Two weeks ahead of its elections, Lebanon is conducting a wide-ranging crackdown on alleged Israeli spies. In sharp contrast to previous, smaller-scale operations, the current wave of arrests is being spearheaded not by Hizbollah or the army, but by the Internal Security Forces (ISF), an American-trained agency commanded by partisans of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri.
The commander of the ISF, Gen Ashraf Rifi, claims that the crackdown is the culmination of high-tech surveillance dating back nearly two years. But many suspect that the timing is intended to bolster the ruling coalition’s bleak electoral prospects — both by re-affirming its anti-Zionist bona fides and by demonstrating that the state can contend with Israel without Hizbollah’s militia.
Indeed, some supporters of the current government report that the alleged spy network has penetrated the ranks of Hizbollah itself. In contrast, pro-opposition media portray the crackdown as a vindication of Hizbollah’s warnings about the Israeli threat and play up the fact that one of the men arrested is nominally a member of Hariri’s Future Movement.
So how the campaign will affect the elections is difficult to say with any degree of certainty. Whatever the outcome of the election, however, the counterespionage campaign will likely raise serious questions in the US Congress about continued American security assistance to Lebanon.
Nothwithstanding the array of captured spy gadgets put on display by the ISF, it is not clear how much substance there is to the charges. Security crimes continue to be prosecuted under a system of military tribunals similar to Syria’s. Mr Rifi has proudly proclaimed that most of the accused have given full confessions, but this is nothing to be proud of. Torture is virtually routine in security cases and the tribunals almost never recognise the retraction of confessions extracted under duress. Since uncooperative detainees can be held arbitrarily for years before they even see a military judge, everyone confesses eventually. At this point, the only people that one can safely assume were spying for Israel are the three men who have quietly slipped across the border since the crackdown began.