‘Snake Eat Snake’

‘Snake Eat Snake’

A few years ago, one of Lebanon’s giddier periodicals, suitably titled Prestige, published as its cover story an interview with a Lebanese celebrity.


A few years ago, one of Lebanon’s giddier periodicals, suitably titled Prestige, published as its cover story an interview with a Lebanese celebrity. The photograph adorning the front of the magazine was that of a blue-suited, cleanshaven man in his mid-40s, radiating the serene gravitas expected of a government minister, which is what he was. The magazine was distributed to the inner sanctums of Lebanon’s vanity fair. The response was a collective nod of approval. One could almost overlook that the object of this attention was someone who had, in an earlier incarnation, ordered a militia under his command into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila, where they boisterously dispatched an estimated 1,000 civilians, give or take a few score.

In the past weeks the man in the photograph, Elias Hobeika, one of the more fascinating of Lebanon’s former warlords, has had to contend with a decidedly more hostile publication. His disgruntled onetime bodyguard, Robert Maroun Hatem, alias Cobra, has produced a book recounting Hobeika’s purported crimes and misdeeds, during the civil war (which began in 1975 and ended in 1990) and afterward. But his is more than a tell-all undertaking: Once the leading figure in the Christian Lebanese Forces militia, Hobeika, thanks to an alliance with Syria, was rewarded at war’s end with a succession of ministerial portfolios, until the formation of a new government last December. That is why Hatem not only hits out at a prop of the postwar establishment, he implicitly questions the foundations on which Lebanon’s postwar contract rests–a contract that has openly accepted former militia leaders as members of the political and financial establishment while prescribing absolution with regard to their wartime activities.

The book, From Israel to Damascus: The Painful Road of Blood, Betrayal and Deception, has been banned by the Lebanese authorities. However, what they appear to have forbidden, not very successfully, is a book that few have actually seen. Rather, Hatem’s tome has circulated almost exclusively in photocopied versions. The book is available on the Internet (at www.israeltodamascus.com) and in the United States, and can be purchased from Amazon for the robust fee of $42.99, deliverable in one to two weeks. The publisher, Pride International Publications, appears to be bringing out the book as a one-shot arrangement. The book is unedited and written in appalling English, a curious choice of languagein itself, and the photographs are placed any which way. From Israel to Damascus is a desktop machete job. However, from the reactions on the Amazon Web site–the book ranks 305th in sales–it appears to be making its way to Lebanese readers.

Hatem has a score to settle with Hobeika, though in the book it is not made clear why. When men of their temperament quarrel, the motive is usually money. Cobra is reserved when recording his baser motives, but he does admit that, not long ago, he threatened to expose an insurance scam of Hobeika’s, only to accept a payoff to keep quiet. Fear of retribution is, apparently, what persuaded him to leave Lebanon, and he is reportedly now residing in France. A more interesting question is, Who is behind the book? One theory prevails, and is relatively easily deduced from an examination of the text. Of this, however, more later.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Elias Hobeika is from a relatively humble background, which the war allowed him to overcome. Although he comes from the mountain town of Baskinta, his rise to power took place in Beirut, specifically the proletarian neighborhood of Jemmayzeh, where Lebanon’s leading Maronite Christian party, the Phalange, once controlled the streets. Hobeika was involved in the Lebanese war from the start, and his higher education was desultory. When, at their first encounter, in the mid-eighties, Syrian vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam asked him what diploma he had earned, Hobeika responded, “A license in commerce and war.”

Hobeika’s promotion was methodical and relentless. Barely 20 in 1975 when the war started, Hobeika was soon absorbed into the retinue of Bashir Gemayel, the son of the Phalange party leader, Pierre Gemayel. He joined the elite “B.G.” unit of the Lebanese Forces, the armed wing of the Phalange, which Bashir eventually split off from the party and established as his independent power base. Hobeika, sharp and furtive, became head of the Third Branch, responsible for “special military operations.” One of his tasks was to supervise the training of Christian militiamen in Israel, where he himself had been tutored. (By 1976, the Israelis and Christians were collaborating against the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies.) More significant, Hobeika became Bashir Gemayel’s enforcer in the Christian-controlled areas.

