Assassination of the Assassin:
Elias Hobeika (1956-2002)


Sami Moubayed


Washington Report On Middle East Affairs


Monday, 1 April 2002

   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 cease-fire 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. It was revealed that President Amin Gemayel (Bashir’s elder brother, who was elected president following Bashir’s assassination) had learned of the offensive and, eager to strike at Syria, had journeyed to army headquarters himself and ordered the raid on Hobeika’s men. 

As a result, Hobeika’s operation failed, and he was briefly exiled to Damascus. Before leaving Beirut, he demonstrated further goodwill toward Assad by shutting down the LF office in Jerusalem and severing all ties with his former ally, Ariel Sharon. 

Hobeika returned to Lebanon at the end of the Gemayel presidency, in 1988. When General Aoun became Lebanon’s next head of state—although one subject to a strong Syrian veto—Hobeika served as an intermediary between Assad and Aoun, visiting the general frequently at the Baabda Palace to try to secure his allegiance to Syria. Hobeika’s efforts were in vain, however, and on Oct. 30, 1990 Damascus ordered a massive operation ousting General Aoun from Baabda and replacing him as president with the civilian politician Elias Hrawi. 

As a reward for his services, in January 1990 Hobeika was appointed minister of state in Prime Minister Omar Karami’s government. His bloody past was written off and he was portrayed as a serious, hard-working and “patriotic” cabinet member. By all accounts, he took his ministerial post seriously and put forth great effort to present himself as a politician and not as a wartime militia leader. 

Further breaking with his past, Hobeika founded his own party, the Wataniyya Almaniyya Dimuqratiyya Party (the National Secular Democratic Party), or Waad (“Promise”) for short, and served as its secretary-general. In May 1990, he was elected as a member of parliament from Beirut. In October 1991 he became minister of the displaced and in October 1992 was appointed minister of social affairs. In June 1993, under Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Hobeika was appointed minister of electricity, a post he held until 1995. In the summer of 1996, having again won the Maronite parliamentary seat for Baabda, he was reappointed minister of water and electricity. 

In 1980, Hobeika became the Lebanese Forces’ link to Tel Aviv. 

Hobeika toyed with the idea of nominating himself for the presidency in 1998, but backed down when the Syrians refused to endorse his program. With Hariri’s backing, he met with Gaegea before the latter was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1994. The meeting took place at Hariri’s residence, and Hobeika called for reconciliation with his archenemy—but under Syrian conditions. “The logic that unites us is that my death means your life and vice-versa,” he told his former ally. “I do not want to bequeath this struggle to my child and don’t want you to bequeath it to yours. I want to see if we can live on the same soil without one of us sending the other to the grave.” 

To Hobeika’s surprise, Geagea’s response was negative.

Matters became shaky again for the former warlord in 1999, when his ex-bodyguard, Robert Maroun Hatem (nicknamed “Cobra”), published a book entitled From Israel to Damascus. In it he confirmed Hobeika’s implication in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Hatem accused Hobeika of having killed his own daughter, Sabine, in 1982 and of bedding the wives and daughters of Lebanon’s political elite. Hobeika also was accused of having plotted to murder then-Education Minister Salim Hoss in 1984. 

When Hoss became prime minister in September 2000 the matter was brought to court. In his memoirs, published in 2001, Hoss confirmed that Hobeika was behind the failed assassination. Hobeika was killed, however, before a verdict in the case was reached. 

Immediately upon the publication of Hatem’s book, other accusations unfolded against Hobeika—including the 1978 assassination of Zhgorta MP Tony Franjiyyieh, the 1982 abduction of four Iranian diplomats, the kidnapping of businessman Roger Tamraz, and a 1985 car bomb that severely injured Sidon MP Moustapha Saad and killed his daughter, Natasha. Hatem also charged that Hobeika had tried to kill Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and “might have been responsible” for the 1982 assassination of Bashir Gemayel. 

Hobeika boldly appeared on national television and confessed to having killed people during the war. “It was not just me who killed,” he added, however. “If you’re going to open old files, there are a number of people who should be brought to stand trial with me.” 

Hobeika was referring in particular to Druze leader Jumblatt, who by then was one of the country’s most celebrated statesmen, and Shi’i leader Nabih Berri, the current speaker of parliament.

Following the storm of accusations Hobeika suffered a political slump, and complained of being “left out” of the country’s political order. Out of office, and apparently losing his popularity in Lebanon, Hobeika decided to give his career a face lift. He re-established ties with the Syrians, journeyed to Damascus to attend Assad’s funeral in 2000, and proposed to resurrect the disbanded LF under his leadership, and with a pro-Syrian agenda. Hard-line Maronites objected to his return, however, claiming that he had become a puppet of Syria and would destroy the party’s Christian spirit. 

