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Hizbullah/Lebanon: Tribunal minefield

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29 July 2010 12:31

Hizbullah, always keen to maintain its reputation as first and foremost a Lebanese nationalist resistance movement, is facing increasing difficulty in maintaining this fig leaf of respectability in the complex sectarian political terrain of Lebanon.

The latest, and most serious challenge to this claim is the prospect of having some of its members indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) for involvement in the 2005 assassination of five time prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gave a pre-emptive press conference on the issue on Thursday at which he advised the audience that Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri had told him of the likelihood of the STL charging Hizbullah members, but that the prime minister would acknowledge that the members were ‘rogue’ elements.

Hizbullah has been quick to deny involvement in the assassination, for it well knows the implications were such a claim to be alleged, let alone proven and Nasrallah has been busy using the media to press his case that it is all a conspiracy. In particular Hizbullah has sought to discredit the basis on which the investigation claims they were involved; cell phone records implicating Hizbullah members in the assassination.

The recent arrest of three members of the Alfa mobile phone company on suspicion of spying for Israel provides the perfect excuse — data manipulation by Israel designed to deliberately implicate Hizbullah members.

While no indictments have been issued, there is good reason for Hizbullah’s leadership to be nervous. Having crossed a long-term self-imposed ‘red line’ in May 2008 by taking up arms against fellow Lebanese with its takeover of West Beirut, any credible accusation that they were involved in the assassination of the Sunni prime minister will have long-term national and regional political and sectarian consequences.

Sa’ad Hariri holds the key to whether the STL’s findings will plunge Lebanon into chaos. As the son of the assassinated former prime minister, the leader of the government, de facto leader of the Sunni community and someone who has gone to significant lengths to establish cordial relations with Syria, his reaction will be key. 

The speech he gave at his party’s conference on Saturday ignored Nasrallah’s claims about the earlier conversation and rather spoke about Lebanese national unity. His is the most invidious position of all Lebanese politicians in the unfolding saga of the STL, and his public comments on the issue in the weeks and months ahead will set the tone for much of the non-Shi’a reaction to any indictments.

There is little appetite in Lebanon for an STL-directed indictment of Hizbullah members. The party itself has done its best to delegitimise the tribunal and neither Syria (who could yet face accusations itself of complicity) nor other regional countries are keen to face the consequences of a Hizbullah implicated in a political assassination of this magnitude. 

These concerns are reflected in the visit to Beirut on Friday of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Syria’s President Bashar Assad and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani for talks with Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman.

Lebanon’s always fragile sectarian fabric could easily tear apart, the indictment of members of a party that is part of the national unity government would likely impose political paralysis yet again and the significant UN assets in Lebanon could be targeted if indictments are issued and attempts made to deliver the accused Hizbullah members.

Trials conducted in absentia and studiously ignored by the Lebanese government would likely exact a price on the Lebanese government internationally, but at the present time it is likely the cheapest cost it is likely to have to pay. Whatever the outcome of the STL, Hizbullah’s Lebanese nationalist claims are looking shakier than ever.

Photo by Flickr user Giorgio Montersino's photostream, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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