In response to hotly contested claims that Hezbollah was responsible for bombing Israeli citizens in Bulgaria last July, immigration minister Jason Kenney called the Lebanese group a “vile anti-Semitic terrorist organization” and urged the European Union to “follow Canada’s lead in listing Hezbollah as a proscribed and illegal terrorist organization.”
Kenney’s comment last week is part of a concerted campaign against a group the Los Angeles Times has called “Lebanon’s largest political party and most potent armed force.” Stephen Harper blamed Hezbollah for Israel’s summer 2006 invasion, Israel’s fifth, of Lebanon, which left 1,100 (mostly civilian) Lebanese dead and much of the country’s infrastructure destroyed. The month after Hezbollah successfully held off the Israeli invasion, foreign minister Peter MacKay said: “Lebanon is being held hostage by Hezbollah. There can be no doubt about that. Hezbollah is a cancer on Lebanon, which is destroying stability and democracy within its boundaries.” For his part, public safety minister Stockwell Day claimed the “stated intent of Hezbollah is to annihilate Jewish people.” (Despite Day and Kenney’s claims, Hezbollah was created in response to Israel’s 1982-2000 occupation of southern Lebanon and its pronouncements suggest it is largely concerned with Israel’s occupation of Arab lands.)
Almost entirely ignored by the Canadian media, the Conservatives’ demonization of Hezbollah gathered steam when Daniel Bellemare, a Canadian official, took charge of the international investigation into the February 2005 assassination of five-time Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. In November 2007 Bellemare, deputy attorney general and special advisor to the deputy minister of justice until October 2007, was appointed commissioner of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) into the bombing that killed Hariri and two dozen others. Concurrently, he was named prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which was set to continue the UNIIIC’s work beginning in March 2009.
Both the internal and international investigations into Hariri’s killing were far from conclusive. Initially, Syrian security officers were implicated in the killings and in the post assassination upheaval Syrian troops were driven from the country. Four Lebanese generals were also incarcerated for four years in the killings but they were released when the evidence against them was dismissed.
In 2010 the Netherlands-based STL began to point its finger at Hezbollah and in August 2011 four members of the Party of God were formally charged in the Hariri killings. But before the charges came down the international investigation was discredited in the eyes of many. A July 2011 survey of 800 Lebanese, sponsored by leading Arabic-language daily As-Safir, found that 60 percent of the country believed the international probe was politicized. The poll also found widespread distrust of Bellemare, who was accused of being pro-Israel and anti-Hezbollah. He also had suspiciously close relations with US officials.
Just after Bellemare issued the indictments against four individuals with ties to Hezbollah Lebanese daily Al Akbar published a detailed article on the Canadian titled “UN Tribunal: A Prosecutor’s ‘Tunnel Vision’” (translated by its English edition). “An example of this bias appears in paragraph 59 of the indictment, where Bellemare states that ‘all four accused are supporters of Hezbollah, which is a political and military organization in Lebanon. In the past, the military wing of Hezbollah has been implicated in terrorist acts.’ Bellemare does not offer a reference supporting his assertion that Hezbollah was involved in terrorism, and, so far, no international judicial body has issued a decision describing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In fact, there is no international consensus surrounding Hezbollah’s ‘terrorism’ status, and the UN does not recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Several countries, including the US, Israel, and Canada have officially labeled the group as a terrorist organization — though, notably, the European Union has not. Bellemare seemingly chose to include his personal political opinion and perhaps the views of some of his colleagues in an international indictment.”
Many Lebanese believe the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad had a hand in Hariri’s death yet Bellemare refused to say if he interviewed any Israeli suspects. A TV station linked to Hezbollah, Al Manar, claimed Bellemare “lost credibility” for his “politicized tribunal” because he was unwilling to investigate Israel’s possible implication in the killings. The “Israeli enemy is ‘innocent’ and will remain so in the eyes of the international community and the STL Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare.”
The most damning evidence against Bellemare came from the US State Department. A series of US diplomatic cables, released by Wikileaks, suggest he worked closely with the US embassy in Beirut. On one occasion Bellemare asked US officials for information on Syria and for help in convincing the British to assist an investigation committee. The former deputy attorney general also requested two temporary FBI investigators be paid by the US. An October 2008 cable from the ambassador in Beirut to Washington read: “Bellemare showed a good understanding of the problems [for the US] associated with complying … but his frustration was nonetheless evident: ‘You are the key player [he said]. If the US doesn’t help me, who will?’” The US embassy gave Bellemare “an ‘excellence’ preliminary assessment for his effort and determination, and we urge Washington to exert every effort to respond to the investigation committee’s request related to the information and support.”
Hezbollah claimed the Wikileaks cables confirmed that the US manipulated the probe. “The information leaked on meetings between the prosecutor and the US ambassador confirms what we have always said — that the US administration is using the court and the investigation committee as a tool to target the resistance [to Israel, i.e. Hezbollah],” noted Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah in December 2010.
In January 2011 the Lebanese government collapsed when 10 cabinet ministers and one presidential appointee withdrew over then Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s refusal to reject the STL. At the start of 2011 many feared that the STL’s expected indictment of Hezbollah members could re-ignite the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1975-1990. This didn’t bother Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke in favour of the STL and announced $10 million in added funding for the floundering tribunal. The US ambassador in Lebanon Maura Connelly said “the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is an irrevocable, international judicial process; its work is not a matter of politics but of law.” Even President Obama chimed in, saying the STL’s first indictment could end an “era of impunity” and that it was “a significant and emotional time for the Lebanese people.”
In the first 10 weeks of 2011 Foreign Affairs released three statements that dealt with the STL. On January 13 the ministry complained about the dissolution of Lebanon’s government over the matter. “These resignations are an attempt to subvert a safe and secure Lebanon and cannot be tolerated. Hezbollah’s actions in bringing down the government are a clear attempt to undermine the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Canada believes that the work of the Special Tribunal should go forward so that justice can be served.” A follow-up statement explained: “We urge the future Lebanese government to continue to support and cooperate with the Tribunal and to continue to uphold its obligations under UN Security Council resolutions on Lebanon.” In March 2011 the Conservatives gave a further $1 million contribution to the STL. “Canada has been a strong supporter of the Tribunal, having already contributed $3.7 million to the voluntarily funded Tribunal since 2007,” explained foreign minister Cannon.
An August 2011 Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) report, detailed in Montréal daily La Presse, found that “many Lebanese consider the work of the STL an inquest led by Canadians.” At the time more than 20 Canadians were involved in the Tribunal’s work and last March another Canadian replaced Bellemare. According to CSIS, this country’s association with the highly divisive tribunal increased the likelihood of Canadians being targeted.
The Conservatives latest salvo against Hezbollah is another reminder that the Harper government has sided with the US and Israel against most Lebanese.
Yves Engler’s latest book is The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s foreign policy