlier and helped orchestrate president Bashir Gemayel's 1982 assassination.)

The survivors of Sabra and Shatila must be included among the list of potential suspects in the Hobeika killing. So too, must old Christian enemies who never forgave Hobeika for his infighting and later desertion to the Syrian camp. There were some muted celebrations at Lebanon's various Palestinian refugee camps on Thursday. Muted perhaps in order not to arouse any reprisals from the Lebanese government and also, certainly, because of the memory that, admittedly during different times and circumstances, it was the assassination of a Christian notable, Gemayel, that sparked the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

But despite these obvious motives, few in Lebanon believe Palestinians or old Christian enemies were behind Hobeika's assassination. "Why would they do it now, after all these years?" was the common response when I mentioned these possibilities to various Lebanese.

"Yes, of course we're glad he's dead," one old Palestinian man told me Friday morning as we sat outside his shop, sipping tea in a comparatively less squalid section of Sabra. "We all know people who died during the massacre." But most Palestinians I spoke with, like most Lebanese, believe that Hobeika was murdered by a person who they believe more culpable for Sabra and Shatila: Ariel Sharon. And they pointed to Hobeika's recent statements indicating that he would testify against Sharon in a Brussels court for lawyers representing survivors of the camp massacres, who accuse Sharon of having committed war crimes.

Sharon, who was defense minister at the time and the architect of Israel's ill-fated invasion of Lebanon, wanted to clean up two large Palestinian refugee camps in West Beirut to get rid of PLO guerrillas he believed were hiding there. He had been warned by Israel's director of military intelligence that if Israel allowed the Christian militiamen (also known as the Phalange), who hated the Palestinians and were enraged by the murder of Gemayel, to enter the refugee camps, a massacre would ensure. But Sharon ignored this warning and invited the militiamen into the camps.

According to the Israeli historian Benny Morris, basing his summary on the work of the two most eminent chroniclers of the Lebanon war, the Israeli journalists Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari, Sharon "met with Phalange commanders Fadi Frem, Khobeika, and others to coordinate the impending action in the camps. He spoke of killing the 'terrorists': 'I don't want a single one left.' Khobeika asked: 'How do you single them out?' Sharon: 'We'll discuss that in a more restricted session.' He then flew off to Bikfaya to pay a condolence call on the Gemayel family."

The militia soon entered the camps -- under Israeli illumination flares -- and the massacre began, with Israeli troops nearby. It lasted uninterruptedly for more than 30 hours. Sharon failed to tell a Cabinet meeting that the Phalangists had been sent into the camps. Both he and Foreign Minister Shamir were told during the massacre that atrocities were being committed, but did nothing. Some Israeli officers suspected what was going on and tried to intervene, but ineffectually. Reports of the massacre picked up by Israeli intelligence and military observers were treated as specious. Many of the camp residents themselves, used to small arms fire, were apparently unaware of the massacres. Whether the Israeli leaders were actually unaware of the atrocities, as they maintained, or simply unconcerned has never been proven.

After the massacre, Israel appointed the Kahan Commission, a board of inquiry appointed to look into the massacre. The commission compared Israel's responsibility for the atrocity to that of the Russian authorities when Jews were slaughtered during 19th century pogroms. Sharon took the lion's share of the blame for the attacks; the commission recommended that he resign or be discharged. Sharon refused to resign. Finally, Prime Minister Begin reluctantly reassigned him as a Cabinet minister without portfolio.

Almost 20 years later, Sharon's role in the massacre has become a subject of intense controversy again -- but this time, he faces it as a head of state. On Wednesday, the Brussels court of appeals declared that it would rule on whether the case was admissible under Belgian law on March 6. The day before, Hobeika had met with two Belgian senators, Josy Dubie and Vincent van Quickenborne, reportedly promising to testify and, more portentously, said that his life been threatened. Hobeika said that his testimony would prove his innocence, although the Kahan Commission named him as the principal war criminal at Sabra and Shatila.

The Lebanese lawyer for the plaintiffs, Chibli Mallat, said Thursday that Hobeika's death would not affect the trial. "From the point of view of the evidence he had promised to provide, the loss of his testimony is not going to be helpful. Clearly his disappearance coincides with a very harsh campaign by the Israeli prime minister to have the case dismissed."

After the assassination, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud accused Israel of committing the crime, saying, "The perpetrators of the murder were determined to shift attention ... from what was going on in the West Bank and Gaza and to prevent the deceased from testifying in court in Belgium." In Syria, the state-run Damascus Radio made similar accusations. Almost all of the Lebanese newspapers, which are not subject to the censorship that blights most of the Arabic press, ran editorials echoing the official line. Friday's editorial in the Daily Star, the English newspaper where I work, was typical:

"Given the timing of the bomb blast that took Hobeika's life, coming as it did as he seemed increasingly likely to be called before a Belgian court to testify about Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Jewish state brought about his demise."

