Analysis: Smoke, mirrors and fire in Lebanon

There's a sense that there's likely to be some factual basis behind allegations of espionage for Israel.

Hizbullah 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Hizbullah 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
This week, nine more Lebanese citizens were arraigned on charges of espionage and collaboration with Israel. This brings the total of people charged in connection with the alleged Israeli "spy ring" in Lebanon to 35. Around 100 people have now been arrested in connection with the investigation. Among those charged are a former general, two Lebanese Army colonels and an official of the ruling March 14 movement. Reliable information in such matters is, of course, extremely difficult to obtain. The Israeli authorities remain silent. There is a growing sense, however, confirmed by conversations with a number of former senior Israeli officials, that there is likely to be at least some factual basis behind the allegations. A number of simple facts may immediately be noted: Firstly, it is no secret that the Israeli security services - Military Intelligence, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the Mossad - are active in information gathering in Lebanon. Secondly, the Lebanese security service which has been responsible for carrying out the investigation is the ISF (Internal Security Forces) led by Gen. Ashraf Rifi. Rifi, a Sunni, is generally considered in Lebanon to be pro-March 14, and had personal links to murdered former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The ISF has benefited from US patronage and has been built up and expanded by March 14, (just as its rival, the General Security Directorate (GSD), is seen as linked to the Hizbullah-led opposition.) It has been suggested in some international media outlets that the emerging revelations are the result of an attempt by Hizbullah and its allies to divert attention from recent evidence of Hizbullah involvement in a terror cell uncovered in Egypt. The fact that Ziad Homsi, a former March 14 mayor, was among those arrested was used to bolster this claim. The available evidence suggests that some of the information leading to the arrests came from Hizbullah. The location of some of the alleged spies in the Hizbullah-dominated south of the country further suggests the movement's likely involvement in tracking and apprehending the suspects. But the central role of the ISF and Rifi in the investigation would militate against the notion that the affair is a fictional production laid on by Hizbullah and the opposition in order to discredit March 14. According to one Israeli source, the sheer volume of evidence produced, and in particular the visual evidence displayed, further leads to the conclusion that there is something more than mere electoral provocations behind the affair. The reported departure of a number of individuals suspected of espionage across the heavily defended Israeli-Lebanese border also backs up the allegations. Rifi himself, without entering into detail, claims that an unidentified technical breakthrough began the process of uncovering the Israeli network. Certainly, the ISF has undergone a marked improvement in its equipment and capabilities over the last couple of years. This has derived from an extensive program of EU and US security assistance to Lebanon, intended to improve the performance of the county's security forces. The pre-2005 ISF was a neglected, stunted, largely ignored force with little capacity for gathering information. Only in the last two years has it become an organization that could be imagined pulling off a major intelligence coup. Israeli security officials raised the possibility after 2005 that US military assistance to Lebanon might end up being used against Israel to benefit the common enemies of Washington and Jerusalem. It is distinctly possible that this is exactly what has taken place. Given the close links of the ISF and March 14, it is also conceivable that the timing of the revelations was connected to next week's elections - designed to enable March 14 to clothe itself in patriotic finery, and depict itself as no less of a "resistance" force against Israel than Hizbullah. One Israeli analyst suggested that the evidence regarding Israeli espionage in Lebanon might eventually rival those of the 1950s Lavon Affair in their importance. This claim was probably hyperbole. What appears to be emerging in Lebanon looks like a more mundane - though important - story of the uncovering of an information-gathering ring. Such an occurrence is an accepted, though unfortunate, turn of events for those involved in such activities. Some hints in the media point to a problem in demarcating areas of operation between Israeli organizations as a contributing factor. The inevitably murky nature of such matters - magnified by the divided and complex nature of Lebanon - make the drawing of any firm conclusions a risky enterprise. But it does appear that behind the smoke and mirrors of this latest Lebanese affair, a solid outline is beginning to emerge. Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.