x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Hizbollah positions Nasrallah's successor

Fears over a possible assassination of Hizbollah's supreme commander have led the group to name an emergency successor should an attempt succeed.

BEIRUT // Fears over a possible assassination of Hizbollah's supreme commander have led the group to name an emergency successor should an attempt succeed, say members of the group. In the case of an assassination of Sheikh Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, the general secretary, the group would be led by his cousin Sayyid Hashim Safei al Deen, who heads Hizbollah's executive branch, according to two members of Hizbollah who spoke to The National and requested anonymity for security purposes. The officials also cited internal security reasons for refusing to give any additional information other than confirming the question of succession. Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese scholar who specialises in Hizbollah, confirmed that Mr Safei al Deen had been selected as at least the temporary replacement for Sheikh Nasrallah, who is rumoured to be a target for assassination by the Israeli government. "It's been common knowledge for sometime that he would take over should something happen to Nasrallah," she said. "Just as Nasrallah was once head of the executive branch, that's al Deen's role today. It looks like that job is a position where future leaders of the group are groomed." A spokesman for Hizbollah refused to comment, as did several members of Hizbollah's parliamentary bloc. Israel has long targeted Hizbollah officials for assassination and increased their threatening rhetoric towards Sheikh Nasrallah in the wake of the July 2006 war, repeatedly mentioning the possibility of an assassination attempt. In 1992, an Israeli helicopter used missiles to kill the then leader Abbas Moussawi and his wife and children while they were driving in a car in Lebanon. In 1997, Israeli intelligence agents were then caught attempting to poison Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader, in Amman. In February, Hizbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh was killed in a car bombing in Damascus. The Israeli government, however, has denied responsibility. Israel has also used air strikes to eliminate much of the leadership of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, considering political leaders as legitimate military targets. As a result of these policies, Sheikh Nasrallah has greatly increased his personal security since 2006 and rarely appears in public, preferring to give speeches by closed-circuit television. Hizbollah is one of the most secretive militant groups in the region, despite having a massive and overt political presence in Lebanon. Its officials rarely grant interviews, its fighters remain almost completely anonymous and both the foreign and local media are rarely allowed inside the group's deliberations. Hizbollah runs its own newspapers and news channel to communicate directly with its followers. A journalist with close ties to the group - who asked that his name not be used in discussing the matter - said it remains unclear if the succession plan was intended to be permanent or if Mr Safei al Deen would be a temporary commander of the group. "I feel as though Hizbollah would not discuss this matter publicly at all due to security reasons, it's not in their nature to talk about what would happen in whatever scenario," he said. "But it was well-known in Lebanon that Nasrallah was the heir to Moussawi when he took command of the group. So perhaps they have made a [long-term] decision." Ms Saad-Ghorayeb said the group tends to be organised and unified on such matters, leaving her convinced that the plan is for long-term succession. "Hizbollah is not the type of group that a leadership change would have wide-ranging implications," she said. "All the leaders of the different [parts of Hizbollah] make these decisions together and while they might debate policies and [Lebanese] political action, there's no real tension between internal factions on what to do with Israel. "Remember, this is not a political party with a military wing; it's a resistance organisation that has a political wing. There's no 'Let's be moderate towards Israel'-faction." mprothero@thenational.ae