Mughniyeh, assassinations, and their “normalization”

We should be clear about the moral quality of the blood-drenched career of Imad Mughniyeh, the high-level Hizbullah security operative who was assassinated in Damascus on February 12, apparently by Israel. Mughniyeh has been credibly accused of having master-minded a number of acts that have to count as significant atrocities: the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, and then of its annex, in 1983; the bombings of a Jewish community center and an Israeli consular center in Buenes Aires in 1992-94; the kidnappings of western civilians in Beirut, and perhaps the killing of Malcolm Kerr, the president of AUB. (I am not counting here actions taken against military personnel who have after all placed themselves in a position where they have a “right” to kill under certain circumstances and also knowingly accept the risk that they might be killed.)
What should one seek to do with or about a person like Imad Mughniyeh?
My main answer when considering the question of what to do with the perpetrators of atrocities– and let’s face it, gratuitously launching a war of invasion against a foreign country is also an atrocity; and was certainly recognized as such in the operations of the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals– is that we, human society in general, clearly need to be protected against the future depredations of such people. We need to be able to credibly and verifiably incapacitate their ability to re-offend.
But, and this is a large “but”, there are many different ways of achieving this. Containing such people, cutting off their access to the networks on which they depend for their depradations, and possibly even reintegrating them into society are all ways that the incapacitation goal can be reached. I have written a lot in this regard about, for example, the case of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan movement the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who is credibly accused of masterminding and committing atrocities that were of an (anti-)esthetic order of repugnance far beyond anything Mughniyeh has been accused of doing, and that probably also ended and blighted the lives of many more noncombatants than Mughniyeh ever did.
Mughniyeh was far from the “worst” perpetrator of atrocities in the world, but he gained particular notoriety and attention in the west because so many of his victims were westerners.
Anyway, with regard to Kony, the majority of the Acholi people who provided the greatest number of his victims, though by no means all of them, have argued strongly for an approach to his incapacitation that is centered on his his reintegration into settled society. (That has put them at odds with the Hague-based International Criminal Court, which seeks to arrest and try Kony. But the Acholi and many or most other Ugandans don’t want to do that, since it might drive Kony’s supporters into further acts of retaliatory violence. Thus, the ICC’s indictment has been stuck– and because of it, so has the process of making peace and normalizing people’s livelihoods in broad swathes of Northern Uganda… )
My main point: If you want to incapacitate a perpetrator of heinous acts, there is certainly more than one way to do it. At this point, we can identify three:

    (1) assassination;
    (2) arrest him and put him on trial; and
    (3) reintegration, which can be thought of in a broadly political as well as personal way.

