Al-Ahram – 31 October 2002
The fragile bond of trust between Israel and the country’s Bedouin was in danger of tearing apart over the case of a senior Israeli army officer accused of spying for Hizbullah, writes Jonathan Cook from Nazareth
Lieutenant-Colonel Omar Hayeb, from the Bedouin village of Zarzir in the Galilee, was arrested six weeks ago but the secrecy surrounding this espionage case only lifted last week when he was charged in a Nazareth court.
Hayeb, 40, is the most senior officer in Israel’s history to be accused of espionage and treason. According to the charge sheet, he passed military secrets to Hizbullah in return for drugs and money.
Prosecutors told the court that they had recordings of telephone conversation between Hayeb and a Lebanese drugs baron, Kamil Nahra, also known as Abu-Said, who is believed to have acted as an intermediary with Hizbullah.
The prosecution says it has evidence that during dozens of conversations Hayeb divulged details of military bases, troop and tank movements on the northern border with Lebanon, information about Israeli air force planes, and personal details of senior commanders.
The court also heard that Nahra’s telephone number was found handwritten on Hayeb’s passport.
Charged with him are nine other Bedouin from his village. The drugs ring is believed to have operated since December last year. They were all arrested in mid- September after two of the ring went to the border with Lebanon to pick up 7kg of heroin and 9kg of hashish.
Hayeb has denied the accusations. His defence lawyer pointed to an inconsistency in the charges, which claim Hayeb exchanged military secrets in return for drugs but also assert that his men paid cash for the drugs they were given.
The colonel is being vigorously backed by Zarzir, a chain of five tribal villages of some 7,000 inhabitants, whose young men have a tradition of loyally serving in the army. His supporters claim that severe injuries he sustained in Lebanon, from a Hizbullah roadside bomb in 1996, make the allegations barely credible. They accuse a rival clan of trying to frame him.
The case has shocked Israelis for a variety of reasons. First, it suggests that Hizbullah is an even more fearsome adversary than most of them suspected. A dozen spies for Hizbullah have been arrested during the Intifada, but the revelation that the militia had penetrated deep into the heart of the Israeli military is likely to severely dent public confidence, particularly given the continuing dispute between Hizbullah and Israel over control of a small area of the occupied northern Golan called the Shebaa Farms.
Second, it confirms an open secret that during the army’s 18-year occupation of south Lebanon strong links were forged between the army and Lebanese drug dealers. While some drug runners were allowed to operate in return for intelligence information, the relations with other Israeli officers was not so official.
Hayeb and five of the alleged ring members were veteran army trackers who had an intimate knowledge of south Lebanon’s terrain and personnel.
Third, and perhaps most ominously, it reopens the suppurating wound of October 2000, when the Arab minority protested in support of the Intifada and 13 of their number were shot dead by the security forces. Many Israeli Jews came away from those events convinced that the minority had been unmasked as a fifth column in support of the Palestinians.
The Maariv daily newspaper stated the problem bluntly: “Which side am I on, they [Arab citizens] wonder. And when the person who asks this kind of question wears the army’s uniform, the consequences can be tragic.”
Israeli politicians and army chiefs could do little to reassure the public on the first two issues but they were quick to damp down suggestions of Bedouin disloyalty. Most played up corruption as the motive rather than treason.
Deputy Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra, for example, told one radio station: “I don’t think the arrests will have an effect on minorities serving in various military and police positions. I don’t believe that the lieutenant-colonel betrayed Israel for ideological reasons. I believe he was motivated by money.”
Chief of General Staff Moshe Ya’alon also issued a statement describing the affair as an isolated case, adding that the Bedouin served the state faithfully and courageously.
Despite claims by the villagers of Zarzir that Israel’s secret service, the Shin Bet, was conspiring against Hayeb and used illegitimate interrogation methods, there was little evidence that the state was relishing a trial.
The Bedouin alone among the Arab communal groups in Israel volunteer to serve in the army. Christians and other Muslims are exempt, while the Druze and Circassians, like Jews, are required by law to do three years military duty.
The Bedouin’s voluntary service is important to Israel both because it promotes divisions within the Arab minority and undermines communal solidarity and because the unique tracking skills of the Bedouin are desperately needed by the army in the Negev desert and along the border areas with Lebanon.
Most Bedouin serve either as scouts or in combat units, usually among the lower ranks, which explains the relatively high death toll of their soldiers compared to Jewish recruits.
There is also almost certain to be a Bedouin backlash against the disgracing of Hayeb, one of the few Bedouin men to reach such a rank in the army.
He has a distinguished military record that includes being the first Bedouin to volunteer for the paratroopers, being pensioned out of the army after a Hizbullah bomb blinded him in one eye and partially paralysed him, and unexpectedly returning to duty after enduring more than a dozen medical operations.
Even before Hayeb’s detention, there had been a steady decline in the number of Bedouin youth being drafted to the services — a trend Hayeb himself had been entrusted with reversing. Recruitment rates are believed to have fallen by some 50 per cent during the Intifada. The figures are not difficult to explain.
The Bedouin are increasingly disillusioned by unhonoured promises that participation in the army would bring rewards to end the community’s dire poverty and social marginalisation. Israel has traditionally used the Bedouin’s economic plight as a lever for pressuring them into military service. With their parents’ lands confiscated and limited new employment opportunities, many Bedouin youngsters believed the loyalty to the army would later lead to job offers and more money for their villages.
This has happened in a few Bedouin villages in the Galilee like Zarzir where local men have reached senior positions and been able to use their contacts to pressure for extra funds.
But in most cases the Bedouin have remained at the very bottom of the social and economic pile, with more than 70,000 Bedouin in the Negev still living in “unrecognised villages” without water, sewerage, electricity, health centres or schools.
After their failed attempt to integrate into Israeli society, many young Bedouin have tried instead to forge links to other Arab groups in Israel. Since the start of the Intifada, some have done this through accentuating their Palestinian identity. This year in March, for the first time in its 26-year history, the Land Day protest — marking the death of six Arab citizens in the Galilee town of Sakhnin in 1976 — was held in the Negev.
Others have turned to the radical Islamic Movement, attracted by its message of Islamic self-sufficiency and hard work, its ability to raise money for projects like medical centres and kindergartens the state refuses to fund, and its intolerance of drug use. Drugs have become a serious problem among the young in the Bedouin villages.
There was therefore an added irony to reports that the Islamic Movement had offered to pay Hayeb’s court costs. But it impressed many of the young Bedouin in Zarzir who talked to the Israeli newspapers. Several of them were also quick to say that they had torn up their army draft papers after hearing about the trial.
It was left to the older generation such as Hassan Hayeb, a brother of Omar Hayeb and leader of Zarzir’s council, to voice fears about the future: “We have been a bridge between Bedouins and Jews. What will become of us now? The villagers are in panic.”
Al-Ahram – 31 October 2002