The Middle East Channel

The best defense

The best defense

This evening, in Lebanon’s most widely anticipated press conference in recent memory, Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah presented his party’s case against Israel in the matter of the 2005 assassination of billionaire former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

Even by Nasrallah’s standards, who is one of his generation’s most gifted orators, the event was a masterpiece of political theater. Over the course of two hours, Nasrallah presented "material evidence" suggesting that Israel had been engaged in preparations for some sort of covert operation in Lebanon immediately prior to al-Hariri’s assassination on Feb. 14, 2005.

The most significant and surprising piece of evidence came in the form of footage obtained from Israeli unmanned surveillance drones. Nasrallah revealed that Hizbullah had acquired the technical ability, some time in the early 1990s, to tap into the direct video feeds that passed from the many reconnaissance drones circulating in Lebanon’s skies to the Israeli military command. What kind of qualitative edge did this breakthrough afford the party, and what implications would it have upon the five-year-long investigation into Hariri’s murder?

This technological leap forward, said Nasrallah, enabled the party to study the areas under Israeli surveillance, which in some cases provided valuable counter-espionage information. On one such occasion in 1996, Hizbullah used this intelligence to lay an ambush at a spot they believed would be the scene of a future operation. Several months later, they were proven right when Israeli naval commandoes landed off the coast of Lebanon and proceeded precisely to that spot, near the village of Ansariyya, where a bloody firefight ensued.

Drawing upon an archive of surveillance footage, Nasrallah attempted to demonstrate that Israel was engaged in monitoring the routes that Rafiq al-Hariri traveled in the months building up to his assassination. This evidence, along with the confessions of recently arrested Israeli collaborators in Lebanon, represented the basis of Hizbullah’s accusation.

The next several days will witness several rounds of discussion and debate about the credibility of Nasrallah’s presentation. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that the revelation of Hizbullah’s ability to access Israeli surveillance footage will be regarded as a stunning feat and another feather in Hizbullah’s cap. Not since the famous "burning ship" address during the July War — during which real-time footage of an Israeli Navy corvette engulfed in flames after being hit by two anti-ship missiles was displayed — has Hizbullah’s military prowess been demonstrated in so public a fashion.

On the other hand, many will not be convinced by Nasrallah’s evidence, suggesting that a few snippets of footage cut out of 10 years of surveillance do not amount to proof of Israel’s involvement. Others will wonder why the party did not make this evidence available earlier and why they now insist on handing it over to a Lebanese commission, rather than cooperating directly with the U.N. Special Tribunal.

The short-term result of this new development will be the simple fact that the Lebanese will now have two different sources of authority on the question of who killed Rafiq al-Hariri. Just as the old binaries of the 2005-09 period were fading away (March 14 vs. March 8, loyalists vs. opposition, etc.), a new one has arisen to take their place. The questions the Lebanese will now ask eachother will be: "Do you believe the U.N. or Hizbullah?"  "Which story is more convincing?" "Which evidence is more compelling?"

Public opinion on these questions is far more important than one would think. As Nasrallah himself suggested toward the end of his press conference, the political value of an indictment against Hizbullah members lies less in the potential for implicating senior officials or foreign governments than in the ability to tarnish Hizbullah’s image in Lebanon and throughout the Sunni Muslim world. By presenting an alternative narrative to the version of events that will be laid out, presumably, in the coming months by the U.N. prosecutor, Nasrallah is attempting to paint the STL — in the most vivid colors possible — as an American/Israeli tool targeting the resistance.

In the eye of the storm is Saad al-Hariri, the victim’s son and Lebanon’s current Prime Minister, who has been the primary champion of the STL’s mission to find and punish his father’s killers. On the eve of an indictment, the tribunal that helped Hariri build the political movement that he leads today now threatens to place him in an impossible position. Far from strengthening his hand in Lebanon and promoting the interests of his international allies, Hariri is faced with the possibility that the multi-million dollar, five-year investigation will deliver a verdict that he must publicly denounce, or else risk losing control of the country.

Caught between the need to maintain his political position and the determination to prosecute his father’s cause, Hariri’s ultimate decision about the STL is likely to determine whether Lebanon continues along its current path of cautious consensual politics, or whether it finds itself, once again, on the brink of a major sectarian conflict.

Elias Muhanna writes the Lebanese political blog He is a Ph.D. candidate in Arabic and Islamic studies at Harvard University.