Lebanon said on Monday it had busted at least 17 suspected Israeli spy networks in one of the largest nationwide crackdowns in recent years, with a judicial source reporting 21 arrests.
Interior minister Bassam Mawlawi told cabinet that security forces had “clamped down on 17 spy networks working for Israel,” acting information minister Abbas Halabi said after the meeting.
Neighbouring Lebanon and Israel remain in an official state of war.
Halabi said the rings operated both “locally and regionally,” without giving elaborating or confirming how many people had been arrested.
The arrests were part of an operation carried out by Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF).
Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the arrests had helped stop “efforts to tamper with security and sabotage the stability of the country,” according to a cabinet statement read by Halabi.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri praised the operation as “unique achievement.”
Al-Akhbar, a newspaper supportive of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement, reported the busts on Monday, calling it the largest operation against suspected Israeli agents in the country for 13 years.
It said that the ISF’s intelligence unit started the crackdown four weeks ago and that the detained include Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian nationals — some of whom were later released.
A prominent judicial source told AFP that 21 people had been arrested, with their cases referred to military courts.
Their main tasks were to “collect data on Hezbollah’s military and security sites” in the group’s strongholds in south Lebanon, the southern suburbs of the capital Beirut and the Bekaa valley, the judicial source said.
The alleged spies also gathered information about other party leaders and political figures, the source said, adding that one of the suspects is a Hezbollah member that the group has “refused to hand over to the Lebanese judiciary”.
The source said that the alleged spies’ handlers had exploited their “difficult living and social conditions, which made it easier to recruit them for these missions.”
Lebanon is mired in a deep economic crisis, and around 80 per cent of Lebanese live in poverty, amid rampant inflation and extended power cuts.
The al-Akhbar report claimed that at least 12 of the suspects in detention were aware they working for Israel, while the rest believed they were providing information for global companies or non profit organisations.
Israel and the Shiite movement Hezbollah fought a 33-day war in Lebanon in 2006.
Between April 2009 and 2014, Lebanese authorities detained more than 100 people accused of spying for Israel, most of them members of the military or telecom employees. The rate of arrests, however, had declined in recent years.