Successive governments of Israel and the US have both, for many years now, been very permissive toward the idea of assassination. Assassination is frequently also called “extra-judicial execution” (EJE); it is good to focus on that adjective “extra-judicial.” Yes, it does mean that such killings are undertaken outside of any process that has any standing at all in international law. International law makes some provision for “hot pursuit” of opponents in a war-time setting. But the EJE’s that Israel and the US have pursued for some years now fall far short of the criteria for those kinds of killings.
Despite the clearly extra-judicial character of assassinations, President Bush and officials in his administration have gone further than any other western leader in using the discourse of “justice” to refer to them. Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush (in)famously said, “Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” That second alternative there is particularly sneaky and bullying/aggressive, and is a direct abuse of the whole concept of justice.
In the aftermath of the Mughniyeh assassination, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “One way or the other, he was brought to justice.”
The Israelis have used a policy of assassinations, in a relatively limited way, since as far back as the 1970s, when they killed a number of civilian, intellectual leaders in the PLO in retaliation for Black September’s killings of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Even at that time, they went through one renowned episode, in Norway in 1974, when they killed a Moroccan waiter after having mistakenly “identified” him as my one-time neighbor in Beirut, Ali Abu Hassan Salameh. They did kill Abu Hassan himself, along with some passersby, when they targeted him with a car-bomb in the street leading to my home, in 1979.
Later, within the Palestinian community they assassinated Yahya Ayyash and Fathi Shikaki in the mid-1990s. And prior to that, in Lebanon, they had killed Hizbullah leaders Ragheb Harb and Abbas Musawi. (See Uri Avnery’s devastating critique of the counter-productive nature of all those killings, here.)
In 1997, the Mossad tried to kill Khaled Meshaal with a chemical agent, in Jordan. But that was a devastating fiasco for the Netanyahu government, which ended up having to supply the antidote to the Jordanians and also to free Hamas’s spiritual mentor Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and tens of Hamas and other prisoners in order to win the safe return of the two Mossad (= Keystone Cops) operatives involved.
The US took up the policy of assassinations in a big way after 9/11. (Much earlier, of course, there had been numerous CIA and CIA-assisted assassination operations during the Cold War, including against Lumumba, Fidel Castro, and others.)
But the new policy that the Bush administration pursued after 9/11– “we’ll ‘bring justice to’ our enemies”– gave the Israelis very broad new permission to step up their use of ssassinations. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights records that between the start of the Second Intifada on 29 September, 2000 and 23 January, 2008 Israeli assassination operations had succeeded in “liquidating” a staggering total of 475 “targeted persons” along with 227 non-targeted civilians.
Among those snuffed out in this way were Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Abdul-Aziz Rantisi, Saleh Shehadeh, and many others from Hamas’s leadership in Gaza. When Shehadeh was killed– with a heavy bomb dropped from the air– nearly two dozen members of his family, including many children, were also killed. On one occasion when they tried to kill Mahmoud Zahhar, he escaped but one of his sons was killed.
After the most recent killing of Mughniyeh, many westerners rejoiced. They seemed oblivious to two key aspects of the situation:

    (1) If past experience is anything to go by, this killing will only further stoke, rather than dampen, the determination of Hizbullah and its allies to confront western plans in the Middle East; and
    (2) To cheer at any act of extra-judicial execution is to undermine the whole idea of the rule of law.

The figures on the ease with which today’s Israel has recourse to EJE’s should give everyone pause. There is absolutely no way they can claim that the “process” through which these targets are chosen is defensible. Extra-judicial executions are just that: extra-judicial; outside the purview of law and of civilization. An incident like the Mughniyeh killing does not change that.
Such incidents also, by the way, help ensure that the cycle of violence keeps on turning…

21 thoughts on “Mughniyeh, assassinations, and their “normalization””

  1. “Mughniyeh has been credibly accused of having master-minded a number of acts that have to count as significant atrocities: [including] the bombings of a Jewish community center”
    I won’t comment on the full list mentioned in this statement. However, there are real grounds to doubt that Hizbollah/Iran were involved in the Jewish community centre bombing in Argentina. As Gareth Porter reported in The Nation, the evidence for this claim is very thin.
    As this BBC article makes clear, the recent indictment issued by the Argentine government against Iran/Hizbollah was the product of Bush adminstration pressure. Even the victims don’t appear to give much credence to the Iran/Hizbollah connection.
    Certainly the case is very far from proven.

  2. Patrick is correct.
    There can be no excuse for murders of this kind and surely those who order them and those who carry them out are liable to be charged as criminals.
    Where does that leave those who celebrate these murders, justify them and assure us that, by some alchemy unknown to law, they are able to adduce the guilt of the victims? It is very strange indeed for a State Department official to be officially endorsing an act which is unquestionably illegal.
    And this is particularly the case since the State Department has spent a lot of time in the recent past telling us that Syria is responsible for assassinations in Lebanon. And that this is heinous and criminal.
    Not that it really matters, since hardly anyone in the world believes a word the US government and its spokespeople say any more. And the assumption, whenever a bomb goes off in the Middle East, is that it was the work either of Mossad or the CIA.