By the summer of 1982, when the Israelis invaded Lebanon to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization and bring Gemayel to power, Hobeika had been named head of intelligence. Gemayel was elected the country’s president but was assassinated in a bombing before taking office. A few days after the assassination, Hobeika, with Israeli assistance, sent his men into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. The episode scarcely interrupted his ascent: By 1985 he was vying for leadership of the Lebanese Forces and decided to deal openly with the Syrians, his erstwhile enemies. This alarmed Hobeika’s nemesis in the Lebanese Forces leadership, Samir Geagea, who, fearing greater Syrian control over the Christian areas, ordered his men against Hobeika’s. Hobeika was defeated, fled to Paris, then landed in Syria before returning to Lebanon. By 1990, when the Syrians ended the war by evicting the quixotic army commander Michel Aoun (who had for two years been leading a military government in the predominantly Christian areas of Lebanon while a Syrian-backed administration ruled in predominantly Muslim areas), Hobeika was high on the list of beneficiaries. Lebanon’s wars ended and Hobeika was offered, in addition to a ministry, a parliamentary seat. With exquisite humor, the Syrians gave him Pierre Gemayel’s.

It is more or less this trajectory that Cobra describes in the first two-thirds of his book. Virtually from the beginning, Cobra became part of Hobeika’s inner circle, ironically after the two nearly came to blows in their first encounter. Hobeika’s rise, Cobra insists, came with a considerable price in blood. Such an observation can be expected from an embittered former employee, but it raises another question: How much should one believe in a book replete with startling revelations that are difficult to verify?

The answer is that it is best to tread carefully. One is willing to accept, with little difficulty, the worst about Hobeika. However, it is reasonable to assume that since Cobra has an ax to grind, his revelations are designed as much to destroy Hobeika’s political career as to inform.

There are, generally speaking, two types of situations in From Israel to Damascus: Those in which Cobra participated personally and those for which, because he was not directly involved, he can only offer interpretations. When Cobra speaks firsthand, his book is persuasive. When he speculates, however, he reveals the insularity of the professional henchman overshadowed by a leader who largely avoided sharing information with the help.

Cobra and his handlers appear to have assumed, correctly, that sex would disseminate their opus far more efficiently than politics. Much of the local curiosity about the book was generated by two chapters describing Hobeika’s sexual capers and naming most of his paramours. The list is jubilantly long and includes a large number of women who pass for being members of the postwar plutocracy. Several marriages have reportedly suffered as a result.

It is the politics, however–or at least that version practiced by Hobeika and Hatem–that makes the book notable. The most significant of Cobra’s allegations is that Hobeika was, as early as 1981, a Syrian double agent. At the time, Bashir Gemayel was engaged in a fierce struggle for power with the Syrians. This would lead to a direct confrontation between Syria and Israel in the Bekaa Valley, when Israeli aircraft shot down a Syrian helicopter engaged in a military operation against Christian militiamen. The Syrians responded by moving SAM missile batteries into Lebanon, alarming the Reagan Administration into sending Philip Habib to negotiate a settlement. This he did, although it was clear by then that Gemayel was dead set on using the Israelis against the Syrians.

If Cobra is to be believed, Hobeika was ecumenical in his contacts. Even as he maintained close ties with the Israelis, he opened a line of communication to Rifaat and Jamil al-Assad, the brothers of the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad. Cobra describes, firsthand, a visit by Hobeika to Damascus in late 1981 and another to Paris a month later to meet with the two men. The junket ended, memorably, with a soiree at the Raspoutine nightclub on the Champs-Elysées, where Cobra spent a pleasant evening conversing with Hobeika’s then-mistress.

The contacts were significant for reasons that will become obvious. However, again one must ask, are the allegations true? And do they matter? In the mendacious world of Lebanese militia politics, Hobeika’s conduct proves nothing: Dealing with one’s enemies was common, even sensible. Moreover, it is unlikely that Gemayel or the Israelis would have been unaware of Hobeika’s excursions. The US journalist Barbara Newman, with whom Gemayel had a fling, writes in her book The Covenant that he knew of Hobeika’s Syrian connection. Gemayel probably assumed that at some stage it could come in handy. He probably also guessed that Hobeika was too much the pragmatist to become dependent on such an unnatural relationship.

For Cobra, however, Hobeika’s relationship with Syria implies that he must have been indirectly involved in Gemayel’s assassination in September 1982. It is generally accepted that the bomb attack that killed the president-elect was carried out by one Habib Shartouni. However, it was planned by an official in a pro-Syrian organization to which Shartouni belonged, and who, once the war ended, would sit across the table from Hobeika in the government.

