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Like Other Lebanese Journalists, Slain Hezbollah Critic Knew He Was Living on Borrowed Time

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A protester holds a picture of Lokman Slim during a demonstration in Beirut on Thursday. The Arabic words on poster read 'Hezbollah's arms against who? Weapons of terrorism.'
A protester holds a picture of Lokman Slim during a demonstration in Beirut on Thursday. The Arabic words on poster read 'Hezbollah's arms against who? Weapons of terrorism.'Credit: Bilal Hussein/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Slim also surprised us by expressing a desire to reach out to not only like-minded Syrian citizens, but also Israelis. [He said:] 'There is much that we will disagree on, but I am convinced that there is plenty of common ground that can be built upon.' Slim told us he had met with a former Netanyahu adviser while in Washington and agreed to begin a dialogue with this individual. For the Israeli proposal, Slim is keen to follow up on discussions with the Aspen Institute, which offered to develop the concept operationally.”

Slim is Lokman Slim, a publisher and activist, who was murdered on Thursday in Lebanon, and the above remarks come from a diplomatic cable exposed by WikiLeaks, relating to a conversation that took place in May 2008 – about two years after the Second Lebanon War – between Slim and the deputy U.S. ambassador in Lebanon. It is not known whether there was a continuation of the discussions between Slim and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's adviser, whose name was not mentioned, but revelation of the contents of the cable endangered Slim's life.

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For years he conducted regular contacts with the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and tried to promote the idea of establishing a liberal Shi’ite alternative to Hezbollah (he himself was Shi'ite). His murder “was predictable and didn’t surprise me,” said May Chidiac, a veteran journalist who served for a short period as a minister in the government of Saad Hariri, which was established in 2019.

Chidiac herself was a target of an assassination attempt in September 2005; only by chance was her life saved after a device exploded when she got into her car in the coastal city of Jounieh. She lost a leg and an arm in the explosion, and after a long period of rehabilitation returned to work in television.

Lokman Slim.Credit: AFP

The year 2005 was a bloody one in Lebanon, during which opponents of the Syrian region and Hezbollah were murdered one after another, with only a few months separating one murder from the next. In February Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated by explosive devices that were detonated while he was traveling in a convoy of cars from his home to his place of work. After him, in June 2005, came the assassination of journalist Samir Kassir, one of Lebanon’s senior columnists, who for a long time attacked Hezbollah and its dominance in Lebanon. Thereafter, in December, the editor of An Nahar, Gebran Ghassan Tueni, was killed, and his murder was followed by that of politicians and others who sought to curb the power and arming of Hezbollah.

Lokman Slim knew that he was living on borrowed time. In 2012 the daily Al Akhbar, which is associated with Hezbollah, published a long article in which it mentioned the diplomatic cables revealed by Wikileaks and described him as “a man of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon,” who regularly conveyed information about what was happening in Lebanese political circles. Last year unknown persons broke into his home and left warning messages on its walls. It is in a way surprising that his murderers waited for so many years to actually assassinate him.

According to the Lebanese media, with the exception of outlets affiliated with Hezbollah and its supporters, there is no doubt about the fact that the militant Muslim organization is responsible for Slim's murder. Although Hezbollah has denied any connection to it and demanded that the government find the guilty parties as soon as possible – in a situation where that organization itself is a member of the government and has the power to dictate the steps it takes, nobody in Lebanon is holding his breath for the launch of an investigation, and even less for presentation of its findings, if and when there are any.

In a sarcastic item on the Beirut-based news website Al-Modon, columnist Omar Kaddour suggested blaming Israel for Slim's assassination: “Because everyone is talking about the fact that the identity of the assassins is known, but it’s impossible to name names without proof, because that would be slander … why not blame Israel?” Kaddour explained that Israel has already proved that it has the ability to eliminate people inside Lebanon as well as outside, and also has agents there, so one can claim that it murdered Slim because it knew that the blame would fall on Hezbollah for the murder, which would serve Israeli interests. Besides, Israel certainly wants to cause the new U.S. president’s Iran policy to fail, by opening a front in Lebanon.

Activists gather two days after Lokman Slim's killing, demanding a transparent investigation into the crime, in Beirut on Saturday.Credit: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

Kaddour was, of course, mocking Hezbollah's claims, whenever there are demonstrations against it and against the Lebanese government, that it is “foreign entities,” “Western countries” and Israel that should be blamed for them. But at least when it comes to silencing the voices of opponent, if it were Hezbollah that perpetrated Slim's assassination, the organization didn’t really succeed. Regular media outlets, like the social media and public figures, have not been deterred from naming the organization as being directly responsible for Slim’s death.

The question of the extent to which the murder will affect Hezbollah’s status is no longer relevant. If in 2005 Hariri’s murder provoked a huge wave of demonstrations that succeeded in ousting Syrian forces from Lebanon and clearly dividing that country's populace between supporters and opponents of the militant organization – a division that brought about the political system that is running Lebanon even now – this time the Lebanese believe that within a short time the murder will be washed away and forgotten.

Police gather at a site where Lokman Slim was found killed in a car in southern Lebanon, on Thursday.Credit: Ali Hankir/Reuters

Lebanon is being plagued these days by even more serious tragedies: The over 200 citizens who were killed in the explosion in the Beirut port last August, whose investigation is being conducted with shocking foot-dragging; the death of about 3,600 citizens from COVID-19; the sharp increase in the number of unemployed; and the country's profound economic crisis – all these have left the murder of Lokman Slim as yet another case awaiting investigation whose findings will probably never be revealed.

Lebanese journalists have no need of another reminder of how dangerous their profession is, and not because they cover battlefields, but because of their critical opinions against Hezbollah. Many of them are walking around as marked men/women, without protection or support. However, as one can see by their statements after Slim’s assassination last week, they are still determined to carry out their suicide missions.

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