  3. Patrick,
    I particularly liked this bit from Gareth Porter’s piece:
    “Hezbollah had a second easy retaliatory option available, which was to launch Katyusha rockets across the border into Israeli territory.
    That is exactly what Hezbollah did to retaliate for the Israeli killing of some 100 Lebanese civilians in the town of Qana in 1996.”
    During Operation Grapes of Wrath, Hizballah had been firing continuously into civilian populations in Northern Israel prior to the Qana incident.
    I would say that Porter’s obvious manipulation of context puts the rest of his analysis into questions.

  4. Yes, Helena, it would be nice if people such as Imad Mughniyeh would turn themselves in so that they could be incarcerated and later integrated into society (perhaps in your neighborhood, though; I don’t think I’d want the likes of Mughniyeh integrated into mine).
    I do, however, have to take exception to your characterization of those killed following Munich as “civilian, intellectual leaders in the PLO”. With the exception of Ahmed Bushiki, who was mistakently murdered in Lilienhammer, Norway, these people – and particularly Salameh – were far from civilians, although I’m certain that they liked to portray themselves as great intellectuals, what with their degrees from Patrice Lamumba University.

  5. Freedom fighter or terrorist. Thats what it comes down to.
    George Washington was considered a terrorist by the British. The cowardly tactic of shooting soldiers while hiding behind a tree and not facing off to shoot your enemy. Imagine.
    When you occupy a country or region and the people do not desire your presence, or when you take sides in a civil war, you become a target.
    Don’t cry about it when someone fights back. It is your choice to be a target.
    Examples of atrocities are dropping bombs on a civilian population to kill an enemy living among civilians, dropping nuclear weapons or fire bombing cities, spreading depleted uranium and cluster bombs, collective punishment of populations in areas you occupy, pre-emptive war, assasinations, etc.
    But Israel and the US know this. They seek perpetual conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the cycle of violence is to their liking. And so it will continue.

