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Israeli army officer 'spied for Hizbollah in return for drugs'

By Alan Philps in Jerusalem
October 24, 2002

A senior Israeli army officer was under arrest last night accused of spying for the Lebanese Muslim guerrillas of Hizbollah in exchange for large quantities of drugs.

The Shin Bet security service arrested the suspect six weeks ago with 10 accomplices involved in selling on the drugs, hashish and heroin from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, officials said.

The courts banned the publication of the officer's name and position, but he was understood to hold a senior post in Israel's northern command, which controls the border with Lebanon.

He is understood to be a Bedouin Arab, as are the alleged accomplices, who are all civilians.

Israel's Bedouin minority are allowed to volunteer for the forces and many work as trackers, using their desert skills to find traces of armed infiltrators or smugglers.

It is not the first time that Israelis have been tempted to deal in Lebanese drugs; a case is currently pending against a civilian. But it is special because of the suspect's high position and the public hatred of Hizbollah, which has been fighting Israel for more than a decade.

Families of three Israeli soldiers captured by Hizbollah in a cross-border raid will want to know if the suspect helped the guerrillas.

The Israeli government has not received any firm word of the soldiers' fate, though it is possible they may not have survived the ambush.

There is also a public clamour to know if infiltrators who climbed the border fence in March and killed seven Israelis were helped by the suspect.

Security officials said the case was extremely worrying. It takes place against a background of rising concern at the loyalty of the million-strong Arab minority.

The Israeli army withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000 after a long, unsuccessful battle against the guerrillas. But the border remains tense as Hizbollah has refused to accept one part of the United Nations-delineated frontier line and has launched continuing raids.

The suspect's defence lawyer told Israel Radio that the charges were false. His client was "extremely loyal" and had been framed by known drug dealers and jealous rivals of his clan.

He is thought to have been wounded during service in Lebanon by a roadside bomb laid by Hizbollah. Charges to be brought against him in a military court are expected to include aggravated espionage, contact with foreign agents and assistance to the enemy at the time of war.

Security agents started hunting him after the March infiltration near Metsuba, a kibbutz close to the frontier. The infiltrators were killed and one had an Israeli mobile phone which gave leads to contacts in Israel involved in the drug trade.

Though the border is heavily guarded, packages of drugs can be tossed over to the Israeli side to be picked up by a soldier with authorisation to reach the border.

• Eight Israeli army reservists petitioned the High Court yesterday to allow them to refuse to serve in the occupied territories, saying they had a duty to stay out of a "system of collective punishment" of the Palestinians.

They are among 140 reservists who have refused to serve in the territories, usually receiving a punishment of 35 days in an army jail. This is the first time the issue has been aired in court.

The eight asked the court to rule that Israel's 33-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip had become illegal and it was a soldier's right and duty to refuse to serve in "one huge prison".