CAIRO — A former Lebanese militia leader linked to the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in 1982 was killed in a car bombing in Beirut on Thursday, leaving behind a trail of enemies and a long list of possible suspects--including an allegation that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was behind the hit.
Elie Hobeika, 45, former leader of the Christian militia known as the Lebanese Forces, allied himself with Israel after it invaded southern Lebanon in the early 1980s and then switched allegiances to Syria a few years later when that regime in effect took control of his war-racked country.
The notorious militia leader, whose maneuvering won him positions in the Lebanese government, died in an explosion that also killed three bodyguards. Investigators said 22 pounds of TNT packed in a nearby car was detonated by remote control.
Fingers were pointed at Syria, Israel and inside Lebanon itself. Some on the streets of Beirut said they hoped that Israel was behind the attacks--if it wasn't, they said, they fear a return to the kind of home-grown violence that fueled a devastating 15-year civil war.
Even as investigators were poring over the debris, the Lebanese government pointed to Israel and Sharon. Officials, including Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud, suggested that Hobeika was silenced to stop him from testifying against Sharon at a possible war crimes trial in Belgium.
Although it was Hobeika's militia that massacred the unarmed Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982, then-Israeli Defense Minister Sharon was forced to resign because his troops were encircling the area during the attack. An Israeli commission found that Sharon shouldered at least indirect blame for the bloodletting.
"We have a confirmation that Israel and its agents were behind this terrorist act," Lebanese Interior Minister Elias Murr said at a news conference late Thursday, though he did not provide any evidence.
Israel dismissed the allegations. "I am simply saying, from our point of view, we have no link to this subject at all, and this is not worthy of a comment," Sharon told reporters in Israel.
While the Lebanese blamed Israel, there also were unconfirmed reports that a Lebanese nationalist group may have been behind the killing. When Hobeika switched allegiances to Syria, he won the enmity of members of his former Christian militia, who disapproved of Damascus' puppet-master role.
Associated Press reported that a group calling itself Lebanese for a Free and Independent Lebanon had claimed responsibility for the killings in a fax sent to a Western news agency's office in Cyprus. The fax called Hobeika a "Syrian agent" and protested Syria's influence in Lebanon.
And then there were the Palestinians. Many refugees in Lebanese camps cheered Hobeika's death and suggested that perhaps a very patient survivor had finally exacted revenge.
Despite the wide range of theories, the talk in the government and on the streets pointed south to Israel. The case brought by Palestinians in Belgium involves Sharon's alleged complicity in the 1982 attacks. Hobeika's militia, which was trained by and allied with Israel, entered the refugee camps after its leader, President-elect Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated.
Israeli authorities conducted an internal review after the massacre drew widespread condemnation. A commission recommended in 1983 that Sharon be removed from office after concluding that "everyone who had anything to do with events in Lebanon should have felt apprehension about a massacre in the camps if armed [Christian] Phalangist forces were to be moved into them without the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] exercising concrete and effective supervision and scrutiny in them."
Sharon resigned but returned to office as prime minister almost 20 years later--a move that brought his hard-line approach to the Palestinians back to the fore of Israeli politics and also refocused attention on his alleged connection to the massacres.
Sharon's political resurrection coincided with the implementation of a Belgian law that allows anyone anywhere to seek the prosecution of individuals for so-called crimes against humanity in Belgian courts.
Although there is a debate within Belgium over the law's viability, authorities there have pursued the Sharon case, and a court is scheduled to decide in early March whether the prime minister should stand trial.
Hobeika held a news conference in July announcing his willingness to testify in Belgium and claimed that he had documents showing his innocence and the guilt of others. He had repeated his offer to testify at a meeting Wednesday in Lebanon with a group of Belgian senators.
"His readiness to testify was key to the investigation," said Chibli Mallat, a lawyer representing the Palestinian plaintiffs. "The timing is obvious. It is sad--those who assassinated him were clearly keen to use violent methods as opposed to the attempt to deal with this case without any violence involved. It's a sad setback."
The killing of Sharon's onetime ally dominated Israeli radio and television reports.
Oded Granot, the Arab affairs commentator for Israeli state television, said there are two things that can be said with certainty about Hobeika: "He was a man who knew too much, and he was a man born to be killed."
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Jerusalem and researcher Ranwa Yehia in Cairo contributed to this report.