The U.N. Special Tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri has indicted four members of Hezbollah. In August, a clash along the Israeli-Lebanese border followed news that the indictments were coming. If that is how Hezbollah reacted to the reports of the indictments, then Israel must prepare for an even stronger reaction now that the indictments have actually been issued.
The Special Tribunal seeks the arrest of four members of Hezbollah, including Mustafa Badreddine, the brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyah, the group’s operational commander who was killed in 2008. Additional indictments may follow, including non-Lebanese nationals. It has been reported that the investigators have evidence that Syrian intelligence was involved, as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps acting on orders of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The evidence against Hezbollah is thick. The investigators tied Hezbollah members to 28 phones connected to the assassination. One phone was tied to Abd al-Majid Ghamlush, a Hezbollah member who was trained in Iran and has gone missing. A Hezbollah commander in South Beirut named Hajj Salim is also suspected of playing a role as the overseer of a “Special Operations Unit” also run by Badreddine. One of the key providers of this information, Captain Wissam Eid, was killed in a car bombing similar to that which killed Hariri.
The indictments undermine Hezbollah’s mantra that it is a “resistance force,” and exposes the group as a proxy for foreign governments. The reactions of the terrorist group and its state sponsors show that they are aware of the steep political costs that they face. On August 3, a likely Hezbollah-engineered provocation happened on the Israeli-Lebanese border as it appeared that indictments were near. Israel informed UNIFIL that its soldiers were going to trim trees and bushes along the border, as had been regularly done. Two Israeli soldiers were fired upon by a Lebanese sniper, killing one. The Israelis responded, killing two Lebanese soldiers and one journalist. The journalist belonged to a pro-Hezbollah newspaper. The U.N. confirmed that the Israelis did not cross the border, as the Lebanese claimed.
Hassan Nasrallah held a press conference soon afterwards, where he alleged that the real perpetrators of the assassination were Israeli intelligence agents. He showed footage that he asserted was from Israeli drones recording Hariri’s travel route, and claimed that an arrested Lebanese spy for Israel confessed that the Mossad had conducted surveillance on the murder scene. Hezbollah has since reiterated these accusations.
Iranian President Ahmadinejad visited Lebanon in October to express solidarity with Hezbollah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps paid an author $1 million to write a book claiming that Israel killed Hariri using an American missile. Syrian President Assad likewise said he’d stand by Hezbollah, and warned that the indictments could “destroy” Lebanon. The Syrian regime put out arrest warrants for 33 Lebanese officials for supposedly lying to the U.N. Special Tribunal.
In January, Hezbollah and its allies collapsed the Lebanese government to prevent it from cooperating with the U.N. Special Tribunal, replacing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah toppled him even though he had reached out to the terrorist group and Syrian President Assad. According to one account, Saad Hariri even told Assad that he’d accuse an “external element” of framing Hezbollah if the group was indicted for killing his father. He and his political allies have since staged large protests against Hezbollah.
These actions by Hezbollah and its allies reveal their fear of the affects of the indictments. Nasrallah has vowed to “cut off the hand” of anyone trying to arrest Hezbollah members. This raises the likelihood that Hezbollah will provoke a conflict, as the group and its state sponsors often use tension with Israel to try to rally support, with the Nakba Day incidents being the latest examples. Hezbollah now has over 50,000 rockets at its disposal, and Israel has revealed the existence of a vast network in Lebanon of 550 underground bunkers, 300 monitoring sites, and 100 weapons depots in 270 villages. Many of these weapons stockpiles are located in or near private homes, hospitals and schools. If Hezbollah and its backers decide that a war with Israel will suit their political interests, then more destruction than was seen in 2006 could follow.
If the Lebanese government does not comply with the U.N. Special Tribunal, then it is a state sponsor of terrorism and should be designated as such. The House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Ileana Ros-Lehtien, supports ending U.S. aid to Lebanon now that the government is controlled by Hezbollah. The terrorist group and its state sponsors, especially the Syrian regime, are in a vulnerable position and the West must take advantage of it. According to Israeli intelligence, the Iranian regime had to cut its aid to Hezbollah by 40 percent because of its economic decline. The U.N. indictments also threaten Hezbollah’s popular support, as does the terrorist group’s endorsement of Syrian President Assad amidst his bloody attempts to suppress the uprising against his rule.
Like a wounded animal, Hezbollah is likely to violently lash out in the wake of the U.N. indictments. Fighting Israel has always been Hezbollah’s claim to legitimacy. The group’s pattern of instigating conflict to alleviate pressure means that Israel should brace itself.