Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 May 2009
Issue No. 948
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

War by another name

Military manoeuvres and a network of spies: is Israel preparing for another war on Lebanon? In Beirut, Omayma Abdel-Latif seeks answers

Hardly a day passes without the exposure of yet another spy cell working for Israel in Lebanon. Eleven networks made of 15 suspects have been uncovered by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) within the span of one month. According to sources in Hizbullah, "What has been revealed is only the tip of the iceberg as more cells and detainees will be arrested." The development is coming at a time when the country is gripped by election fever with polls due 7 June. It also coincides with what has been described as the most extensive Israeli war games since 1948.

To be sure, there is hardly anything new in uncovering Israeli spy cells in Lebanon. What sets the recently discovered networks apart is that they come this time in record numbers and cover almost all of Lebanon, from Beirut to Beqaa, and most importantly the south, Hizbullah's hinterland. While Israeli operatives spilled the beans, Israeli silence was deafening. The only Israeli reaction was opening the northern borders for fleeing operatives who headed home Monday.

Initial investigations reveal intense spying activities. Following the July 2006 war, the Israeli military establishment realised that part of the failure to achieve a painful strike at Hizbullah's rocket arsenal was due to intelligence failures on the ground. It ran out of targets on the sixth day of the war, yet failed to paralyse the resistance's ability to launch rockets. In early 2007 Israel decided to activate its sleeping cells in Lebanon. It restored ties with former operatives and worked on recruiting new ones. While these networks operated separately, Israel worked on creating key players such as Ali Jarrah, Adib Al-Alam and Ziad Al-Homsy who would work on recruiting others. The type of hi-tech spying tools found with some suspects and the training given to most clearly suggest Israel was desperate for new targets and data.

Many questions remain regarding the uncovering of these networks, particularly since some were known to Hizbullah and under its watchful eye since 2006. Second, what were the types of activities assigned to these networks and to what extent has Israel through its operatives managed to breach the security of the resistance or even the Lebanese state in light of the fact that some of its agents served in state institutions? For example Al-Alam served in the General Security Service for 25 years whereas another operative, Haitham Al-Sohmorani, served in the ISF.

Most importantly, is this espionage activity signal of forthcoming military action against Lebanon? On Monday, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warned that Israel might be "preparing for a new and surprise war against Lebanon" during Israeli war games due to commence 31 May until 4 June, to settle old scores with Hizbullah and re-establish its lost allure of military dominance.

Meanwhile, the work to uncover the espionage cells started in September 2008. Most of the efforts have been conducted by the ISF, which is considered to be affiliated with majority leader Saad Al-Hariri and does not enjoy a sound reputation within opposition circles. It has been suggested that the timing of the exposure is closely tied to Lebanon's upcoming elections. The official version of events, however, tells a different story.

According to Ashraf Reifi, head of the ISF, technical assistance and training provided ISF cadres with capabilities to track spy cells and uncover them. But sources close to Hizbullah told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Western technical assistance made available to the ISF enabled it to track down spies, but that the sources of this assistance did not expect the ISF to target Israeli operatives. Rather, it wanted the ISF to focus on Syrian and resistance related activities.

Reifi said it was a technical error on the part of some Israeli operatives that led to the discovery of other networks. "These networks operated separately so that when one is caught it could not tell about the others. A couple of weeks ago, Israeli orders were intercepted by the ISF asking agents to keep a low profile and get rid of some of the hi-tech spying machines," Reifi said.

While some operatives focussed on collecting data on Hizbullah's leading members, others did house surveys of some southern villages. The most serious focussed on inciting sectarian strife. Al-Homsy, a former member of Al-Mustaqbal (Saad Al-Hariri's Future Movement) and deputy head of Saadnayel village, a village in the central Beqaa Valley, is a case in point. Al-Homsy who was arrested by army intelligence is alleged to have been a key player in fomenting sectarian-inspired violence between Saadnayel, Sunni dominated, and neighbouring Talabaiya, majority Shia. The two villages went into bloody confrontation in 2008. Reconciliation efforts failed to stem the hostility and Al-Homsy is said to have played a role in fuelling tension. He also waged a smear campaign against Hizbullah in Al-Erada (The Will) publication, found later to be financed by Israeli handouts.

Al-Homsy's case is the more curious as he moved from priding himself on a life of resistance to Israel to ending up a Mossad operative. But the repercussions of the case go beyond Al-Homsy to raise again the question of whether Israel could be behind much of the violence Lebanon witnessed since the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri in February 2005, including the assassination of 14 Lebanese figures and the sectarian- inspired violence that threatened to take the country back to the brink of civil war.

It surprised few when Nasrallah heavily criticised the Lebanese judiciary in a speech last Friday. Many residents in the southern villages hold the judiciary responsible for the erstwhile-undiscovered spy cells. Former agents who were handed by Hizbullah to the Lebanese judiciary after the liberation of the south in May 2000 were given light sentences that ranged from six months to five years. Hizbullah wanted to send a message by not engaging in extrajudicial acts against the Israel operatives -- to show respect to state institutions, even when it comes to the most sensitive issues. Sheikh Naim Qassim, Hizbullah's deputy secretary-general, called on the judiciary now to issue death sentences on some revealed operatives.

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