Washington Report
On Middle East Affairs

Special Report

The Real Israeli Interest in Lebanon

by Israel Shahak

July 1996, pgs. 19, 111

When facing atrocities like those caused by the “Grapes of Wrath” operation, it is more important than ever not to lose sight of the real reasons the atrocities are committed. It means asking ourselves what are the real Israeli interests in Lebanon. Those interests are not connected with security of the northern Israeli localities. On the contrary, the security of those places (and the sight of their inhabitants sitting in their shelters) are an excuse for the pursuit of the real Israeli interests.

The proof of this is simple: For almost seven years, from June 1985 to February 1992, there was no attack from Lebanon on Israeli territory. Then in February 1992, Israel killed a Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Mussawi, together with members of his family, while they were driving in a car north of the “Security Zone” occupied by Israel and its mercenary force, the “South Lebanon Army” (SLA). The first shelling of Israel by the Hezbollah only occurred after this murder. It is obvious that Israeli interests in keeping the “Security Zone” under its control must be very great, because it risked a shelling of its population in order to try and lessen the danger to the “Zone” by killing a leader of the forces which up to that point had not assaulted Israel.

What are those interests? We have to go back to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 in order to understand them. One of the first things that Israel did on invading Lebanon was to remove the customs barriers separating the two countries, as far as entry of Israeli merchandise is concerned.

Ordinary Lebanese goods are still forbidden to enter Israel, although a brisk import of drugs (re-exported to other countries) is going on. But Israeli merchandise enters Lebanon with the full encouragement of the Israeli government, without paying custom duties of any kind, and is also re-exported to other countries.

Needless to say, such a situation is totally unprecedented. It was first seen as such even in August 1982, by that staunch Israeli ally, Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel who, when meeting Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Nahariya, made him very angry by requesting that the customs barriers be restored at the internationally recognized border between the two countries. Begin angrily rejected the demand of his ally, who soon after was assassinated under mysterious conditions, and there are no customs barriers to this day. The Lebanese government had tried several times to set customs north of the “Zone,” but each time the response was an Israeli bombardment which lasted until the barriers again were removed.

The presence of the Israeli navy in Lebanese territorial waters is largely intended to protect Israeli trade.

Thus it can be presumed that the main Israeli aim in Lebanon is the economic exploitation of this country and other Middle Eastern states, and that the use of the “Zone” is to serve as an instrument for the realization of this aim. “The solution” often proposed by former Prime Minister Shimon Peres with regard to the “Zone” also indicates real Israeli aims. He offered an Israeli withdrawal from it, but only on condition that “the South Lebanon army will be integrated in the Lebanese army.” That is, on condition that Israel will continue to rule the “Zone.”

Let me now illustrate in some detail how the “Zone” functions, by quoting from two articles by Ronen Bergman (Ha’ir, Tel Aviv’s Friday newspaper, July 15 and 22, 1994) which, as the author himself admits, rely exclusively on official Israeli sources. Bergman says (July 15) that Lebanon is treated by Israel as an ordinary export market.

By Israeli law, agricultural exports are a monopoly of a government-owned company, “Agrexco,” the director of whose Lebanese department, Yossi Tzafrir, and its present spokesman, Hayim Keller, were Bergman’s crucial sources of information. Bergman also was helped by the director of the Lebanese department in the Agriculture Ministry, Benny Gabbay.

“Only since 1982 has all of Lebanon stood open to Israeli trade,” says Tzafrir. He insists that tough measures on the part of the Israeli security forces were, after the invasion, needed to enforce the monopoly of “Agrexco,” which alone was allowed to deliver Israeli agricultural produce to several locations right behind the Lebanese border. A few duly authorized Lebanese merchants could appear at those locations in order to buy what they were offered, reload the merchandise onto their own trucks and transport it to wherever they pleased.

