Who Killed Elie Hobeika?
In a part of the world where vendettas run long and there is notoriety to spare, few individuals could claim to be as notorious as Lebanon's Elie Hobeika, the onetime Lebanese Forces militia commander held directly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres of 1982. At the time Hobeika was one of the most vigorous supporters of Israel's invasion of Lebanon; three years later he switched sides and became a vocal supporter of Syria's presence. To some Lebanese he was doubly a turncoat; in any event he had made lots of enemies.
Which enemy it was who caught up with Hobeika on January 24 is still somewhat unclear, but a Mercedes packed with explosives exploded as Hobeika's Range Rover passed, and he and three of his bodyguards died.
The Lebanese government blamed Israel, noting that Hobeika had indicated publicly that he planned to testify at the proceedings in Belgium under which Sabra and Shatila survivors are seeking to bring a case against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (who had been Defense Minister in 1982 and oversaw the Lebanese invasion) for crimes against humanity. By this argument, Israel was taking out a potential witness against Sharon.
That interpretation is not impossible: Israel has used assassination extensively, and while Sharon has tended to be dismissive of the Belgian legal action, it has had no use for Hobeika since his turn to Syria in the mid-1980s. Some Israeli media noted that Israel had at least as much incriminating evidence against Hobeika as he could possibly have against Israel, which is almost certainly true.
But a Syrian radio broadcast calling Hobeika "the last victim of Sabra and Shatila" seemed unlikely to sit well with Palestinians either, since Hobeika was also the unindicted perpetrator of Sabra and Shatila.
He had served as intelligence chief and a senior commander in the Lebanese Forces militia, and in 1985 replaced Samir Geagea as the overall commander. But a few months later, he shifted his own allegeiance to Syria, and was ousted as leader of the Lebanese Forces. His alliance with Syria represented a canny recognition of which way the wind was blowing, and once the Syrian hegemony was consolidated and the civil war ended, Hobeika served two terms in Parliament (he was defeated for re-election in 2000) and also served in the Cabinet with several ministerial portfolios. When he was Minister of Disabled and Social Affairs, his enemies noted that he had helped create many of the disabled.
Though those blaming Israel (which included Lebanese Interior Minister Elias Murr) were the clear majority in the Arab world, Hobeika had other enemies. A great many Palestinians still see him as the butcher of Sabra and Shatila, and if officially they blame Israel for the ultimate responsibility, they know quite well that it was Hobeika who was in command on the ground in September 1982.
And in June of last year, Hobeika gave a strange press conference in which he announced that at an appropriate time, he would "reveal many important secrets that deal with many people". It was never entirely clear who was being threatened here, but some observers suggested that Hobeika, having lost his bid for re-election to Parliament, had had a falling-out with Syria and was threatening to go public with information which would embarrass Damascus or, according to some versions, Ghazi Kanan, Syria's intelligence chief and virtual viceroy in Lebanon.
In other words, Israel is a prime suspect but there are plenty of others. The other warlord families of the civil war era in many cases lost relatives to Hobeika. Hobeika's predecessor as chief of the Lebanese Forces has spent most of the past decade in prison while Hobeika held Cabinet posts. And Hobeika seems to have fallen out somewhat with his Syrian patrons in the past two years, and they could have felt that he was threatening them in his remarks last year. Or, simply the fact that Hobeika was no longer under the Syrian protective umbrella might have been enough to declare a sort of open season on him.
Hobeika was perhaps the ultimate symbol of the dark side of the Lebanese civil war (there was very little bright side): a man who changed allegiances readily but was an aggressive and ambitious figure in pursuit of the interest of his ally, whether Israel or Syria. He was the sort of man who, when someone finally killed him, the question was not whether he had any enemies who wanted him dead, but rather which among the many candidates actually did it.
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