Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 4   No. 9 Table of Contents
MEIB Main Page

September 2002 

Hezbollah's Israeli Operatives
by Gary C. Gambill

Hezbollah Emblem
The Israeli intelligence community prides itself on its ability to penetrate the Shi'ite Hezbollah movement and other militant anti-Israeli groups in Lebanon. While most of the dozens of Shi'ite Lebanese hauled before military courts in Beirut on charges of collaborating with Israel each year are probably innocent, the paranoia vividly underscores the efficacy of Israeli espionage. Recently, however, it appears that the tables are turning.

During the last two years, Hezbollah has been surprisingly successful in recruiting Arab Israeli citizens to gather intelligence about Israeli military movements and prospective targets for terrorist operations, smuggle weapons into the country from Lebanon, and even plot kidnappings of fellow Israelis. While Palestinian groups have also enlisted a modest number of Arab Israelis since the start of the second intifada in September 2000, Hezbollah's success is puzzling.

Whereas most of Israel's 1.2 million Arab citizens identify strongly with the Palestinians on the basis of common religious beliefs (both communities are predominantly Sunni Muslim), a shared experience of living under Israeli rule, and often family ties, they have comparatively little in common with the Lebanese Shi'ite community. Indeed, most Arab Israelis who have collaborated with Hezbollah appear to have been motivated not by religious or national solidarity, but by the prospect of financial gain.

Hezbollah Operatives in the Holy Land

Hezbollah has occasionally succeeded in infiltrating Lebanese operatives into Israel, usually emigrants who are recruited in Europe and enter the country with foreign passports. In 1996, for example, Israel apprehended a naturalized German citizen working for Hezbollah, Hussein Makdad, after he was seriously wounded while constructing a bomb in an East Jerusalem Hotel. In January 2001, Israeli security forces in Jerusalem arrested Jihad Shuman, a Lebanese Shi'ite who entered the country with a British passport in December.

The group also regularly recruits Palestinians in the territories (usually militants affiliated with other groups) and provides them with training and equipment to carry out attacks against Israelis. One of the most infamous such operatives was Masoud Iyyad, an officer in Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Yasser Arafat's Force 17 Presidential Guard, who was killed in an Israeli helicopter strike in February 2001. Masoud, who traveled to Lebanon in the summer of 2000, returned to Gaza and directed a cell that carried out half a dozen pipe bomb, fragmentation grenade and mortar attacks between December 2000 and January 2001.

Arab Israelis and Hezbollah

There were no confirmed cases of Arab Israelis operating on behalf of Hezbollah until 2000. Since then, a number of factors appear to have facilitated Hezbollah recruitment efforts. The most important is logistical. Israel's May 2000 withdrawal from south Lebanon greatly reduced the difficulty and peril of crossing the border, particularly through Ghajar, a village divided by the UN-drawn "blue line." While political motivations appear to have been secondary in most cases, the outbreak of the second intifada, followed by the October 2000 crackdown by Israeli police on Arab Israeli demonstrators, which left 13 dead and 300 injured, helped legitimize involvement in armed activity against the state.

It is also noteworthy that, following the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, a number of Arab Israeli leaders were prone to exaggerated praise of Hezbollah. Azmi Bishara, a member of the Knesset, praised the movement's "firmness and sacrifices." Another Arab MK, Taleb al-Sanaa, declared that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The first cell of collaborators came to light in November 2000 with the arrests of seven residents of Abu Snan, a village in the Western Galilee, on charges of spying for Hezbollah and plotting to abduct Israeli soldiers on its behalf. According to court records, in the days following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May, members of the network joined hundreds of other Arab Israelis who converged at the border fence to meet with relatives from Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. There they were recruited by a relative of one of the men - Jamal Suleiman, a former officer in Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement who heads a small Palestinian "affiliate" of Hezbollah called Ansarallah (Partisans of God) in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp on the outskirts of Sidon. Suleiman paid them $300 and provided Lebanese cell phones and code words for secretly transmitting information about Israeli troop movements to Hezbollah.

In June 2001, three Israeli Arabs from Yafi'a and Kfar Kanna were indicted for plotting to steal weapons from an Israel Defense Force (IDF) base and send information to Hezbollah.

In September 2001, Israeli security forces arrested four Druze Israelis in Rama and Daliat al-Carmel on charges of smuggling weapons into Israel from Lebanon. All four, according to Israeli court records, had previously transported drugs across the border from a Lebanese dealer, who subsequently refused to continue supplying them unless they also agreed to smuggle arms for Hezbollah.

On June 27, 2002, an indictment on charges of spying for Hezbollah was filed against Nissim Musa Nasser, a 34-year-old Lebanese-born Jewish Israeli living in Holon. Nasser, whose late father was a Shi'ite (his mother is Jewish), had remained in close telephone contact with his brother in Lebanon since emigrating to Israel ten years ago. In 2000, Nasser began complaining to his brother that he was experiencing severe financial problems. During one conversation, he was told that a member of Hezbollah who might be able to help wanted to speak with him. He subsequently contacted the Hezbollah member several times. On one such occasion, a high-ranking Hezbollah official was put on the line and asked him to provide the group with a map of the Tel Aviv area showing the locations of gas and electricity installations. Nasser was also asked to contact a senior IDF officer with whom he was acquainted.

According to the indictment, Nasser acquired a map designating the locations of gas depots and electrical power stations in Tel Aviv, which he also photographed on his own initiative. In addition, he relayed to his Hezbollah contact details of his conversation with the IDF officer, who revealed that Israel had no intention of invading Lebanon and told him about top secret plans to assassinate terrorist leaders in Lebanon. Nasser, who confessed to most of the charges, was arrested before he could meet with a Hezbollah contact abroad to deliver the intelligence and receive payment of $1,000.

On July 2, Israeli officials announced that they had uncovered a Hezbollah plot to kidnap Israelis abroad, much like the October 2000 abduction of a retired IDF colonel, Elhanan Tanenbaum (who is still being held). One of the key figures said to be involved in this plot is Qayis Obeid, an Israeli Arab from Taibe who moved to Lebanon in September 2000 and became a Hezbollah operative. According to Israel security sources, Obeid contacted a number of Israeli citizens in June 2002 and attempted to lure them, using bogus business propositions, into traveling either to the border with Lebanon or to a location in Europe, where they were to be kidnapped. It was later revealed that former Israeli Energy Minister Gonen Segev had been targeted for abduction.

On July 12, Israeli security forces arrested four Arab Israelis who smuggled weapons and transmitted intelligence to Hezbollah in return for drugs. According to an indictment filed in early August, Ibrahim Hayeb, a 28-year-old resident of Nazareth who had previously served in the IDF, provided the group with maps, computer software and classified security files he obtained with assistance from his uncle, Haled, a former IDF tracker. Two residents of Ghajar - Hassin Hatib and Hatam Hatib - smuggled the intelligence materials across the border and returned with 50 kg of hashish, three grenades and two handguns. A second shipment of material destined for Hezbollah was confiscated at the time of the arrests.

2002 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

MEIB Main Page