Lebanese opposition bashes Hezbollah over Burgas attack

March 14 Coalition says Shi’ite terror group, blamed by Bulgaria for bombing that killed 5 Israelis, is damaging Lebanon’s interests; Beirut government silent

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Hezbollah fighters hold party flags during a parade in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon (AP/Hussein Malla/File)
Hezbollah fighters hold party flags during a parade in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon (AP/Hussein Malla/File)

A day after Hezbollah was named as responsible for a bus bombing in Bulgaria that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian in July, the Shi’ite terror group was scolded by its domestic opposition for “holding Lebanon hostage” to its own narrow interests.

Hezbollah has denied being involved in the bombing, despite a report by Bulgaria on its probe into the July 18 bombing released Tuesday which said the perpetrators were sent by Hezbollah to carry out the attack in the Black Sea resort town of Burgas.

A Lebanese government meeting on Wednesday made no mention of the Bulgarian accusation concerning Hezbollah’s involvement. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Tuesday issued a short statement whereby “Lebanon rejects any attack on an Arab or foreign state.”

President Michel Suleimen said Lebanon would discuss the probe’s findings once it received all the documents on it from Sofia, The New York Times reported.

But Lebanon’s main opposition bloc, the March 14 Alliance, said that government ambiguity would not suffice to prevent the inclusion of Hezbollah — a senior member of the Mikati government — in the European Union’s terror list. Such a decision, the opposition group argued, would worsen Lebanon’s already grave economic, security and political situation.

“The Lebanese refuse to be held hostage by Hezbollah and forgo their interests by confronting the world,” read the statement.

The Bulgarian accusation finds Lebanon in deep political crisis.  Parliament has not convened since October 2012, boycotted by the March 14 Alliance which accuses the government of colluding with Hezbollah in covering up of the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan, a Lebanese security official killed by a car bomb in Beirut last year.

Government and opposition are also deeply divided over a new election law meant to enable a national vote in June. March 14 refuses to hold the elections before Hezbollah disarms, a condition the Shi’ite movement has consistently rejected.

Tension in Lebanon was already high this week following a February 2 attack on a military convoy in the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal — a hotbed of anti-Syrian opposition activity — which left two Lebanese soldiers dead. An opposition parliament member accused Hezbollah of firing at the soldiers after they arrested a local resident, Khaled Hmayyed, charged with “terrorist activities.” Hmayyed was also killed in the attack.

Omri Nir, an expert in Lebanese politics at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said the conduct of Lebanon’s government following the Burgas attack reminded him of its treatment of the UN Special Tribunal on Lebanon, tasked with investigating the 2005 assassination of prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

“The Lebanese government expends no effort in applying the law to Hezbollah,” Nir told The Times of Israel. “It simply ignores the problem, hoping it will go away.”

The Lebanese government is supposed to fund 49 percent of the special tribunal’s expenses, Nir noted. So to avoid a government debate on the matter, Prime Minister Mikati agreed to bankroll the tribunal from his own budget. Similarly, the government on Wednesday refused to discuss the Burgas accusation, so Mikati issued a personal statement claiming it represented his government’s position.

“Lebanon doesn’t want to face international sanctions, so it plays these games,” Nir said, adding that the European Union has also helped Lebanon get off the hook by avoiding direct confrontation with the government on Hezbollah’s terrorist activities.

Recalling Beirut’s refusal to hand over four Hezbollah members accused of involvement in the Hariri assassination to the international tribunal, Antwan Zahra, a member of the Christian opposition’s Lebanese Forces Party, wondered whether the same pattern wouldn’t reoccur with the Burgas attack.

“What if Hezbollah decided to sanctify the Bulgaria suspects and not hand them over?” Zahra rhetorically asked in the Lebanese daily As-Safir on Thursday.

Benedetta Berti, an expert in Lebanese politics at Tel Aviv Univsrsity’s INSS Research Center, said that without an official EU policy change, the Bulgarian report will have little bearing on Lebanon’s political scene.

“The report alone will not have a big impact on Lebanon,” Berti told The Times of Israel. “All political parties are still taking a wait-and-see approach.”

But the government could not continue “burying its head in the sand” forever, opposition daily Al-Mustaqbal said on Thursday, noting that the two Hezbollah suspects in the Burgas bombing carried Australian and Canadian passports.

“This time, [the government] has completely separated itself from reality,” wrote the daily, “as though the accusation was never made, or perhaps this government decided to erase Bulgaria and the EU, along with Canada and Australia, off the world map.”  

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