A United Nations tribunal to investigate and put on trial the assassins of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri opened this week in The Hague, and Hezbollah has been caught running reconnaissance missions outside the grounds.
According to French newspaper Le Monde, Dutch police have caught individuals affiliated with Hezbollah taking photographs of the tribunal headquarters on three separate occasions. A Hezbollah spokesman denies the accusation, of course, and I might even believe him if the police didn’t insist it already happened three times. If one person were caught taking photographs, we might write this off as a fluke or a misunderstanding. Two separate incidents are harder to dismiss. Three make a pattern.
If anyone would have asked me a week ago if I thought Hezbollah might use or even threaten to use force against the tribunal I would have said no, and I would have said no with confidence. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah desperately wants to be thought of as the leader of a “resistance” movement instead of a terrorist army. He spattered his own brand with blood when his fighters, along with armed men from Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, seized West Beirut with automatic weapons last year. But still, in recent years, he has only pointed and fired his weapons at Lebanese and Israelis. Westerners, even Jewish Westerners, have been strictly off limits.
Never forget, though, that Hezbollah has, in the past, used violence against people who are not Lebanese and who are not Israeli.
Until September 11, 2001, Hezbollah was responsible for killing more Americans than any other terrorist organization in the world. A Hezbollah suicide truck bomber killed 241 Marines when he rammed his payload through the gate at the barracks near the airport in the suburbs south of Beirut. Fifty eight French soldiers were killed by another Hezbollah suicide truck bomber in West Beirut two minutes later.
In 1994 another Hezbollah suicide bomber exploded himself and his vehicle outside a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and killed 85 people two years after the same group ignited a car bomb in front of the Israeli embassy there and killed 29.
Hezbollah men armed with pistols and hand grenades hijacked TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome in 1985, and cells led by Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyeh kidnapped 96 foreign civilians – mostly Westerners – between 1982 and 1992. After they kidnapped Beirut’s CIA station chief William Buckley, they tortured him to death, and they did it on video.
Hezbollah has been relatively restrained in recent years, but that’s not because the party has undergone a process of authentic transformation into something a bit more respectable. Hezbollah’s restraint is entirely practical and imposed from the outside. Its leaders and even some of its lower-rung supporters and members are the most paranoid people I have ever met in my life. They are deeply worried about an American assault or CIA-sponsored internal sabotage, and they’re rightly wary about what will happen to them if they start acting like Al Qaeda again. Hezbollah is barely tolerated while its fighters and rocket launch teams limit their violent attacks to their own countrymen and to the citizens of the “Zionist Entity,” but all that will change if Americans and Europeans are blown up or kidnapped again.
“Deduce the political conclusions you want,” Robin Vincent, Registrar of the Special Tribunal, said after the Dutch police filed their recent reports about Hezbollah’s suspicious behavior outside The Hague.
I don’t know what Hezbollah will do. For all I know it is only trying to throw its weight around by using empty threats and scare tactics. Non-violent menacing and harassment of Western journalists, for instance, is part of the job description of its “Media Relations” liaisons. An international tribunal, though, is a far graver threat to its patron and ally in Syria than anything the likes of me could ever write in an American magazine. It’s entirely possible that nothing will happen. It’s also possible that Hassan Nasrallah, for whatever reason, feels more emboldened or daring – or perhaps more dangerously desperate – these days.