x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Time for truth, and painful reconciliation in Lebanon

For years, Lebanon has been resolutely ignoring the truth about Hizbollah. But this willful blindness can't go on forever.

Lebanon survived 15 years of civil war. It endured military occupation by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (forced on it by Egypt and Syria), by Syria (at the request of Lebanon’s president and with the approval of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) and by Israel (blessed by then-President Ronald Regan).

And for a long time, the country struggled with anarchy, extortion, kidnapping, torture and the expulsion of communities from their homes that would later be called, courtesy of the subsequent war in Yugoslavia, "ethnic cleansing."

Thirty-six years after the war officially erupted in April 1975, no one has been held accountable for anything.

There have been no trials, no parliamentary inquiries and no South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation process. The early culprits - Yasser Arafat, Pierre Gemayel, Camille Chamoun, Kamal Jumblatt, Hafez Al Assad and Menachem Begin - are dead. They cannot answer for their parts in delivering the country to mass violence. And yet many others in Lebanon today - both in and out of public office - can.

After the Taif Accords that led to the end of war in 1991, Lebanon embraced collective amnesia rather than truth and justice. The princes of the merchant republic, best exemplified by entrepreneur-turned-politician Rafiq Hariri, settled on physical and financial reconstruction rather than moral redress.

The best way, they decided, to escape the past was to ignore it. This was bad psychiatry and it turned out to be bad politics.

Hariri's assassination on February 14, 2005, proved that the war's causes had not disappeared. When Hariri died, following his resistance to Syria's scheme to subvert the Lebanese constitution, most Lebanese grasped that the country was too weak to investigate on its own.

So its government turned to the United Nations, which established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The Tribunal, having originally arrested senior Lebanese military officers believed to have collaborated with Syria, indicted four Hizbollah members on June 30 this year.

Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, stated that he would not permit the men to be arrested. Lebanon's government security forces have not served the indictments, and they are not likely to. Understandably, they cannot risk an armed confrontation with Hizbollah.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has now broadened its investigation by linking Hariri's assassination to the killings or attempted killings of other prominent Lebanese critical of Syrian machinations in their country.

These victims include Marwan Hamadeh, a close associate of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who survived a car bomb attack in October 2004 (his injuries were so severe that he has undergone surgery on 14 occasions); Elias Murr, then defence minister, who survived a similar attempt in July 2005; and George Hawi, head of the Lebanese Communist Party, who had turned against his Syrian benefactors and was murdered on June 21, 2005.

Most Lebanese already suspected that those who killed Hariri had also killed Hawi and attempted to kill Mr Hamadeh and Mr Murr. Another person who contested Syria's role in Lebanon at the time was the courageous journalist May Chidiac, who lost a leg and an arm in a car bombing in September 2005.

Others have not been as lucky: Walid Eido, Antoine Ghanem, the journalists Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueini and Phalangist politician Pierre Gemayel all died at the hands of assassins. Gemayel's father, former president Amin Gemayel, accused Syria of killing his son.

The Special Tribunal is confining its inquiry to political assassinations that occurred between 1 October 2004 and 12 December 2005. That remit seems either too wide or too narrow. In theory, the Tribunal should concentrate on Hariri's assassination, as the Lebanese public has demanded.

Or it should broaden the search to include all the cases of political assassination that the state itself cannot cope with? Although some of these crimes are years old, there is no statute of limitations for murder.

A wider brief would deprive Hizbollah, which is still the most powerful actor on the Lebanese stage, of its complaint of victimisation by an American-Israeli conspiracy. It would reduce risk that Hizbollah would tear the state apart to protect itself from an international court.

Lebanon has been the scene of many political assassinations for which no one was called to account. I was living in Beirut in April 1973, when an Israeli commando squad led by future prime minister Ehud Barak shot dead three PLO officials in their beds. Israel later assassinated the PLO security chief, Abu Hassan Salameh, and the Hizbollah leader Abbas Musawi. It does not deny any of these "hits" in Lebanon.

And Syria undoubtedly assassinated Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt in 1977, as well as Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel in 1982. There are other murders in which Syrian or Israeli fingerprints were clear long before Hizbollah came into being. Even the CIA allegedly made an attempt to kill Shiite cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah in 1985.

In limiting its period of inquiry the Special Tribunal is restricting itself to investigating Syria and its allies. With everyone else off the hook, Hizbollah will not cooperate. The Tribunal should make it clear that if political assassination is wrong, it is wrong whoever does it.

Tribunal President Antonio Cassese stated, "Our exclusive aim is to find the truth about the assassination of 14 February 2005 and other possibly connected criminal cases, while upholding the highest international standards of criminal law."

In Lebanon, all the killings are connected. That is why the Lebanese themselves should instigate a commission at which all injured parties may testify. As in South Africa, those who caused the harm should be made to come clean or face prosecution. Too much blood has been spilled in Lebanon for the country to ignore it forever.

 

Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags and The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is also a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books