In the immediate aftermath of the February 1992 killing of Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Abbas Moussawi, Israeli leaders were jubilant.
A day before the assassination, military and political officials were struggling to explain a stunning lapse in security: On Friday the 14th, Palestinian fighters had managed to infiltrate an army base in northern Israel, hack to death three sleeping soldiers, and escape undetected.
The Israeli public’s outrage over the ineptitude demonstrated by their military in “The Night of the Pitchforks,” as the incident was dubbed, would not last the weekend. On the 16th, as Moussawi was being driven from a public appearance at a rally in the town of Jibchit, near the Israeli occupied-zone of southern Lebanon, Israeli Air Force Apache helicopters fired at the Hezbollah chief’s convoy, killing the 38-year-old Moussawi along with his wife and young child.
“This was an operation that, in my opinion, was proof that when Israel Defense Forces are determined to do something, they do it beautifully,” Uri Lubrani, Israel’s coordinator for activities in Lebanon, told international press agency UPI at the time.
But whatever the tactical skill of the operation, Moussawi’s killing can be read as a textbook example of the boomerang effect such assassinations can produce.
For one, Moussawi’s death spurred an escalation of violence in the South, with Hezbollah firing more rockets than ever before at Israel. Then, almost a month to the day after Moussawi was killed, Israel suffered the deadliest attack to date against its diplomatic missions, when a suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden truck into the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aries. Israel quickly placed blame for the attack on Hezbollah, though the Party of God has always denied responsibility for the explosion.
But it was Moussawi’s own successor, Hezbollah’s current secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who perhaps most clearly demonstrates how the consequences of assassination are not necessarily to the benefit of the aggressing party. Taking over Hezbollah’s top position shortly after Moussawi’s death, Nasrallah told the official Iranian news agency IRNA, "The coming days will prove that the assassination of Moussawi was the biggest mistake of the Zionist regime ever since its illegitimate creation.” It took more than days, but given the events of the nearly two decades since Nasrallah took over the reigns of Hezbollah, his prediction was not entirely hyperbole.
Arguably the most powerful man in Lebanon and widely hailed as the only Arab leader to successfully withstand the might of the Israeli military, Nasrallah lives under a more intense threat of assassination than anyone outside of Waziristan. Nasrallah’s public appearances in the four years since the July War can be counted on one hand; he addresses his followers and the world by television. His location is the most closely-guarded secret in Lebanon.
A reminder of the reason for that secrecy, if any were needed, came earlier this month, when unnamed Israeli sources told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida that Israel was making “great efforts” to monitor Nasrallah’s movements and that twice in recent months it had managed to locate his position, first at a Hezbollah security building in Beirut’s southern suburbs and again during Nasrallah’s trip to Syria in February.
The source claimed Israel called off the first strike due to the presence of a large number of children. But that contention was met with skepticism in Lebanon.
Qassem Kassir, a journalist at the Lebanese daily An-Nahar who studies Islamic movements, said that he doubted “if Israel had or has the chance to kill Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah that it would let that opportunity go. [Israel] would consider [his death] a major achievement that would erase all past failures.”
While the assassination of Nasrallah could have profound repercussions, whether it would deal a crippling blow to Hezbollah is open to question, given the highly institutionalized nature of the party, said Lockman Slim, the director of Hayya Bina, a Lebanese civil society organization based in the Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut.
Slim, for his part, questioned whether Israel really was actively trying to kill Nasrallah.
Citing the 2008 assassination of Imad Mugniyah, Hezbollah’s military chief, Slim said that “that those who could kill Mugniyah should presumably be able to get Nasrallah, but, in this sense liquidating Nasrallah is not [their immediate intention]… With Nasrallah, who they have been fighting for years, they can know what his reactions are; they know his psychological profile, so from their perspective it is better to keep someone you know than someone you don’t.”
Still, Nasrallah’s death would likely have some effect on Hezbollah given how long he has been in charge. Kassir said that while it is unclear what the direct impact Nasrallah’s death would have on the party, “usually if Hezbollah [undergoes] a strike, it adapts quickly to the strike, in terms of organization and politics. But if the assassination happens it will not pass without a reaction; it will for sure cause an explosion on the Lebanese-Israeli front, and it might not only be confined to Lebanon – it will extend to include Palestine, for example.”
Lebanon has seen more than its share of assassinations in the last decade, some of which have reshaped the whole political landscape, such as the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. While the reverberations of Hariri’s assassination were far-reaching for Lebanon – leading as they did to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country after three decades of occupation, and the divide between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions that has shaped Lebanese politics in the years since – the killing of Nasrallah could potentially spark a full war.
As Kassir commented, the 1992 Moussawi assassination “led to an explosion on the southern Lebanese border, but in the case of Sayyed Nasrallah I believe that it would lead to… war.”
In such a scenario, Kassir said, Hezbollah would respond to Nasrallah’s death with an attack on Israel. At that point, “Israel for sure will not stand idle; it will attack all of Lebanon,” and “military reactions will widen to include the region.”
Nasrallah has shown in life that he, more than anyone else in Lebanon, has the power to plunge the country into war. That power may extend to his death as well.