Israeli army officer arrested, accused of spying for Hezbollah

He's suspected of trading information for drugs

October 24, 2002|By Laura King | Laura King,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JERUSALEM - A high-ranking Israeli army officer has been arrested and accused of spying for Hezbollah, a radical Muslim group that is considered one of Israel's most implacable enemies.

Word of the unidentified lieutenant colonel's arrest and those of at least nine other people came from his lawyer, Amnon Zichroni, who told Israeli news media yesterday that the man was taken into custody six weeks ago on suspicion of providing information on troop deployments and other sensitive military matters in exchange for drugs and money.

Israeli officials were tight-lipped about the allegations. Neither the army nor the prime minister's office had an immediate public response.

Israeli television reported that the arrested officer had been friendly with a number of senior Israeli military and political officials, including former President Ezer Weizman. If the reports are true, the arrested officer would be the highest-ranking agent ever recruited by Hezbollah.

One senior Israeli official characterized the case as disturbing mainly for its circumstances rather than for the quality of intelligence the man is suspected of handing to Hezbollah.

"These were operational details, not a question of larger strategic secrets or some such," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Zichroni said an indictment accusing his client of espionage and drug dealing will soon be filed in a military court. He said the officer, who denied all charges against him, was denied access to an attorney during the first 20 days he was held.

The reports described the officer and the others arrested as Israeli Arabs from Galilee, a region in Israel's north that is home to many Druze and Bedouin. Israeli radio and television said the arrested men included others who had served or were serving in the Israeli army.

Hezbollah, whose patrons are Iran and Syria, waged a nearly two-decade guerrilla war to dislodge Israeli troops from southern Lebanon. Israeli troops withdrew from a self-declared buffer zone in southern Lebanon in May 2000, but the frontier remains volatile. Hezbollah does not accept the U.N.-drawn border and lays claim on Lebanon's behalf to a disputed area called the Shebaa Farms.

Israel radio reported accusations that those in the suspected spy ring were asked to provide information on the army's operations in the border region, including details about bases, maps and deployment, in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs. Hezbollah's traditional base of operations has been Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a major drug-producing area.

Authorities also were said to be investigating a possible link between the espionage ring and a cross-border infiltration in March that left six Israelis dead.

The burgeoning scandal threatened to overshadow a visit by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns. Widely circulated reports have said Burns is presenting a plan meant to lead to the establishment of an interim Palestinian state as early as next year, with full-fledged statehood by 2005.

Laura King is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing Co. newspaper.

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