Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – The arrests of half a dozen residents of an Arab village in Israel’s far north accused of smuggling collaboration with Hezbollah has drawn fresh attention to the Lebanese terrorist group’s efforts to work with Arab citizens of its reviled enemy.
The six men, all hailing from Ghajar, an Israeli town straddling the Lebanese border, allegedly ran a cross-border drug and weapons smuggling network with operatives of the Shi’ite group.
A joint operation between the Israeli military, the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency and national police saw them arrested throughout September, suspected of smuggling explosive devices and drugs, conspiring with and gathering intelligence for Hezbollah, and planning attacks on Israeli civilians.
After explosives were found by an Israeli farmer in an orchard in a nearby town, a two-month investigation led authorities to the group in Ghajar. Indictments were filed on Oct. 6 although no court date has yet been announced.
(Ghajar’s status has long been contentious. The area came under Israeli control when Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War. Some pre-1967 maps place Ghajar in Syria and some in Lebanon, and the exact location of the international border is in dispute. Since 2000 the town has been split between Lebanese and Israeli territory. Most of the residents are Alawi, the offshoot of Shi’ism that is also practiced by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.)
According to Shin Bet, “a number of cases” of smuggling routes between Hezbollah’s southern Lebanon stronghold and northern Israel have been uncovered in recent years. Established drug smuggling routes are also appropriated to smuggle weapons.
In 2012, just over 44 pounds of C4 was found in one such operation. Several Israeli Arabs in Nazareth and Ghajar were arrested in connection with the discovery.
C4 is a powerful explosive and frequent weapon of choice in terrorist attacks – reportedly including suicide bombings carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL).
The alleged leader of the Ghajar group, named as Diab Sa’ad Jemil Kahmouz, is the son of a known drug dealer and Hezbollah operative on the Lebanese side of the border. Sa’ad Kahmouz fled to Lebanon from Ghajar some years ago.
According to the investigation, the Kahmouz father and son corresponded via encoded email about operations in Israel including plans to bomb a plant near the coastal city of Haifa, and a busy bus stop used as a connection point for soldiers traveling throughout the country.
Moving weapons is a decidedly more complex operation than moving drugs, but both require the cooperation of accomplices on the Israeli side of the border.
Hezbollah plays the leading role in such operations, according to Shin Bet, by “facilitating and orchestrating drug activity in Southern Lebanon and ... operating in order to smuggle weapons into Israel via the drug smuggling routes.”
In the Ghajar arrests, Israeli intelligence indicated that the men were working hand-in-glove with Hezbollah to smuggle drugs and weapons throughout Israel’s northern border areas. The suspects were also allegedly helping Hezbollah to gather intelligence from on possible targets to attack.
Eric Bordenkircher, a researcher with UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development and an expert on politics in Lebanon, said northern Israel has been of particular interest to Hezbollah for some time.
“Northern Israel has a higher number of Arabs – predominantly Arab villages – than the rest of the green line Israel,” Bordenkircher said in an email. “There are seven villages that are predominantly Shia which Hezbollah has remarked in the past that it wants incorporated into Lebanon. Whether this is a realistic objective or an excuse for it to maintain its weapons is another issue.”
Bordenkircher added that the willingness of Israeli Arabs to take part in drug and weapons smuggling could be partly due to lack of opportunity and “growing animosity between the Arab and Jewish communities as a result of the failure to resolve the Palestinian issue.”
Though the Israel-Lebanon border has been relatively quiet since the 2006 war, Bordenkircher notes that Hezbollah’s secretive nature makes it difficult to determine the group’s current weapons cache, strength, and numbers.
The terrorist organization has made some definitive statements, though.
“Since the outbreak of conflict in Syria, Hezbollah has publicly claimed that it remains ready to fight Israel,” said Bordenkircher. “However given the level of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict it would appear to be in Hezbollah’s interests that the border with Israel remains quiet for at least the time being.”