Babylon & Beyond

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ISRAEL, LEBANON: Who is winning the intelligence war with Hezbollah?

August 1, 2010 |  8:35 am

Lebanon-spy  In October 2009,  Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, a former head of military intelligence, all but confirmed that Israel had intensified spying efforts in Lebanon because of Hezbollah and would stop when the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militant group was disarmed and Israel's border with Lebanon was peaceful.

The intelligence war continues unabated, as the Los Angeles Times reported in a front-page article Sunday, with Israel apparently trying to infiltrate and Hezbollah, with help from the Lebanese government, trying to thwart it.  

"Hezbollah is not a easy target" to infiltrate, said Ephraim Kam, an Israeli intelligence expert. "The organization is not a big one. It is very compartmentalized and tough to penetrate. Also, it is an ideological-religious one, always tougher to penetrate."

Lebanese claim they have scored many victories in countering the intelligence efforts, arresting dozens of alleged spies in the last two years. Still, Israel believes it is winning the battle. 

“The impression is that even after these recent cases, and in light of the intelligence Israel appears to have, the extent and scope of the Israeli infiltration of Lebanon is far better than that of Hezbollah in Israel,” Amos Harel, a reporter for the daily Haaretz, told Babylon & Beyond.

Lebanon's claimed intelligence successes also show the extent of Israeli infiltration of the country. Recruited spies included government and army officials as well as phone company officials and car dealers who slap tracking devices on vehicles they sell. 

But they were all pretty small-time.

"These weren’t James Bond-type of agents, not great assassins or deep moles," said Ronen Bergman, an Israeli journalist who is the author of the "Secret War with Iran" and an upcoming book about Mossad. "None of them belonged to Hezbollah, or even close."

The Israeli army’s recent briefing about Hezbollah’s alleged use of civilian facilities to stash weapons showed very detailed information and displayed possession of good intelligence. Even with the recent discoveries, Lebanese intelligence may be scratching the surface of Israeli penetration. 

Hezbollah is also trying to snoop on Israel. The Israeli army is constantly reminding soldiers the enemy is listening. Authorities constantly warn of about recruitment efforts among Arab Israelis or Palestinians.

But Hezbollah's  abilities are mostly in the north, trying to spy on telephone and radio communications systems. They've rarely recruited a big fish as a spy; perhaps an occasional noncommissioned officer or cop, but mostly Arab Israelis who don't have good access to top-shelf intel.

Still, warns Gad Shimron, author of "Mossad Exodus" and a former Israeli spy, "Never make light of the enemy.

"The fact that a senior Hezbollah spy has never been caught in Israel doesn’t mean there is none, only that none have been caught," Shimron said. 

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem and Borzou Daragahi in Paris

Photo: Lebanese Mahmoud Rafeh, a 60-year-old retired police officer, who was charged with spying for the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and helping execute a bombing that killed Mahmoud Majzoub, a senior Islamic Jihad official and his brother outside their home in the southern city of Sidon, is seen in a dock at a military court in Beirut, Lebanon on Feb. 18. A military court has sentenced Rafeh to death. Credit: Hussein Malla / Associated Press