During the summer of 2001, Hobeika met frequently with President Emile Lahoud, pleading with him to endorse the project. The president, another Syrian protégé, welcomed Hobeika’s proposal, yet put off an endorsement until the second half of 2002. 

On Jan. 23, 2002 Hobeika broke his long silence on the Sabra and Shatila affair, declaring before a group of visiting Belgian senators that he would be willing to testify in Brussels against Ariel Sharon and prove that the Christians were innocent of the Sabra and Shatila horror. Hobeika claimed to have enough proof against Sharon to convict the Israeli of genocide and keep him in chains for life. Speaking to reporters, he chuckled, “I expect to be killed. I am surprised to have made it for so long.” 

Two days later, on Jan. 25, Elias Hobeika was killed in a massive blast as he drove from his home in East Beirut.

The bomb-rigged Mercedes was parked on the side of a narrow road next to Hobeika’s residence. When Hobeika drove out of his garage, the Mercedes exploded, the force of the blast hurling his body 50 meters away, killing his three bodyguards, and reducing his Range Rover to a pile of twisted metal. 

Investigators said they believed two people were involved in the assassination, one giving a signal when Hobeika’s car rolled out of the garage, and the other detonating the car bomb by remote control. Hobeika landed on the nearby sidewalk, face down, with parts of his body laying on the ground and his bones blackened by the blast. Hearing the 22-pound TNT explosion, many residents of Beirut’s Dikwaneh and Sin al-Fil neighborhoods, some two miles away, initially mistook the blast for a sonic boom caused by frequent Israeli low-altitude overflights. 

Hobeika’s supporters immediately rushed to the scene, sobbing, “They killed President Hobeika!” and repeatedly calling out his wartime nickname, “H.K.” The next morning, however, Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper said of him, “Few who knew of Hobeika’s career will miss him.”

Hobeika’s death has, of course, raised many questions: Who killed him and why? Does his assassination signal the return of war to Lebanon? Was it a declaration of war against Syria and its allies? Was it an attack on traditional Maronite leadership? Or was it intended to keep Hobeika from testifying against Ariel Sharon? 

The answer may be a combination of all of the above. During his turbulent life Elias Hobeika managed to accumulate an array of enemies. Without doubt, many have benefitted greatly from his murder. At the head of the line is Ariel Sharon. The Israeli prime Minister has been burdened with the Belgian trials, trying to shrug off his image as a war criminal and portray himself as a serious statesman. Ironically, in fact, Sharon’s position was in many ways identical to Hobeika’s. To date, Sharon has denied his involvement in the 1982 massacres, claiming instead that it was Hobeika and the Lebanese Christians who opened fire on the Palestinian civilians. Hobeika, however, had given a different story and promised to “reveal” more when the trial opened in Brussels.

The widespread accusation that Sharon was involved in Hobeika’s assassination has been endorsed officially by Lebanon and Syria as well. The theory has its loopholes, however. If Sharon in fact decided to kill Hobeika following the latter’s meeting with the Belgians, could he have done it so quickly? There was only a 48-hour timespan between Hobeika’s meeting and his death, and it would take weeks, even months, to plan such a precise assassination. Hobeika was killed instantly, after all, and the explosion took place in one of the neighborhood’s least populated spots. That was no accident—the perpetrators, had they wished, could have killed Hobeika anywhere, inflicting maximum damage on many civilians as well. However, it was specifically arranged that only Hobeika (and his bodyguards) would be the victims. Such precision could not possibly have been arranged in 48 hours. 

It is also certain, however, that the assassination was very professional—the result, most probably, of lengthy planning, costly equipment and trained manpower. Small-time organizations would be incapable of carrying out such a high-tech assassination. This swings speculation right back to Israel—because only Tel Aviv has the skill to murder someone with such style. It was a great gamble, after all, to assassinate “the assassinator”—someone who, one supposes, was always on guard. 

This raises another question: how is it that “the assassinator” allowed himself to be killed? Hobeika had studied dangerous routes for years—why did he take a route he knew to be unsafe? The road on which he was killed had been paved only a week earlier and had not yet been examined by his bodyguards. Following the blast, it was apparent that Hobeika had been wearing a bulletproof vest—expecting to be shot at, perhaps, but not blown apart. 

Other accusations and theories already have begun to surface in Lebanon. As many of those who knew Hobeika claim, however, the real truth, probably has gone with him to his grave. No one really knew the life and career of Elias Hobeika but Elias Hobeika himself. Likewise, no one but he knows the reason for his death. 

* Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. 

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