Israel responded Tuesday evening to a UN-backed tribunal’s conviction of a Hezbollah member for involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, saying the terror group was behind both the attack and attempts to block a fair investigation of it.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon acquitted three members of the Iran-backed terror group and said there was no evidence Hezbollah leaders or Syria were involved in the 2005 suicide truck bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others.
“The Hezbollah terror organization and its people were involved in murder and obstruction of justice,” an Israeli Foreign Ministry statement said in response. “Hezbollah took the future of the Lebanese people captive in the service of foreign interests. Countries of the world need to act against this terror organization to help Lebanon be freed from this threat.”
The statement added: “The arming of the organization, its efforts to set up an arsenal of precision missiles and its operations endanger the entire region.”
Salim Ayyash, 56, was convicted in absentia in the Netherlands, over the huge suicide bombing in Beirut that killed Sunni billionaire Hariri and 21 other people.
But the judges said there was not enough evidence to convict three other suspects — Assad Sabra, Hussein Oneissi and Hassan Habib Merhi.
The court also ruled that there was no evidence to directly link Hezbollah’s leadership or Syria, long the dominant military power in Lebanon, to the attack.
The long-awaited decision prompted mixed reactions, with the late Hariri’s son Saad telling journalists outside the Special Tribunal for Lebanon he accepted the tribunal’s verdict and found it “satisfying.”
Saudi Arabia called for Hezbollah to be “punished” for its involvement in the attack.
“The government of Saudi Arabia views the ruling as the emergence of truth and the beginning of a process of achieving justice by chasing, arresting and punishing those involved,” the kingdom’s foreign ministry said on Twitter.
“Saudi Arabia, by calling for Hezbollah and its terrorist elements to face justice and be punished, stresses the need to protect Lebanon, the region and the world from the terrorist practices of this group,” it added.
Hezbollah is a key ally of Syria and Shiite powerhouse Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival.
The rulings on the four suspects came after judges at the tribunal said earlier Tuesday that there was no evidence the leadership of Hezbollah or Syria were involved in the assassination.
Sketching the complex political backdrop for the assassination, Presiding Judge David Re said that in the months before his death, Hariri supported reducing the influence of Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
He said judges who studied reams of evidence in the trial of four Hezbollah members accused of involvement in the bombing were “of the view that Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri, and some of his political allies.”
But he added that there was no evidence that “Hezbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr. Hariri’s murder, and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement in it.”
The court did not rule on either Hezbollah or Syria, but rather just on the four named Hezbollah suspects, as the tribunal can only accuse individuals — not groups or states. But even with the rulings against the suspects, the fact that the tribunal appeared to explicitly and categorically rule out evidence tying Hezbollah’s leadership to the crime was good news for the Iran-backed group, which dominates Lebanese politics and has come under increased scrutiny and pressure at home.