x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Lebanon accuses Israel of violating ceasefire

Israeli units entered Lebanon to help accused spies avoid arrest, diplomats claim.

BEIRUT // Lebanese diplomats have accused Israel of violating a UN-mandated ceasefire along their tense border after at least four instances in which they claimed Israeli military units covertly entered Lebanon to help accused spies avoid arrest by security forces. In a letter to the UN Security Council, Lebanese officials detailed information gathered on three Israeli spy networks over the past six months and accused Israel of violating the ceasefire put into place in 2006.

These violations include not just spying but the use of Israeli military units along the border to allow accused spies to evade capture by Lebanese forces. "Our representative to the United Nations has accused Israel of sending military units to enter Lebanon to help these collaborators escape," Gen Ashraf Rifi, commander of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, said in an interview. "In the south we have normal military units and they witnessed these violations."

The letter describes three instances - May 7, May 17 and May 18 - when four accused spies were able to cross the border, which is supposed to be controlled by a combination of Hizbollah, UN peacekeepers, Lebanese armed forces and the Israeli army. "On May 7, 2009, two Lebanese individuals Rizk Toufic Ibrahim and his son Kamal Rizk Ibrahim charged with spying for Israel escaped from Lebanon to Israel," the letter states.

Gen Rifi refused to say how far into Lebanon the Israeli units penetrated, but pointed out that assisting the accused spies in any manner would violate both international law and Lebanese sovereignty. The networks were discovered after Lebanon upgraded its signal intelligence gathering capabilities and were able to intercept communications between the spies and their handlers, according to Gen Rifi, but he denied local media reports that the technology had been supplied by the US government.

At least 23 Lebanese have been accused or arrested since October for participating in what appears to be three distinct operational cells tasked with collecting information on high-value Hizbollah and Palestinian targets around the country. The arrests have roiled an already tense Lebanon, which will hold parliamentary elections in two weeks. The elections pit the pro-western ruling coalition in an increasingly bitter contest against a Hizbollah-led alliance that is built around resistance to Israeli and US interference in the country. But those accused of spying seem to come from within a spectrum of Lebanon's complicated confessional system, so the effect of the arrests on the elections has, so far, been muted.

Last week, in a sign that more arrests could be pending, Lebanese authorities said in interviews that they intercepted instructions from Israeli intelligence handlers to assets in Lebanon to destroy communications devices and cut off contacts because of security breaches. Six suspects have disappeared, according to the letter and confirmed by Gen Rifi, including four spirited through the hi-tech fence that blocks the disputed frontier. Gen Rifi said an investigation into the flight of the other two suspects continues.

In a speech Friday night, the Hizbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah, told supporters that anyone caught spying for Israel, regardless of their religion, should be put to death under Lebanese law. Several of the suspects appear to have been arrested as part of a joint investigation between Hizbollah's extensive counter-intelligence network and Lebanese security forces. "I call for the capital punishment for all arrested agents beginning with the Shiite agents first," he said to supporters via video-link.

"Espionage rings do not only work on gathering data, some carry out operations. 20 kilograms of explosives were uncovered at one agent's home. This brings up a lot of questions." It would raise questions for Mr Nasrallah, as he appears to be a target of the intelligence-gathering cells around southern Beirut, several of which appear to have been responsible for collecting intelligence on the movements of top Hizbollah officials.

One of the accused operatives in custody, Nasser Nader, captured on May 16, not only possessed sophisticated surveillance equipment, but apparently admitted to playing a role in the 2004 assassination of a top Hizbollah official in southern Beirut that had previously been blamed on a Sunni Muslim radical group with ties to al Qa'eda. Lebanese officials, led by Gen Rifi, have detailed the operations of three separate intelligence networks operating throughout south Lebanon and the strategic Beqaa Valley.

The first cell, according to local media reports, the letter to the UN and confirmed by Lebanese officials, sprang from an investigation into the killing in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, a top Hizbollah military commander. During investigations by both Hizbollah and Lebanese authorities, officials discovered Ali Dib al Jarrah and his brother, Yousef, using hi-tech observation devices to spy on traffic entering Syria from Lebanon, much as Mughniyeh had crossed just a day before his assassination.

The second cell appears to have been led by a retired general, Adib al Alam, who operated his network via a business to import foreign maids into Lebanon. His wife and son were both arrested, with his son accused of using his job as a security supervisor at the Naqoura border crossing with Israel to contact his handlers. Almost a dozen of the accused spies appear to have been involved in this network.

The third cell was uncovered by Hizbollah itself in February after a series of tracking devices were found in sport utility vehicles style change supplied by a close confident of the group, Marwan al Fakih. He was then arrested by Hizbollah and turned over to Lebanese authorities. @Email:mprothero@thenational.ae