BEIRUT // A fighter with Hizbollah's military wing last week told a military tribunal investigating the 2008 death of a Lebanese Armed Forces pilot during a training exercise that he had fired four shots at the helicopter as it attempted to land in an open field in south Lebanon because he believed that the area was under Israeli attack.
The tribunal is investigating the August 2008 shooting to determine if the Hizbollah fighter, later identified as Mustafa Hassan Moqaddam, 20, should be held responsible for the death of Capt Samir Hanna. The incident highlighted the growing discontent in some segments of Lebanon over the legal right of Hizbollah to conduct military operations independently of the armed forces. Hizbollah's role as an "armed resistance" organisation was codified by the ceasefire agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war in 1991, when it was the only major armed group allowed to keep its weapons in the aftermath of the war. At the time, the decision was justified in the eyes of many because large areas of Lebanon were still occupied by Israeli forces. But the subsequent withdrawal from the vast majority of Lebanon by the Israel Defense Force (IDF) left many of Hizbollah's political opponents critical of the group's ability to maintain what they see as a "state within a state".
The shooting took place, according to testimony from both Mr Moqaddam and Lebanese officers, after the helicopter was practising landings and take-offs in Tallet Sujud, a rural area of south Lebanon just outside the city of Nabatiyeh. Although the area is well-known as a "closed military zone" controlled by Hizbollah, the co-pilot testified that the crew had not been informed of that fact and had been practising landings there regularly for the two previous weeks.
Repeated attempts by The National to visit the site of the incident in the past year have been thwarted by either Lebanese army checkpoints or Hizbollah security personnel. First Lt Mahmoud Abboud, who was aboard the craft, told the tribunal that there was little reason for his crew to be concerned. "Over two weeks, we landed there four times without a problem," he said. Lt Abboud then testified that after the shooting, he was detained and stripped of his mobile phone and radios by a group of armed men who suddenly appeared on the scene and are widely believed to be a Hizbollah unit responding to the incident.
As criticism mounted after the attack, Mr Moqaddam turned himself in to Lebanese authorities to face charges of "unintentionally" killing Hanna and was eventually released on bail in June. Fouad Siniora, who was prime minister at the time, criticised the granting of bail and introduced a bill to bar military tribunals from releasing prisoners without permission of the civilian court system. But with Lebanon having since formed a unity government that features strong Hizbollah representation in the cabinet, the issue seems to have disappeared from public debate.
Previously Mr Moqaddam told military investigators he was on duty in a Hizbollah observation post on the day in question, when he heard both a helicopter and gunshots from another, never-identified source. He testified that he grabbed his personal weapon and went outside the post and saw a helicopter attempting to land. Unable to see the Lebanese flag on the helicopter because of the sun's glare, and having heard what he thought were other Hizbollah positions firing on the aircraft, he fired four or five rounds at a distance of about 300 metres, striking the pilot twice.
He has also repeatedly testified that Hizbollah's positions in the area had been put on high alert because of concerns of a possible Israeli operation, but did not elaborate. Hizbollah refused to comment on reports that Mr Moqaddam was a new recruit to the group's military wing. Reaction to the current court proceedings has been muted. But at the time of Mr Moqaddam's release, Amin Gemayal, a former president and a current member of parliament, asked: "What are the guarantees that Hizbollah can provide for the Lebanese citizens that [they] can safely tour the Lebanese territories without being killed and without the killer receiving a medal of honour?"