Spy games heat up in Mideast Tactics: As peacemaking efforts in the region have stalled, the players in the Mideast have resumed the familiar, deadly practice of behind-the-scenes warfare.

Sun Journal

November 27, 1996|By Ethan Bronner | Ethan Bronner,BOSTON GLOBE

BEIRUT, LEBANON — BEIRUT -- Blindfolded and sedated, Ahmad Hallaq leaned against a wall of Beirut's Rumiyeh prison and faced a 12-man firing squad.

Offered a last wish, he asked that his wife be permitted to go to Israel and collect $100,000 he said he had been promised for planting a car bomb that killed an Islamic militant and two bystanders in south Beirut two years ago.

But his wife is serving a 15-year sentence as an accomplice, and the request was denied. At 5: 45 a.m. Sept. 21, Hallaq, a former member of a defunct Palestinian terror group who had apparently switched sides, was executed in a spray of gunfire.

At his trial, Hallaq had said he had been recruited and trained by the Israeli government, and he offered details of his role trying to recover the bodies of Israeli soldiers held by Islamic militants here. Israel declines to confirm or deny his account, but intelligence analysts there suspect that Hallaq did work for the Israelis.

With regional peacemaking efforts stagnant, Hallaq's case offers a glimpse into the shadows of Middle Eastern violence, the spy-vs.-spy terror tactics that many believed were starting to decline as Israel edged toward regional acceptance but which might be returning with a vengeance.

Israeli analysts say their intelligence services have adopted a more cautious approach to covert killing since a string of devastating terror attacks in Israel followed Israeli assassinations of two top Palestinian terrorists a year ago. But they acknowledge that in a deteriorating security environment, such methods could begin to play a more prominent role again.

Earlier this month, Israeli officials said intelligence data indicated that a major terrorist attack was imminent. The assault did not occur, perhaps owing partly to U.S. and French diplomatic appeals to Syria and Iran, as well as to security precautions. But tension in Israel has remained high.

There is more belligerence even in people's words. Tewfik Salha, a top official in Syria's ruling Baath party, says that if the peace process fails, Syria will not accept Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights and will "liberate its land in the way it sees fit, and is willing to bear the consequences." This is believed to be a reference to increased guerrilla warfare by groups such as Hezbollah, the Iranian-funded and Syrian-controlled Party of God, which operates in Lebanon.

Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai says that Syria appears to have lifted restraints on Hezbollah in its attacks on Israel. While the attacks have normally been restricted to the southern strip of Lebanon occupied by Israel, Hezbollah evidently is branching out and sending agents inside Israel.

Perhaps the most chilling bit of evidence of Hezbollah's efforts comes from a failed terror attack in April, when a 33-year-old Lebanese accountant named Hussein Mikdad nearly killed himself in an East Jerusalem hotel as he accidentally detonated a sophisticated clock-radio bomb.

Left legless, one-armed and blind by the explosion, Mikdad has, over many hours of interrogation by Israeli intelligence officials, told a tale of Hezbollah training in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and travel to Tel Aviv through Syria, Austria and Switzerland with the help of two false passports and a handler.

Senior Israeli intelligence officials say they are alarmed by the high quality of Mikdad's training and the near-success of his mission.

"He said he was in a 10-week course with six other Lebanese, all chosen for their Western appearance and foreign-language skills," one Israeli official says. "To the best of our knowledge, the other six are still at large."

Hezbollah's precise goals in Israel are hazy. Its documents speak of the need for Muslims to "liberate Jerusalem," but in recent years it has tended to restrict its rhetoric to the liberation of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation troops.

Israel says that its occupation of 12 percent of Lebanon is a security measure aimed at keeping Hezbollah and other enemies at a relatively safe distance from its northern towns and would end in exchange for solid guarantees of peace on that frontier.

But as the Middle East seems to be slipping back into its old ways, Hezbollah's own rhetoric is shifting subtly. In an interview, Hezbollah's deputy secretary-general, Sheik Naim Qassem, said that while Lebanon is his organization's central focus, Israel and the Palestinians also preoccupy it.

"Concerning the Palestinians, we have made clear that we are ready to help them struggle against Israel even inside Palestine," he said.

Qassem added that since the election of hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, "All things have gone back to the starting point. He doesn't want to make any concessions on land. He doesn't believe in land for peace. He wants the whole land and the peace his way, the Israeli way. We are in front of a crisis that can explode at any time for the four years to come."

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