Lebanese find alleged Israeli spies in their midst

BEIRUT — Another suspected spy has escaped across the Lebanese border to Israel, Reuters quoted a Lebanese security source as saying Tuesday. If the report is correct, it would be the third time in a month that Lebanese accused of spying for Israel made the dangerous journey across the closed and militarized border.

Around 50 people in Lebanon have been arrested in connection with spying for Israel this spring, and more than 20 charged. The list of suspects includes several high-ranking Lebanese military officers, active and retired, and a former town mayor who championed the Pan-Arab cause.

Lebanon is technically at war with Israel and citizens are prohibited from having any contact with the Jewish state. A conviction on espionage charges can result in execution.

In June, Military Court Investigating Judge Saqr Saqr charged the first suspects in the recent roundup, two Lebanese Army colonels, with spying. They are accused of providing information to the Israelis about security and military installations and helping the Israelis find targets during the summer war of 2006.

“This will tell you a lot about how much, how deep the Israelis have penetrated to the country,” said Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Mussawi from his office in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The area is a Hezbollah stronghold that was devastated by Israeli bombs during the 2006 war.

Israeli agents in Lebanon are also suspected in assassinations of Hezbollah officials, including the attack last year that killed senior Hezbollah commander Imad Mugneeyah in Damascus. Mugneeyah died when the driver’s seat headrest exploded as he entered his vehicle. In 2004, Ghaleb Awali, a senior Hezbollah official, was killed when a bomb exploded in his car outside his home in the southern suburbs.

“These [Hezbollah] guys are invisible, and they still got them,” Timur Goksel, a security analyst who teaches at the American University of Beirut, said. “I have to give credit to the Israelis that they’ve been able to do this.”

Israel was openly allied with some Lebanese Christian militias during Lebanon’s civil war, especially during their 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Israel also occupied southern Lebanon for 22 years. Paying Lebanese to spy, or using coercion to force people to spy, was not unusual, said Goksel, who was an adviser to the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon at the time.

“The Israelis are experienced in this,” he said. “And they know that in Lebanon your technical intelligence gathering doesn’t work all that well — you need human intelligence.”

Goksel said Hezbollah realizes they are no longer “untouchable,” and that the group knows it has been at least partially infiltrated by Israeli agents. Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, hasn’t appeared in public for more than a year — he addresses his supporters via videolink from an undisclosed location.

“Their security has tightened up,” he said. “That’s why you never see Nasrallah, because they realize that the penetration is beyond the Mossad’s own capabilities. The Israelis are running very effective extensions in Lebanon, of local people. It’s not easy to penetrate [Lebanon] with foreign agencies, but if they’re local guys, who blend in and able to move anyplace in country, then that’s a different story, and it’s very scary.”

One of the alleged spies discovered by Hezbollah was a Lebanese man in the southern town of Nabatieh, who was hired to acquire and service vehicles for the group’s senior leaders. He was allegedly caught putting GPS tracking devices on the vehicles.

Another alleged spy was Ziyad Homsi, the former deputy mayor of the Bekka valley town of Saadnayel. The Lebanese newspaper Al Safir reported that Homsi had told interrogators he was paid $100,000 by the Israelis, and that his mission was to meet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, a goal he didn’t accomplish.

Other spies in Lebanon were allegedly caught in possession of sophisticated technology to monitor and communicate with their minders. Lebanese security agents with their faces covered showed off what they said was captured spy equipment at a press conference in May, including computers, radios, a water cooler that concealed a tracking device and a chest containing a secret communication gadget.

There are several theories as to why the dramatic capture of so many spies happened at once. Hezbollah’s Musawi said he thought that once Lebanese security agencies busted one spy cell, the members revealed other cells and members fell like dominoes. Musawi also said that Hezbollah had tipped off the Lebanese security forces about some of the suspected spies.

“There is coordination between [Hezbollah] and the Lebanese Army and different security apparatuses in the country … in order to insure the safety of Lebanon and the Lebanese,” Musawi said.

Goksel says he thinks the spies may have recently been ordered to find targets for their Israeli minders in case there's another war, and thus were more exposed than they had been in years, which made it easier for Lebanese security forces to detect them. He also points out that the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, the agency taking much of the credit for the busts, are freshly trained thanks to $400 million in security assistance from the U.S. during the last three years. A Headline in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper in May asked the question, “Did U.S. help Lebanon crack alleged Israeli spy rings?”

The Lebanese government has complained to the United Nations about the Israeli cells. Last Tuesday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was “concerned” about the spies and how they could “endanger the fragile cessation of hostilities that exists between Israel and Lebanon.”

Hezbollah’s Musawi said the cells were another violation of Lebanese sovereignty, like the Israeli aircraft that fly surveillance missions over Lebanon on a weekly basis.

“This shows you how the Israelis have never really left the arena, that they are always there, and they are always trying,” he said.

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