  6. عماد مغنية والحرب العراقية الإيرانية
    سؤال ألحّ علي بعد إغتيال عماد مغنيه وهو : هل نسكت على ما سببه لنا من أذى ، نحن العراقيين ، لإن من إغتاله هم الصهاينه ، ولإنه في مراحل عديدة من حياته كان عنصرا فاعلا في المقاومة اللبنانية ، أم نقول الحقيقة كما هي ؟ أعتقد إن التاريخ هو الذي سيحكم على عماد مغنية ، ولكي يكون حكم التاريخ منصفا فيجب أن تكون الوقائع كلها حاضرة ، ومن هذه الوقائع دور عماد مغنية في التآمر الإيراني على العراق ، وإسمح لي أن أشير الى مقال الدكتور عبد الواحد الجصاني ( للعراق كل الحق في مطالبة إيران بتعويضات الحرب ) المنشور في العدد 333 / تشرين الثاني 2006من مجلة المستقبل العربي، والذي إستعرض فيه فقرات مذكرات وكيل الأمين العام للأمم المتحدة السيد جيادومينيكو بيكو Giadomenico Picco)) في كتابه الموسوم رجل بلا سلاح (Man without a gun) الصادر عن دار النشر Times Books عام 1999
    ففي هذا الكتاب يتحدث السيد بيكو بالتفصيل عن دوره كوسيط بين إيران والولايات المتحدة لإطلاق سراح الرهائن المدنيين الغربيين لدى حزب الله في لبنان،ويقول بيكو عن لقائه مع السفير الإيراني جواد ظريف في 27 تموز 1991 (كان جوهر إتفاقي مع ظريف هو أن تعمل إيران مع المجموعات اللبنانية لتحرير الرهائن الغربيين مقابل أن تقدم الأمم المتحدة الفقرة 6 من القرار 598، أما إذا إستطعنا أن نحصل على أكثر من ذلك أي تحرير السجناء اللبنانيين في سجون إسرائيل وتقديم معلومات عن الدبلوماسيين الإيرانيين الأربعة المفقودين في بيروت وعن الجنود والطيار الإسرائيلي (رون أراد) المفقودين في لبنان فسيكون ذلك كالقشطة التي توضع فوق الكعكة، لكن أصل اللعبة هي الفقرة السادسة. وكنا نعلم أن إيران تريد إدانة رسمية للعراق لشنه الحرب على إيران لكننا لم نكن نعلم كم كان ذلك مهما لإيران من الناحية السياسية). وأضاف بيكو : (قلت لظريف إننا نستطيع التعامل مع مقترحك حول الفقرة السادسة فأجاب ستكون زيارة ديكويلار ناجحة لو نفذت الفقرة السادسة).(الصفحات 150 – 151 من كتاب بيكو)
    ويواصل بيكو إتصالاته مع الإيرانيين لإتمام الصفقة ، ويقول أنه إلتقى في مقر السفارة الإيرانية في بيروت يوم 11/8/1991 مع السفير الإيراني زمانيان الذي أبلغه بإنه أجرى الترتيبات للقائه مع الخاطفين وطلب منه الخروج من السفارة والتمشي في الشارع ومن هناك ستأتي سيارة لأخذه الى مكان اللقاء. وجاءت السيارة وإلتقطته وعصبت عيناه وأخذ الى مقر الخاطفين (الصفحتان 152-153). خلال حديثه مع الخاطفين الملثمين خمّن أنهما عماد مغنيه ونسيبه مصطفى بدر الدين. ووقتها كان عماد مغنيه مسؤول الأمن الخاص في حزب الله وكان قبلها الحارس الشخصي للشيخ فضل الله ويعتقد انه شارك في خطف طائرة TWAعام 1985وطائرة الجابرية الكويتية عام 1988. أما نسيبه مصطفى فقد كان ضمن المجموعة التي قامت بتفجيرات الكويت عام 1983 وأفرج عنهم العراق بعد دخوله الكويت.
    وفي 1/8/1991 إلتقى ديكويلار بمندوب إيران الدائم لدى الأمم المتحدة السفير خرازي وأبلغه إنه ينوي البدء بإجراءات تنفيذ الفقرة السادسة ويريد أيضا إغلاق ملف الرهائن الغربيين في لبنان بأسرع وقت. (ص 151)
    وفي الأيام التي تلت لقاء ديكويلار مع خرازي عمل بيكو مع جواد ظريف على وضع تفاصيل مقترحات إطلاق سراح الرهائن وتنفيذ الفقرة السادسة (ص 151)
    وفي النهاية أطلق الرهائن ووجّه الأمين العام للأمم المتحدة خافير بيريز ديكويلار رسالة الى رئيس مجلس الأمن مؤرخة 9/12/1991 وجاء فيها (إن الهجوم على إيران يوم 22/9/1980 لا يمكن تبريره في أطار ميثاق الأمم المتحدة أو أية قواعد أو مباديء معترف بها في القانون الدولي أو أية مباديء أخلاقية دولية، وهو ينطوي على المسؤولية عن الصراع) (وثيقة الأمم المتحدة S/23273).وكانت هذه الرسالة خرقا لما هو مطلوب في الفقرة السادسة من القرار589(1987).
    كما أشار السيد جيادومنينكو بيكو الى أن مسألة الرهائن الغربيين في لبنان كانت وراء الصفقة التي عقدتها إيران مع الولايات المتحدة خلال الحرب العراقية الإيرانية فيما سميت فضيحة ( إيران غيت ) حيث اطلق حزب الله بعض الرهائن الغربيين مقابل حصول إيران على اسلحة أمريكية مخزونة في إسرائيل .
    وهكذا فإن الحقائق تقول إن جدول أعمال عماد مغنية لم يكن محصورا ببند واحد اسمه التخلص من الاحتلال، ودعم المقاومة الفلسطينية ، كما صرح ونقلتم عنه.
    والله المستعان
    بغداد 14/2/2008
    # posted by عمار : February 15, 2008 1:46 AM

  7. To cheer at any act of extra-judicial execution is to undermine the whole idea of the rule of law.
    Hmm. Didn’t somebody around here just admonish us not to huff about “international law”? [Shudder quotes in the original]
    Happy days.