The English reporter Robert Fisk, one of many journalists to make his name covering Lebanon's civil war, also saw Israel's hand behind the killing. "Who on earth would want to murder the key witness for the prosecution in a war crimes indictment against the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon?" he asked rhetorically in Friday's Independent.

Not surprisingly, Israel has denied any involvement. Sharon called the Lebanese accusations "ridiculous" and declared that the "allegations do not even merit a reaction from Israel." Meanwhile, some Israeli analysts, pointing to the same court case in Brussels, say that it was the Syrians, rather that Sharon, who had something to hide. Writing in Israel's most popular daily, Ha'aretz, Zvi Barel claimed that "the Syrians feared Hobeika might use the stand in Belgium to testify about their role or advice about how to eliminate the Palestinians in Lebanon." He also posited that Syria might have killed Hobeika to show that Lebanon was unstable and thus justify an even more assertive presence.

Barel's logic resonates with a few prominent Lebanese, who have long questioned Syria's role in Lebanon and monitored its nursing and severing of relationships with local leaders. Charles Chartouni, the self-described "minister of education" of the Christian militias during the civil war, does not see Sharon's hand behind the assassination. Chartouni, now a professor of sociology at Lebanese University, grew up with Hobeika and briefly served with him in the Lebanese Forces, the largest of Lebanon's militias. The two had a falling out in 1985, when Hobeika "sold out" to the Syrians and began clashing with Chartouni's boss, Samir Geagea (the only Lebanese to be imprisoned for his war crimes), for the leadership of the militia.

Chartouni blames the Syrians, who control Lebanon like a satellite state and keep 35,000 troops here, for the death of their former golden boy. Hobeika shot up the militia ranks -- he was only 45 when he died -- and after the war, and the general amnesty that followed soon after, he thrice served in the Cabinet. (This is a testament to Syrian election rigging rather than his popular support, which was not high.) "He was no longer useful to the Syrians, he was no longer in office and he was irrelevant in Lebanon. Killing him sends a clear message (to the world and to Christian dissidents in Lebanon) that this country will remain a place for regional confrontation and remain under Syrian control," reasoned Chartouni.

More closely echoing Ha'aretz's analysis, Samir Kassir, who wrote Friday's editorial for an-Nahar, Lebanon's most popular Arabic-language paper, said that Syria was worried that Hobeika would implicate Syria in the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

"They have an interest in cleaning up the Lebanese arena especially because of this Brussels trial. They would have problems if they were seen to be involved in Sabra and Shatila," Kassir told me in a telephone conversation on Friday.

"I wanted to emphasize in my editorial that we should not rush to blame Israel," he said, adding, "I don't think it was the Palestinians or a Christian group -- the operation was much too complicated for that. Hobeika lives very close to Baabda Palace (the presidential palace) and there's a lot of security. There's a military barracks next to his house. This was a complicated mission.

"And I don't think Sharon could have made this decision (to make a high-profile extra-territorial hit) without talking to his Cabinet, without talking to Peres ... and if there was some discussion you would have seen some hints in the Israeli press."

Chartouni and Kassir's opinion is a lonely one -- at least publicly -- and remarkably brave, given Syria's control of the country. And it is a welcome departure from the reflexive blame thrown at Israel for so many incidents in Lebanon, which, unlike Hobeika's assassination, never make the international papers. To cite just one incident, in October the government blamed Israel and unidentified "collaborators" for two church bombings and an arson attack on a mosque (no one was injured), rejecting the more obvious explanation that such incidents stem from the sectarian discord that survived the war's end in 1991.

Such incidents rarely result in arrests and it's difficult not to agree with Barel, who predicted that "the 'intensive investigation' promised by the Lebanese authorities (afraid of probing too deeply) will end up finding the guilty party in Jerusalem." Though it is perhaps too soon to tell, it seems unlikely that the masterminds of Hobeika's assassination, whether they be in Syria, Lebanon or Israel, will ever be brought to be justice.

It may be that this is not terribly important. Of course, Lebanon, 10 years after the civil war, still has problems -- most prominently its relationship with Syria. While Hobeika, arguably the most tainted of the warlords, lost in the 2000 elections, many of Lebanon's most powerful leaders -- people like Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and Druze leader and MP Walid Jumblatt -- remain in office with blood on their hands. And the sectarianism that fueled the war has not gone away.

But it's worth pausing to appreciate the fact that such a brutal murder against a high-profile, if in many quarters highly reviled, Lebanese figure has barely disturbed regular life in Lebanon. Businesses, restaurants and nightclubs have remained open, and no one seems particularly worried about other attacks. This is no small accomplishment for Lebanon. Years ago, such incidents helped spark and sustain the war. Thus, it is worth remembering -- indeed celebrating -- that Hobeika's death appears to be merely a footnote to Lebanon's civil war, and not the beginning of another one.

By Paul Wachter

Paul Wachter is pursuing a masters degree in Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Beirut.

MORE FROM Paul Wachter

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Middle East