'Snake Eat Snake'

By Walid Harb

This article appeared in the July 19, 1999 edition of The Nation.

July 1, 1999

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.

» More

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.

About Walid Harb

Walid Harb is the pseudonym of a writer living in Lebanon. more...


» Altercation

Wrecking Ball | A treat for Springsteen-interested academics, musicians and other interested parties.
Eric Alterman

» The Notion

Stop Bullying the Anti-Bullying Czar | Conservative groups' next target? Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools head Kevin Jennings.
Emily Douglas

» The Beat

Congressman Grayson Has Just Begun to Fight | A Democrat starts throwing punches in the battle for health care reform -- horrifying Republicans but inspiring his own party's dispirited base.
John Nichols

» And Another Thing

Roman Polanski Has a Lot of Friends | The international cultural elite stands by its own. Unfortunately.
Katha Pollitt

» Capitolism

Wade Rathke Speaks Out | Finding himself in the spotlight, the ACORN founder gives a talk at Busboys and Poets.
Christopher Hayes

» The Dreyfuss Report

US Strategy in Iran Talks | Publicly, at least, the US wants an Iranian freeze. But there better be some flexibility behind the scenes.
Robert Dreyfuss

» Act Now!

Banned Books Week | Censorship is on the rise. Help remind people of the importance of free speech.
Peter Rothberg

» Editor's Cut

Around The Nation | On the ground in Pittsburgh. Plus: The bailout, one year later, and free tickets to the latest Brave New Film.
Katrina vanden Heuvel