  8. – Terrorism, or attacking non-combatants, is certainly not wrong if it is commanded by God.
    – For the reality-based, terrorism is wrong only if wrong is wrong. That is, only if all of us have a duty to be ethical in all of our conduct. Not selectively, not self-interest masquerading as morality.
    – For the ethical, terrorism is only one of many wrongs. Cruelty, greed, hatred, discrimination, theft and exploitation are some others.
    – It’s understandable that non-state terrorism has become the obsession of the ‘haves’. It’s one of the few wrongs that afflicts them. The haves tend to benefit from the other wrongs.
    – It’s also understandable that some ‘have-nots’ will prioritize wrongs differently than the ‘haves’.

  9. Thank you, my dear Watson, for that lesson in cultural relativity. But tell me, aren’t you by definition one of the “haves”?

  10. You’re welcome, JES.
    I am indeed one of the haves. So, to the extent that I believe that I will suffer harm from terrorism that outweighs the benefit to me from the other evils – greed, cruelty, etc., self-interest causes me to want my government to behave ethically.

  11. And what of the “have-nots”? Do they exhibit greed, cruelty, self-interest? Is their differing prioritization somehow more ethical?

  12. For ethical behavior to become the norm, the ‘haves’ must lead by example. By their own unethical behavior, not least by maintaining a dispensation of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, the ‘haves’ forfeit the ability to make a moral argument against unethical behavior by ‘have-nots’, or by any one else.

  13. When you occupy a country or region and the people do not desire your presence, or when you take sides in a civil war, you become a target.
    Don’t cry about it when someone fights back. It is your choice to be a target.

    Can you please explain to us how the 85 Jews killed and hundreds injured in the Argentina Jewish Community Center bombing chose to be targets?

  14. truesdell you realy like to know who mark those people in Argentina Jewish Community Center as target ?
    Just ask those Chiefs in Governments who signing Assassination orders,thouse who believe that EJE’s is
    the only solution and bypassing Law and Order of civilize Wold.
    May be you should remind them old saying before they again take the Law in own hands:
    Good Luck and please let us know!

  15. From Ury Avneri’s “Blood and Champagne”:”
    Little Israel is one of the major hi-tech powers in the world.
    But the profession in which Israel is not only one of the biggest, but the unchallenged Numero Uno is: liquidations.
    This week this was proven once again. The Hebrew verb “lekhassel” – liquidate – in all its grammatical forms, currently dominates our public discourse. Respected professors debate with academic solemnity when to “liquidate” and whom.
    Used generals discuss with professional zeal the technicalities of “liquidation”, its rules and methods. Shrewd politicians compete with each other about the number and status of the candidates for “liquidation”.

    continues at:

  16. But the profession in which Israel is not only one of the biggest, but the unchallenged Numero Uno is: liquidations.
    unlikely. the numero uno in liquidations is (and always has been) Russia’s FSB.
    Unfortuntely their list of approved targets extends well beyond the likes of Shamil Basayev & Amir Kattab to gabby ex-employees and nosy journalists.

  17. Helena,
    Israel has used assassinations since long before the 1970s and I am stunned that you would characterize their use as “in a relatively limited way” only a few paragraphs before citing 208 assassinations in a five-year period. That’s a weekly event, no? The targets are politicians (for example, Ismael Shanab), peace activists (Thabet Thabet), poets, organizers, innocent waiters… not simply the “hot pursuit” of militants.
    Zionists’ use of assassination dates back to the first days of the state, when future-PM Shamir orchestrated the assassination of UN mediator Count Bernadotte, the man behind the Partition Plan.
    The Zionists have used terror and assassination in ways that are as effective as any group in history. To ignore this is to miss a fundamental attribute of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel, particularly as it relates to the mass obedience during the Nazi genocide. As Begin said: I fight, therefore I am.

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