During the past week a rumor that Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Shaykh Hassan Nasrallah had survived a poisoning attempt quickly spread in both regional and global media. The report was originally disclosed by Iraqi website Almalaf on October 22. According to Almalaf, Hezbollah’s leader was in critical condition for several days as a result of the poisoning attempt and survived thanks to the prompt intervention of a team of fifteen Iranian doctors who rushed to Lebanon to save the Shaykh’s life.
Almalaf, a website close to the Iraqi government, quoted “Lebanese diplomatic sources” as the basis of story, adding that Israeli intelligence was likely behind the foiled assassination. Regional and international media reported the news in the following days and most news sources concurred with Almalaf in attributing the responsibility for the plot to the state of Israel. However, reports suggested Lebanese political enemies of Hezbollah, as well as internal opponents of Nasrallah, were behind the attack (Jerusalem Post, October 22; Al-Manar, October 25).
Hezbollah quickly dismissed the rumor, and Nasrallah personally appeared on the organization’s television channel, Al-Manar, to refute the assassination report. During the exclusive interview, Nasrallah said that the story was completely false and added that it was part of a broader psychological war against the organization; “As you can see, I’m sitting here in front of you and I’m telling you there has been no poisoning. This is just an invention of websites.” Furthermore Nasrallah condemned the reports that linked the attempt to alleged internal strife within the group and implied the assassination plot was an “inside job” to challenge the Secretary General’s leadership. In this regard, Nasrallah added: “Investigations are ongoing to discover who did this” (Al-Manar, October 25).
It is a fact that since Nasrallah took over the leadership of the organization in 1992 after his predecessor Abbas Al-Mousawi was assassinated, he has been a target for Israeli intelligence, as well as for other political forces. In 2006, Lebanese newspaper As-Safir reported an assassination plot by a Lebanese-Palestinian cell in Lebanon had been disrupted by Lebanese military intelligence (As-Safir, April 10, 2006). Nasrallah rarely appears in public since the 2006 summer war for fear of assassination by Israeli forces.
However, despite the plausibility of the story, the news of the poisoning plot seems extremely hard to confirm. Although Hezbollah’s denial of the story does not constitute the final proof in determining the accuracy of the report, the assassination plot can be doubted on several grounds, including the extremely generic and ambiguous nature of the original report disclosed only by the Iraqi website Almalaf and the fact that no Lebanese news source reported the episode at the time.
Despite substantial doubts regarding the foiled assassination, it is still interesting to analyze its potential significance, especially given the timing chosen to release the report. First, the news concerning the plot came only a week after Iranian sources reported that Hassan Nasrallah had appointed his cousin Hashim Safi Al-Din (chairman of the Hezbollah executive office) as his personal successor in the event of an assassination (Khurshid, October 13; Al-Bawaba, October 13).
Although Hezbollah said it was “unaware” of the succession report and failed to comment on its merit, the choice of Al-Din as a successor seems highly plausible, as Nasrallah himself was the former chairman of the executive office before becoming Secretary General and the position seems a training post for future leaders of the organization (Daily Star, October 16).
The announcement also had a broader political relevance, as it followed Israel’s announcement it was ready to use “disproportionate force” in the event of a future war against Lebanon (Ha’aretz, October 4). In this sense, Hezbollah sent the message that even the assassination of its leader would not succeed in permanently weakening the organization (Al-Arabiya, October 14). Hezbollah’s declarations included a more general warning to Israel regarding a “big surprise” awaiting them in the event of a future attack, as well as a more specific threat to avenge the assassination of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh (Al-Bawaba, October 8; Al-Akhbar, October 8).
The timing of the disclosure of the foiled assassination plot is also interesting from the point of view of domestic Lebanese politics, as it comes in the context of ongoing reconciliation efforts between Hezbollah and opposing political forces. In late September, Lebanese newspapers reported that Future Movement (Tayyar al-Mustaqbal) leader Saad Hariri and Nasrallah were scheduled to meet to discuss a reconciliation platform (Naharnet, September 26). The meeting, after having been postponed due to security concerns, finally took place on October 27, following by several days a meeting between Hariri and Iranian ambassador Mohammad Reza Shaybani to discuss the reconciliation process and enhanced Lebanese-Iranian ties (Tehran Times, October 22). Though the substance of the Nasrallah-Hariri talks remained secret, the meeting was generally acclaimed by Lebanese politicians from all factions (al-Jazeera, October 27; Daily Star, October 28).
The report of the forthcoming summit was followed by a declaration by Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, stating that if the meeting between Hariri and Nasrallah was productive, he would also be interested in talking to the Hezbollah leadership (Naharnet, October 16). Druze leader Jumblatt was, until recently, one of the most vocal opponents of Shaykh Nasrallah and Hezbollah, but now describes their war of words as the product of “moments of terrible psychological and political tension” (Press TV, October 20). Hezbollah has been showing interest in carrying on a dialogue with other political factions, although it has specified; “Definitely, when we talk about reconciliations, we do not talk about new political alliances” (Al-Manar, September 26). In this context, reports accusing political opponents of plotting against the life of Nasrallah could be seen as an attempt to undermine the ongoing dialogue between Hezbollah and its traditional political opponents within Lebanon.