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His fluent Arabic was a handicap

A German Israeli man's love for Lebanon and its people sours after he's jailed on suspicion of being a spy.

November 01, 2007|Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — Daniel Sharon has spent years seeking out the little-known treasures of Lebanon, from the hip new Sky Bar nightclub to the peaceful, rocky beaches in Batroun.

A well-to-do German businessman, Sharon has vacationed in the country for more than a decade without incident, often in five-star hotels and artisan neighborhoods that are insulated enough from the strife and conflict that have consumed much of the country.

But that changed this September, when Sharon became an alibi witness in a homicide investigation. The 32-year-old's fluent Arabic made Lebanese officials suspicious and, when they asked about his nationality, he disclosed he had dual German-Israeli citizenship.

Immediately suspected of being an Israeli spy, Sharon was handcuffed and blindfolded, then whisked away to a notorious military prison for investigation. He was kept locked up in Lebanon for 22 days.

"It was an awful and traumatic experience," Sharon said recently in interviews conducted online and by telephone from his hotel room in Istanbul, Turkey, where he was recovering from his ordeal. "I was extremely disappointed to realize that Lebanon was no different from other Arab states."

The case initially attracted a flurry of attention in the Israeli and Lebanese media, focused mostly on the unsubstantiated allegation that he was a spy for the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency.

Sharon, in his first interview with a Western publication after his release, said his days in prison left him bitter about a country whose people, culture and natural beauty he had once admired.

Growing up in Israel, Sharon had a Palestinian nanny and said he had always felt an affinity with Arab culture. He mastered Arabic and speaks it in an accent typical of Persian Gulf countries, where he has been successful in real estate and the nursing home business.

Sharon, who was brought up as a Jew, said he had been fascinated by Islam since he was a boy, and fasted with his nanny during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

He said he even sided with the Lebanese during Hezbollah's war with Israel last year because seeing Lebanese civilians killed and neighborhoods destroyed made him angry.

"I have always been against the policy of oppression and discrimination that Israel practices against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," he said.

Sharon said he was jailed in Israel for four months when he refused to do his compulsory military service, and later moved to Jordan where he took courses in Arabic.

Since his first visit to Lebanon in 1996, he has been captivated by the country, accumulating knowledge of Lebanese cuisine, traditions and politics. He often joined friends at restaurants in Hamra, a busy Beirut neighborhood frequented by intellectuals and artists, and said he loved to stroll its streets because it was the only part of the city that truly embraced all sectarian groups.

"I find Lebanese culture to be unique and I was proud to spend my money there," he said. "I felt I was doing my part to help this country survive."

Sharon said his dual nationality did make him feel apprehensive about visiting Lebanon, which considers Israel an enemy state, so he used his German passport when he went there.

He felt safe staying in five-star hotels and kept to areas dominated by Sunni Muslims and Christians, which embrace the West more enthusiastically than Shiite Muslim districts controlled by Hezbollah.

Besides, Sharon said, when he applied for a visa at the Lebanese Embassy in Jordan, he disclosed his dual nationality.

"They told me there was no problem, but advised me to stay away of areas with a Palestinian or Shiite dominance," he said. They "had always known I had an Israeli passport."

His ordeal began Sept. 20 when he was summoned to a police station in Beirut's southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold.

He went at the request of a Lebanese friend, an airport security official, whose roommate had been found shot to death in their apartment. It wasn't until Sharon arrived that he realized his friend was implicated in an apparent murder.

Sharon, called in as an alibi witness, told authorities he had dinner with his friend the night the roommate was killed.

That's when Sharon's fluent Arabic aroused suspicion, and investigators asked about his background.

"I told them I was Jewish and held an Israeli passport, and this is when the whole craziness started," he said.

Recalling his incarceration, Sharon said he was not physically abused but was forced to remain seated for long periods, allowed to move only once in a while to stretch his legs.

"I was not beaten up, but it was an awful place," he said. "I heard people being beaten up and occasionally screaming and begging for mercy.

"It's an atmosphere of terror. You don't have a name there, you are just a number."

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