But, complains Tzafrir, after the June 1985 Israeli withdrawal from a large chunk of south Lebanon, “land traffic became problematic.” At first Israel approached the SLA for help. Bergman complains about the SLA’s incompetence and even obstacles set up by its commander, General Antoine Lahad, to smooth operations of the Israeli trade.

He gives examples: “At all stages of Israeli trade with Lebanon and other Arab countries, senior SLA officers insisted on pocketing a hefty share of the profits. General Lahad’s private driver was one of the main go-betweens between Israel and the Lebanese merchants, notwithstanding the fact that the Israeli army branded him ‘a butterfly’ on account of his cowardice.”

Bergman’s July 22 article describes in ample detail how General Lahad would from time to time (apparently when he felt relatively strong vis-a-vis Israel) temporarily ban imports of specific commodities into his “Zone” in order to thus extort a heftier bribe.

Alternatives to the SLA

It was thus found advisable to search for a trade route that would not depend on Lahad’s good graces. The first-adopted solution was to let some major interested Lebanese merchants live in Israel, and thus place them beyond Lahad’s reach.

In his July 15 article, Bergman portrays one of the richest among those merchants, Amin El-Haj. “For over 15 years he was handling a large part of Israeli trade with Lebanon and indirectly with other Arab countries. Now he is living in Nahariya, connected by a special phone line to the central Lebanese phone-exchange.”

The next stage in bypassing Lahad was to construct a harbor in Nakura, in the “Zone,” made off-limits for the SLA. From Nakura, ships would take the Israeli produce to Beirut and other Lebanese ports. “Often those ships would be escorted by an Israeli navy escort up to a safe distance from Beirut.” Actually, explains Tzafrir, most of those ships, “which navigate under the flags of various Latin American countries,” don’t depart from Nakura, except in their records. “They really depart from Haifa or Ashdod.” Needless to say, the uninterrupted and massive presence of the Israeli navy in Lebanese territorial waters, although normally justified as an “anti-
terrorist measure,” is largely intended to protect Israeli trade.

Let me refrain from further descriptions, especially in the view of the constantly changing nature of that trade, directed not only to Lebanon but through it to other Arab countries. Instead, let me pass to the second economic Israeli interest in Lebanon, also served by its rule of the “Zone,” namely the drug trade.

Although there are plentiful sources, I will rely on a comprehensive article by Etty Hassid (“Yerushalaim,” Jerusalem Friday Paper, July 22). She offers her conclusions at the very beginning of her article: “Even though it may be hard to believe, the state of Israel is actively engaged in drug trade, especially on its northern Lebanese borders. The participants are on one side the Israeli army, Shabak, Mossad and the Israeli police, and on the other side, Lebanese drug merchants, Israeli Bedouins from the Negev and retired [Israeli] senior officers. The operational principle is: We will close our eyes to all the filth to which you stoop, and even give you some money, if only you provide us with intelligence of interest to us. In my article I am going to prove it or at least to substantiate it as highly probable on the basis of the trials of large-scale drug merchants.

“Since I was forced by censorship to skip some facts, let me tell you that the realities are even more ghastly than what you find here. What I do reveal is ghastly enough. It turns out that the state of Israel, which professes to wage an uncompromising struggle with the epidemic of drug addiction, is in reality the largest-scale importer of drugs in the Middle East. It is as if we were trying with one hand to apprehend the drug users and peddlers or at least pretending to do so, while using the other hand to plunge the syringe deep into the drug addict’s veins.”

As evidence for this conclusion, Hassid uses minutes of secret trials of both Israelis and Lebanese charged with big drug offenses in Israeli courts. But she also says that “in recent years a number of publications have appeared abroad disclosing information about involvement in drug trade by individuals serving in Israeli security services.” She discusses in detail only one such affair, which she investigated by approaching the Israeli lawyer of one defendant so involved, Yosef Amit, an ex-major in military intelligence Unit 504. According to the London magazine Foreign Report of July 1993, this unit was known as ‘mini-Mossad.’”

