LEBANON — The village of Bodai, near Baalbeck in the Beqaa Valley, was in mourning last Wednesday. As the people wore black, yellow banners of the recently-killed Hizbullah commander Ali Hussein Nassif had been hung on most houses alongside Hizbullah yellow flags and pictures of Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the party’s leader. The village is known as a Hizbullah stronghold. The cell phones of visitors do not work, but the villagers are able to make phone calls, as Hizbullah has its own telecommunications network operating in the areas of Lebanon it controls.
The commander’s family is receiving guests for condolences. As tradition requires, the women serve sour black coffee and sweet maamoul cakes. The men sit on chairs in front of the house, while women have their separate tent behind the building. However, we are taken inside the house. As the family closes the door, they start discussing the presence of strangers while five women wearing black from head-to-toe black stare at us in silence. Ali Hussein Nassif’s picture hangs on the wall, displaying a man in his early fifties, with a grey beard, dressed in a military uniform and holding a Kalashnikov.
“We are not ready for interviews right now,” one of them said. “My son died in the jihad. When we go to jihad we don’t care about this life. We care about the afterlife,” she added. Neither Nassif’s mother, nor the other women seemed to be grieving. After two Hizbullah agents checked our passports, made copies of them, and took our pictures and our phone numbers, two of the men escorted us out of town saying that they cannot allow the family to speak to the media without the permission of senior Hizbullah officials.
Nassif, a high-ranking Hizbullah military operative, was brought to Lebanon from Syria on 2 October and was buried with great honor the same day. The news of the funeral was disseminated on Hizbullah’s television channel Al-Manar and the party’s news website moqawama.org. At the time, there was no official statement from Hizbullah to confirm that Nassif died in Syria. But reports of affiliated media outlets and Nassif’s mother confirmed that he died while doing his “jihadi duty,” meaning that he died in combat.
The Free Syrian Army claims responsibility for killing Nassif. Syrian fighters in Homs say that the Hizbullah commander and two of his companions were killed by them at a checkpoint in Zaraa, a suburb of Homs, after they were tipped off by a collaborator in the Syrian army. The rebels said they installed improvised explosive devices at the checkpoint. They also said that they filmed the entire attack, but refused to release it to the media without payment. “We are tired of telling the media that Hizbullah fighters are helping the Assad regime. Nobody ever believes us,” the rebel commander said over the phone.
Hizbullah officially dismissed any accusations of interference in the Syrian conflict, even after the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hizbullah’s patron, admitted that they have consultants in Syria and Lebanon.
Hizbullah official Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek said on Sunday that Nassif, aka Abu Abbas, was killed while defending Lebanese citizens in Syria. He also said that Abu Abbas defended the Lebanese people, who have been subjected to “killings and kidnappings” while the Lebanese cabinet “disassociated itself from saving them.”
“The martyr was [killed] among the Lebanese and in defense of the Lebanese; the ‘resistance’ did not entangle Lebanon, it bore its responsibility after the state abandoned its responsibility to defend the Lebanese,” Yazbek said, without referring to any specific example of Lebanese citizens at risk in Syria.
Syrian refugees who crossed the border from Homs and the village of Talkalakh have claimed the presence of Hizbullah snipers since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, while rumors of secret funerals in Hizbullah-controlled villages in South Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley have been circulating for the past year and a half. In early August, a senior Hizbullah military commander named Musa Ali Shehimi died “doing his jihadist duty.” A large funeral was held for him in Lebanon without specifying where or how he was killed. But, the news about his funeral was posted on alintiqad.com, a website associated with Hizbullah.
Ali Haidar, a local journalist from Nabatieh, South Lebanon, confirmed that the mysterious funerals indeed took place. He said most families of fighters are told that they died in training or jihadist duty and they are compensated financially for the loss. None of the families, however, are allowed to speak to the media. Haidar is aware, he says, of more than twenty such funerals, mostly in East Beqaa, but also in villages around the city of Tyre, South Lebanon. The funerals began around a year ago.
“The Hizbullah fighters as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are present in Syria without a doubt,” he said. “But they are not active in the fight against the rebels. It’s neither Hizbullah’s nor Iran’s style. They are consultants, probably teaching the Syrian army techniques of guerilla war or urban war,” he pointed out. “Hizbullah has training camps in the Beqaa Valley, next to the border with Syria. There are Iranian trainers in those camps, and some of the Hizbullah fighters and the Iranian trainers were moved to Syria to help the Syrian army,” Haidar said.
Ibrahim Bayram, a commentator for An-Nahar daily, close to Hizbullah circles, said that Nassif was indeed killed in Syria, in a village with a majority Shia population that Hizbullah feels it has the responsibility to protect against the rebels’ attacks. He accepts that Nassif was killed in combat with the rebels, but claims that Hizbullah operatives are not fighting on the side of the Syrian regime as such. “Nassif was killed in combat with the armed rebels in the Homs countryside. I don’t believe Hizbullah is involved in the fighting [on the Assad regime’s side], because they don’t want to suffer the consequences of the conflict,” he said.
However, the US Department of the Treasury announced sanctions against Hassan Nasrallah and other Hizbullah leaders and accused Hizbullah of cooperating with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to provide training and logistical support to the Syrian government. Hizbullah has also helped the Syrian government push rebel forces from some areas in Syria, the Treasury Department said.