Conflict on the Horizon as Indictments Loom for Lebanon Tribunal

Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Shia Islamist group, Hizbullah, recently threatened to “cut off the hands” of anyone blaming Hizbollah for the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.  The country many hoped and believed was on a path toward healing is again on the verge of street battles. And this time, the conflict trigger is the reconciliation process itself.

Nasrallah’s threat is likely aimed at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon which is about to announce an indictment against those accused of killing Hariri in a car bombing.  According to a Lebanese journalist I asked to confirm, many Lebanese are afraid of large scale violence stemming from protectors of the accused lashing out at those who backed the investigation.

The BBC’s Middle East correspondant Wyre Davies quotes Habib Zoghbi, a political analyst: “There have been too many assassinations in the past, in Lebanon,” Zoghbi said. “This will not stop if this tribunal does not continue and doesn’t say who are the real people responsible for this killing.” Meanwhile, Hussein, a weapons trader, told the reporter: “Almost all levels of society are expecting civil war.”

After Lebanon’s complex 1975-1990 Civil War, there was a period of strong recovery but never a resolution of the core tensions between the major political parties. While a Western-friendly set of parties often maintained control of the government and welcomed the UN, the radical party, Hizbollah, part of the government opposition, maintained quasi-autonomous control over the south of the country bordering Israel.

When Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was killed in 2005, the political scene split with many accusing Syria and/or Hizbollah, and others claiming criminal gangs had done the killing. By the time the UN and the government agreed to create the Tribunal to find the truth, Hizbullah apparently believed the investigation would be a sham to give the government, now led by Hariri’s son, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, cause to counter the power of Hizbullah.

Primarily focused on alleviating tension over the government’s handling of relations to Israel since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, the UN has been meeting with Lebanese leaders from each side, including Hizbollah.

If the Tribunal releases an indictment accusing any association between the indicted individuals and Hizbollah, many radicals in Shia Islamic neighborhoods around the country will likely stage protests accusing the government of Hariri’s son which is friendly to the West of provoking the group.

If the indictment discloses no relationship between the killers and Hizbollah, the country may remain calm, but many may wonder whether the Tribunal backed down from opposing the powerful Hizbollah. Either way, Nasrallah’s threat is a reminder that however far Lebanon has come in healing and rebuilding, every next step is delicate.