Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Letter from the Levant: Assassination of the Assassin; Elias Hobeika (1956-2002)

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Letter from the Levant: Assassination of the Assassin; Elias Hobeika (1956-2002)

Article excerpt

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

The following is the story of Elias Hobeika, who lived and died turbulently as one of the most controversial figures in Lebanon's modern history.

Born in the Maronite stronghold of Kiserwan in 1956, Elias Hobeika began his political career at the height of the PLO's supremacy in Lebanon, where Yasser Arafat's forces had come for sanctuary after their expulsion from Jordan in 1970. In 1972, Hobeika joined the pan-Maronite Phalange Party of Bashir Gemayel. The two spoke out against the Palestinian presence, calling for Arafat's expulsion from Lebanon and accusing the PLO of having occupied Beirut and abandoned its struggle for Palestine.

Hobeika championed Gemayel's charismatic leadership and advocated increased Maronite hegemony in Lebanon. Gemayel appointed him director of the Phalange intelligence unit and leader of the party's military apparatus, called the Lebanese Forces (LF). During the country's civil war, he was code-named "H.K.," after an automatic machine gun called a "Heckler and Koch," used in the battle of Karantina in 1978.

When, in an effort to secure a Palestinian exodus from Lebanon, the Phalange allied itself with Israel in 1980, Hobeika became the party's link to Tel Aviv. He traveled frequently to Israel, meeting with then-Prime Minister Menahem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, and helped orchestrate the Israeli invasion of Beirut in June 1982. By then he had become the party's second-in-command.

In September of that year, Bashir Gemayel, who recently had been elected president of the republic, was assassinated in Beirut. Many speculated that Hobeika might have been responsible, since Gemayel was the only obstacle to his ascension to party leadership. Hobeika denied the charges, however, wept for Gemayel, then collaborated with the party's traditional leaders to expel Gemayel family ally and LF commander Fouad Abu Nadir from his post in 1983. Hobeika became head of the party's executive committee and his ally Samir Geagea, a trained medical doctor, was appointed chief of staff.

In revenge for the killing of Gemayel, Hobeika led a crack force of LF warriors into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982, giving his troops orders to "kill anyone in sight." Old men, women and children were mowed down in one of the ugliest bloodbaths of the Arab world. In all, an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Palestinian civilians were killed. The slaughter had such negative repercussions that Sharon was removed from his post for having known of the massacre in advance and having abetted its execution. Hobeika, however, shrugged it off, refusing to mention it in public. Soon afterward, however, Hobeika clashed with Geagea, and on Jan. 15, 1986, Hobeika was ousted from his post and banished from the ranks of the Phalange party, never to return.

Hobeika drifted into the Syrian orbit when it became evident that Damascus would get the upper hand in Lebanon. He traveled to the Syrian capital, met with President Hafez Al-Assad, and promised to relinquish all ties to Israel and work to end the civil war under Syrian auspices. On Dec. 28, 1985, Hobeika signed the Tripartite Agreement in Damascus with Shi'i and Druze leaders Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblatt. Brokered by Syrian Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam, it called for an immediate ceasefire between the warring militias.

Back in Beirut, Hobeika began plotting his comeback, and the elimination of Samir Geagea. On Sept. 28, 1986, from his headquarters in Beirut's posh Verdun neighborhood, Hobeika sent a group of militiamen into East Beirut under cover of the Syrian army. This time his orders were to "capture and kill the doctor." An earlier agreement with Lebanese army commander Michel Aoun guaranteed that government troops would turn a blind eye and let Hobeika's forces attack Geagea.

In the midst of the fighting, however, war planes arrived and began shelling Hobeika's troops. …

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