But was Hobeika involved? Given his subsequent history one might like to believe so, but the evidence presented is circumstantial. One suspects that the suggestion may simply be one of Cobra’s deadlier poisons: an effort to link Hobeika to the death of an elected president and hero to many Christians–the very same Christians, incidentally, whom Hobeika must seduce to become politically consequential nationally. But Cobra goes further: The massacres in Sabra and Shatila, he insists, were provoked by Hobeika to conceal his involvement in Gemayel’s assassination a few days before. In other words, Hobeika set upon the camps to deflect attention from the breaches in Gemayel’s security. The theory is interesting but speculative. It is undermined by Cobra’s impertinent claim that the Israeli defense minister, Ariel Sharon, was aghast at the carnage in the camps. If so, one wonders, why did he allow it to go on for two full days while insuring that at night Hobeika’s men would have light from Israeli-fired flares?

A more plausible hypothesis is that the ambitious Hobeika saw that the massacres would meet Israeli objectives and conceal his failure to protect Gemayel. The same can be said for a related incident Cobra describes to prove his point: Hobeika allegedly ordered the killing of Habib Shartouni’s family and then had the killer killed. Indeed, the latter chore was initially assigned to Cobra, but he avoided it because the man in question was a friend. The implication is that Hobeika was covering his tracks. Yet it is equally possible that Hobeika, though innocent, was so covetous of power that he refused to let a momentary lapse prevent his rise to a position of authority in the Christian community, particularly once the stage had been vacated of the hefty presence of Gemayel.

There are, of course, plenty of episodes of which Cobra has direct knowledge. He confirms, for example, that four Iranian diplomats kidnapped by the Lebanese Forces in the summer of 1982 were killed on Hobeika’s watch. How does he know? One of his close friends was told by a Hobeika aide to remove their bodies from near the militia’s headquarters and bury them in the mountains so they would not be found. Reportedly, Cobra’s account was credible enough for the Iranian Embassy in Beirut to request that the judicial authorities investigate the matter.

Perhaps the most revealing incident is the chapter on the kidnapping of Roger Tamraz. Tamraz, a saponaceous Lebanese businessman with US citizenship, became known to the American public in September 1997, when he testified before the Senate Finance Committee on a contribution of $300,000 he had dropped into the Democratic Party coffers. In 1989, when Tamraz was still in Lebanon, Hobeika ordered Cobra to abduct him. Two of Hobeika’s finest were sent in to extort $12 million, though Tamraz bargained this down to $5 million despite several rounds of torture. Cobra describes the incident in detail, reproduces relevant documents and even records to whom the money was distributed.

Cobra also writes that he took a liking to Tamraz. The explanation is not long in coming: Tamraz, Cobra informs us, sent him $50,000 after the kidnapping. If true, then Tamraz was turning his captor. Is there a possibility Tamraz is behind this book? It took several weeks for Hobeika to take legal action against Cobra in a libel suit. When he did, his lawyer unambiguously insinuated that Tamraz was the publisher. No proof was provided, and Tamraz, who is wanted in Lebanon, is everyone’s favorite villain. But if Tamraz is indeed Cobra’s Svengali, then there must be some kind of moral here: perhaps that snakes eat snakes.

Hobeika’s career provides another apocalyptic message, which Cobra, for all his calculating, brings out nicely: namely, that societies emerging from war willingly develop short memories. The mechanism of Lebanon’s amnesia was offered up in August 1991, when the government passed Law Number 84, “granting a general amnesty for all crimes before March 28, 1991, according to specific conditions.” All those who had fomented civil and confessional conflict and who engaged in politically motivated murder were pardoned. That meant that Hobeika’s activities during the war were nullified. Within certain limits, Hobeika is, according to Lebanese law, an innocent man.

Politics aside, Cobra has unwittingly written a raw, stunning masterpiece, almost literary in its momentum, describing what it really is like to be a petty criminal of war. His message is, for lack of a better word, universal, all the more so thanks to the coarseness of its delivery. As the reader proceeds through Cobra’s account, the recitation of killings, kidnappings and sundry crimes takes on a malignant grandeur. One begins to marvel at the sheer bestial ingenuity of predators so pervasively engaged in the business of exploitation–men who, from continent to continent, seem to cover every angle, who instinctively sense an opponent’s or victim’s weaknesses, who profit among the cadavers.

One then realizes that in Lebanon’s case, the survivors were, indeed, the fittest; that in the melee of all against all, it was they who best understood that power is its own measure. It was the Hobeikas, the Hatems and the countless others currently in positions of influence who discerned that a Lebanon at peace would most abruptly discard the war’s victims, their victims.

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