Lebanese authorities have broken up a spy ring that provided Israel with information about the activities of the Hizbullah-led Islamic resistance in Lebanon, as well as of the military positions and activities of the Lebanese and Syrian armies. The story first became public on February 26, when the Intelligence Directorate of the Lebanese army released a statement saying that three suspects arrested ten days earlier on charges of spying had confessed and would be referred to a military court. The men, who come from villages in southern Lebanon that had been under Israeli occupation, have confessed to forming an espionage network that had worked for Mossad since 1993. The local media says that 5 or 6 people have been arrested so far.
According to the army statement, the arrests came after “a series of investigations” that were “triggered by the confessions of another detainee belonging to the same network.” It added that the three men had also provided their Mossad handlers with information on the whereabouts and activities of local political figures and on local financial, economic and tourism institutions. The spy ring devoted a significant part of its intelligence-gathering on Lebanese political figures to monitoring the movements of Hizbullah leaders, especially the group’s secretary-general, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. It also collected information on Hizbullah’s vast network of social work agencies and charitable organizations. The three men then relayed the information to Israeli intelligence agents during meetings at Israeli embassies in a number of European capitals. The trio’s last meeting with Mossad agents was held at the Israeli embassy in Rome. The men earned large sums of money from their espionage work. According to Lebanese media sources, they restricted their activities to intelligence-gathering and were not involved in carrying out sabotage or terrorist activities.
The high-profile social status of the three men, who were also charged with recruiting other agents in return for large sums of money, enabled them to make frequent trips abroad to convey information to Mossad without drawing suspicion upon themselves. One, Imad Hussein al-Ruz, 43, was a senior administrator at the Middle East Hospital, an important medical institution in Beirut. Another, Muhammad ‘Abd al-’Aziz Abu Milhem, 45, was a senior bank executive. The third, Radwan Khalil al-Hajj, 38, was a merchant.
On March 1 another statement from the office of the chief military prosecutor said that Hassan Hashem, a former deputy president of the Amal Movement, had been arrested and would face the same charges as the other members of the ring. It added that Hashem, better known during the Lebanese civil war years by his nom de guerre Abu Hashem, was turned over to Riyad Tali’i, the military investigating magistrate, who interrogated him. On March 4 the army arrested Hanadi Khalil Ramadan, a 29-year-old woman accused of “collaborating with the enemy and its collaborators.” Two other members of the ring remain at large; one is believed to have fled to Israel with the thousands of Lebanese collaborators who sought refuge there after Israel’s retreat from most of southern Lebanon in May 2000. The other is living outside the country. Both are wanted for cooperating with Hajj and Abu Milhem to smuggle Israeli products into Lebanon and selling them in local markets.
Hashem was dismissed from Amal in 1986 for attempting to overthrow Nabih Berri, the group’s leader, now speaker of Lebanon’s parliament. His involvement in the spy ring raises worries about the extent to which Israeli and other intelligence-services might have been able to take advantage of Lebanon’s deepening economic predicament to recruit former leaders and cadres who played important roles in the country’s myriad militias during the civil war, but who found themselves without work or prestige after the end of the war in 1990.
Hashem’s involvement in the spy ring is especially perturbing because of his previous role in Amal, a group founded in the 1970s by Sayyid Musa al-Sadr, who considered Israel an “absolute evil” (sharrun mutlaq). Between 1982 and 1986 Hashem was the head of an Amal Executive Committee that was charged with implementing the decisions of the group’s Political Bureau. He reportedly suffered psychological difficulties after his dismissal from Amal, which were compounded by social and financial problems. He stood unsuccessfully in the first post-civil war parliamentary elections in 1992. He tried to return to the political scene by forming the founding committee of the Mu’tamar (Congress) Party. The outfit failed to evolve into a viable political group and was finally disbanded in 1999.
Even worse, Hashem was very active in resistance activities carried out by Amal against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. He also had a close relationship with Hajj Mustafa Dirani, a former chief of Amal’s Central Security Apparatus, who broke away from the movement in the late 1980s and formed al-Muqawamah al-Mu’minah (“faithful resistance”), a small resistance group. Dirani was kidnapped from his home in May 1994 by a helicopter-borne Israeli commando unit. He and Shaykh Abd al-Karim ‘Ubayd, an alim kidnapped by Israeli commandos from his home in July 1989, have been held as “bargaining chips” to gain information about Israeli air-force pilot Ron Arad, who went missing in Lebanon in 1986 after he was shot down during a bombing raid on a Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon (southern Lebanon). Dirani and ‘Ubayd are held under so-called “administrative detention,” a system condemned by human rights organizations, under which detainees are held without charge for renewable six-month periods. In 2000 Dirani filed a lawsuit, demanding compensation of $1.4 million from Israel for torture and humiliating treatment. The suit charged that, while in Israeli custody, Dirani suffered beatings, sleep deprivation, violent shakings, and was even raped in the presence of other soldiers by a soldier brought in especially for the purpose. He was also sodomized by the head of Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security apparatus) interrogation team, known as “George”, and suffered severe haemorrhages as a result.
The fact that the spy ring also focused on economic espionage directs attention to its sophisticated and multifaceted approach to intelligence gathering. Officials in Beirut believe that this suggests Israel’s interest in undermining vital sectors in the Lebanese economy, namely banking, tourism and trade. Worse still, they believe that the ring also sought to gather intelligence on economic and financial institutions dealing with Hizbullah, with the ultimate aim of helping US efforts to classify these business organizations as institutions supporting or dealing with groups listed on Washington’s “terror organizations.”
For many Lebanese, the discovery of the spy ring has been a severe shock. Mossad’s ability to recruit well-to-do professionals has given rise to speculation about its possible success in recruiting people from the burgeoning poor, given Lebanon’s increasing economic problems.