The leader of Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah confirmed for the first time late Wednesday that a tribunal investigating the murder of a former Lebanese prime minister has summoned several members of the party for questioning.
But Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah rejected accusations that his party had a hand in the assassination of Rafik Hariri in a February 2005 truck bomb blast, claiming that such allegations were intended to weaken the “resistance,” a term used for Hezbollah’s formidable military apparatus.
“We have been a target for years,” he said in a live interview on the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar television. “Destroying Hezbollah is a dream. The objective is to distort Hezbollah’s image and pressure and intimidate the party.”
Nasrallah’s comments came in response to heightened speculation that the international tribunal investigating Hariri’s murder has uncovered evidence implicating Hezbollah members and may issue indictments before the end of the year.
But if a court case goes ahead against Hezbollah, it could have dire consequences for Lebanon’s internal stability, which lately has recovered from several years of political turmoil and violence in the aftermath of Hariri’s assassination.
“If the tribunal issues indictments against senior Hezbollah officials, the [peaceful] phase that Lebanon is currently experiencing will almost certainly come to an end,” says Elias Muhanna, a Lebanese political analyst and author of the influential Lebanese affairs blog Qifa Nabki.
The flurry of speculation about a possible indictment was prompted by the arrival in Beirut two weeks ago of a delegation from the tribunal, which is based in The Netherlands, to question several members of Hezbollah’s security apparatus.
In the interview, Nasrallah said that 12 members of Hezbollah or people linked to the party had been summoned “as witnesses, not suspects,” and said that six more could be called for questioning shortly.
Complaints of leaks
Accusing the tribunal of leaking information to the media implicating Hezbollah, Nasrallah said that he would continue cooperating with the investigation, but served notice that if the leaks continue “it is my right to take a different stance.”
Hezbollah has repeatedly denied involvement in the assassination since the allegations were first raised in May last year by the German news weekly, Der Spiegel.
Syria, which politically dominated Lebanon at the time of Hariri’s assassination, has been the chief suspect since the investigation began. Although Syria’s suspected involvement has not been ruled out, and there are indications that investigators are having difficulties uncovering evidence linking individuals in Damascus to the assassination, according to Western diplomats and officials who have been briefed on aspects of the tribunal’s investigation.
Irrespective of whether Hezbollah played a role in Hariri’s assassination, the party’s rank and file say they are convinced that the accusations are an attempt by the United States and Israel to weaken the organization militarily.
Hezbollah includes a formidable military component that fought Israel to a standstill in a month-long war in July 2006. Since then, Hezbollah has undergone an extensive recruitment, training, and rearmament drive in preparation for the possibility of another war with Israel. Israeli officials say that Hezbollah is now armed with more than 40,000 rockets, some with ranges capable of reaching Tel Aviv and some fitted with guidance systems to strike specific infrastructure and military targets, such as airfields.
Fears of another war erupting have been running high for months, but Hezbollah military commanders say that addressing the potential ramifications of the tribunal has become an immediate priority.
“The Americans are trying to use the tribunal as a weapon against us,” says Abu Mehdi, a Hezbollah unit commander who asked that his full name not be used. “Before we can confront Israel, we must prepare the home ground so that no one in Lebanon can take advantage of the tribunal to weaken us.”
'Anything is possible'
Asked if that included the possibility of armed members of Hezbollah taking to the streets to defend the “resistance,” Abu Mehdi said “anything is possible."
In May 2008, militants from Hezbollah and its political allies overran the mainly Sunni western half of Beirut and clashed for several days with Druze fighters in the hills overlooking the capital. The fighting was sparked by a decision of the then US-backed government to shut down Hezbollah’s private communications network, a move that Nasrallah at the time said constituted a “red line."
The brief but fierce clashes left over 100 people dead and brought the country to the brink of civil war. An agreement brokered by Qatar ended the violence and eased three years of political deadlock. However, the relative calm of the past two years could be threatened and sectarian wounds between Shiites and Sunnis reopened if the tribunal accuses members of Hezbollah of involvement in the assassination of Hariri, a Sunni.
The rumblings of unease are echoing in political and media circles in Lebanon.
Wiam Wahhab, a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician, warned on Sunday following a meeting with the Spanish ambassador to Beirut against the “politicization” of the tribunal, an outcome that could “wreak havoc” in Lebanon.
“Definitely this process [the tribunal] will affect everything in Lebanon and the international organizations in it,” he said, in an apparent reference to the 13,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, to which Spain is a key troop contributor. “Matters will get out of everyone’s hand at that time,” he added.
Wahhab’s comments were interpreted by some in Lebanon as a veiled threat against UNIFIL, prompting the Spanish ambassador to reportedly seek a clarification.
A statement released Wednesday by the March 14 coalition, a political opponent of Hezbollah, slammed the “poisonous atmosphere” surrounding the tribunal’s work and criticized threats “to shake internal stability”.
Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister and son of Rafik Hariri, on Monday reiterated his support for the tribunal, saying that it was a “big component of stability in Lebanon."
“We will accept any decision that comes out of the tribunal, whatever it is,” he said.
Yet, Hariri could face an impossible situation if the tribunal issues indictments for Hezbollah members. Hariri heads a coalition cabinet which includes a member of Hezbollah. Any attempt to compel Hezbollah to comply with the tribunal’s demands could result in the collapse of the government, analysts say.
“The net result? Paralysis, instability, and uncertainty,” says Mr. Muhanna, the political analyst.