As sometimes happens to people in “the only democracy of the Middle East,” Amit “disappeared” in 1986 and his name couldn’t be mentioned in the media. The London publication then revealed that he had been secretly sentenced in Israel for unspecified “security offenses” in Lebanon. Foreign Report disclosed that Amit’s offenses were connected with the regular work of military intelligence Unit 504, whose agents are remunerated by hashish acquired in “special operations in Lebanon.” The drug was said to be transferred to Cairo whenever needed.

According to Hassid, Amit’s subordinate was caught selling hashish “apparently derived from the military intelligence central stockpiles” for his own profit. Since “the suspicion rebounded on Amit,” he also was charged.

“Officially Accepted” Drug Trading

Hassid also was able to record other trials of high-ranking Israeli officers serving in Lebanon who were charged with trade in hard drugs. In the case of Colonel Meir Binyamin, charged with such trade in 1989, the accused was acquitted, since the court accepted the argument of his advocate, Meir Ziv, that his client’s undenied involvement in the drug trade was carried out under orders of his superiors and conformed to an “officially accepted method of trading in drugs.” Colonel Binyamin also claimed, rather plausibly, that “in reality the Israeli authorities are manipulated by large-scale Lebanese drug traders who are exploiting their good relations with the [Israeli] police for the sake of smuggling enormous quantities of drugs behind their backs.”

In substantiating this claim, two Israeli witnesses, subcontractors of large-scale Lebanese drug merchant Ramzi Nahara, “with long records of excellent cooperation with Israel,” testified that in one of their operations they “smuggled 250 kg. of heroin into Israel.” Ramzi Nahara himself also testified in this case. Hassid describes Nahara’s deals in detail.

Let me select only one of his feats. A single transport, detected in Israel by sheer chance by the traffic police due to a minor traffic infraction, consisted of 3,000 kg. of hashish destined for re-export to Egypt. Let me quote here an opinion of advocate Ziv with which I concur. “The state of Israel is by far the largest importer of drugs into Israel itself. The import is sponsored by the police, under the hardly credible pretext that it will help catch drug offenders.”

Many more stories of this nature could be adduced, but the Israeli involvement in the drug trade warrants some conclusions in regard to the nature of political realities in the Middle East. There are grounds to suspect that Israeli encouragement of the drug trade, and consequently also of drug consumption, cannot be entirely explained by the familiar excuse of acquiring intelligence, extending influence and reaping profits. Part of the motivation must be to weaken the disaffection of Middle Eastern masses by encouraging drug addiction and thus promoting political apathy. The suspicion can be buttressed if we consider the known facts about the encouragement of Palestinian drug dealers by the Israeli authorities. The coddling of Palestinian drug dealers was one of the reasons for the outbreak of the intifada.

Lastly, massive involvement of Israeli intelligence in drug trafficking must be condoned by its American opposite numbers. Ample precedents exist for that kind of policy. However, a support for the Is-raeli drug trade is a rather safe affair. If Israeli involvement in the narcotics trade were exposed in the U.S., powerful organizations such as AIPAC would scream bloody murder.

A lot of American liberals, happy to denounce American intelligence for encouraging drug traffickers, would protest if Israeli intelligence were denounced for anything. For example, the invasion of Panama was said to be launched for the sake of suppressing the drug trade: yet the well-documented Israeli connections with Noriega passed almost unnoticed by the U.S. media. It can therefore be tentatively presumed that in its encouragement of drug traffic and traffickers, as in much else, Israel is secure so far as the U.S. media are concerned. This would at least partly explain why this policy works.

All this is somewhat distant from the affairs of Lebanon as described by the U.S. media. I have, however, no doubt that it is the Israeli economic interest, as represented by an export of goods without customs and traffic in drugs, that determines the Israeli insistence on keeping the “Zone” under its rule.

The Israeli wars in Lebanon should be compared to the Opium Wars of the 19th century. For an effective pursuit of the trade interests described here, Israeli rule over the “Zone” is necessary, and this, in turn, guarantees the continuation of the wars in Lebanon.

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