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Israeli Spy Case Causes Furor

The allegation that a Bedouin army officer aided Hezbollah could drive yet another wedge between Jewish and Arab communities.

October 25, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — For generations, men of the small Bedouin village of Beit Zarzir have proudly volunteered to serve in the Israeli army, which prized them for their battlefield bravery and their phenomenal ability to read terrain. On Thursday, the scion of the village's most prominent clan -- a Bedouin lieutenant colonel who lost an eye fighting for Israel in Lebanon -- stood before a military court, indicted on charges of espionage.

The case of Omar Heib and his nine alleged accomplices, who are also Bedouins, is causing a furor in Israel. The men are accused of providing sensitive military information, in exchange for drugs and money, to the Muslim fundamentalist group Hezbollah, which is sworn to Israel's destruction. Heib, if found guilty, would be the highest-ranking Israeli military officer known to have been recruited to spy on the group's behalf.

Since the earliest days of Israel's statehood, the courage and loyalty of its Bedouin troops, who as Muslims and Arabs are not subject to Israel's military draft, have been cited as proof that the state's Arab minority can be fully integrated with the Jewish majority into the nation's most venerable institutions.

Now it is feared that this case will drive yet another wedge between the two communities, whose relationship has become increasingly fraught with tension and mistrust as the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, drags into a third year.

Many Israeli Arabs believe that they are unfairly tarred by terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinian militants, and point out that they too suffer casualties in suicide bombings and other assaults inside Israel. Israeli Arabs were among the dead and injured when an explosives-laden SUV slammed into a crowded bus in northern Israel on Monday, killing 14 passengers, some of whom were burned alive.

Some Jewish Israelis, however, perceive Israeli Arabs' sympathy for their Palestinian brethren as a worrisome threat from within. Israeli Arabs have been implicated in the planning and execution of several attacks, and there was an outpouring of anger in Israel this year when a young Israeli Arab woman and her companion, who were warned by the Palestinian bomber, got off a bus before it blew up without attempting to raise any alarm.

In such a highly charged atmosphere, these spy allegations are both divisive and damning. Laying out their cases Thursday, Israeli prosecutors depicted a seamy drug underworld intersecting with the shadowy realm of espionage, in which Hezbollah-linked traffickers proffered drugs and cash, and the Bedouin gang in return provided information about army troop movements, coded maps and other operational details.

As Heib was being indicted in a special military court in Tel Aviv and four of his alleged accomplices appeared in criminal court in the Israeli Arab city of Nazareth, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli army's chief of staff, sought to portray the case as an isolated one, even if wrongdoing is proven.

"People must not draw conclusions against the Bedouin community, whose sons have contributed greatly to the country and its security, and continue to do so," Yaalon said. "The community has paid a heavy price for this service."

Bedouin soldiers have a storied tradition as "trackers," or guides and scouts whose keen powers of observation have made them an invaluable asset in Israel's many wars.

"They see a small stone if it's turned the way it wasn't before, or a twig that's bent in a way it shouldn't be, and they know who has passed that way, and when," said Joseph Ginat, a University of Haifa professor who has lived among Bedouins and written extensively about them. "You can't study this skill in the university. You have to be born to it, smell it, see it, grow up with it."

This legacy is kept alive today on the frontier with Lebanon, where Israeli troops remain locked in a standoff with the guerrillas of Hezbollah, and trackers are used to help counter constant attempts to infiltrate northern Israel. In March, six Israelis were killed in one such suspected infiltration.

It is because Hezbollah is considered such a dangerous foe that the case is sending shock waves through Israel, said Yossi Melman, an Israeli author and journalist specializing in espionage and intelligence matters.

"In terms of real damage to Israel's national security interest, the information thought to have been passed to them would have only a very limited impact," Melman said. "But Hezbollah is not just defined by law as a hostile organization -- by its very nature it is a vicious enemy of Israel, maybe the most vicious."

In their long campaign during the 1980s and 1990s to drive Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon, the guerrillas bloodied the far stronger Israeli army again and again with unconventional tactics and the effective use of relatively low-tech weaponry, such as radio-triggered roadside bombs. Israel withdrew its troops in May 2000.

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