BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 28 (UPI) -- Amid growing fears a new Middle East war is brewing, Lebanese security authorities have reportedly arrested two alleged Israeli spies, both Lebanese and one of them a senior official in a state-owned telecommunications company.
Lebanese newspapers reported at the weekend that the suspects were being interrogated by military intelligence. The military hasn't confirmed the arrests and neither man was identified by the media.
But they were the latest captures in an 18-month crackdown that officials claim has decimated an elaborate and extensive Israeli espionage operation aimed largely at Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim movement that fought Israel's vaunted military to a standstill in a 34-day war in July-August 2006.
Some 70 suspects have been arrested since November 2008. More than 20 have been indicted and could face the death penalty for treason.
The magnitude of the Lebanese counter-intelligence operation is unprecedented in the region.
It may have been the Israelis' drive to amass intelligence on Hezbollah's military capabilities ahead of renewed conflict, and probably to degrade those capabilities before a possible pre-emptive strike on Iran, that prompted the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, to pull out all the stops in Lebanon when it did.
"The Israelis are not interested in getting bogged down in a ground war in Lebanon, where Hezbollah could quickly gain the upper hand in a protracted war of attrition," the U.S. security consultancy Stratfor said.
"Instead, Israel's primary focus would be on eliminating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' positions in Lebanon that control Hezbollah's operations."
Lebanon's Ad-Diyar newspaper said the arrested executive was "a valuable catch." He was identified only by the initials "S.K.," who was the director of transmissions and broadcasting with the Alfa telecommunications firm that runs a cellular phone network.
That would be a prime target for Mossad to penetrate in search of intelligence. Ad-Diyar said the executive was accused of "supplying Israel with sensitive information that harms Lebanese national security."
No information was available on the second suspect. However, Friday, the al-Akhbar newspaper reported that a Palestinian living in the Bourj al-Shimali refugee camp in south Lebanon was arrested on suspicion of spying for Israeli intelligence for the last five years.
He wasn't identified either but officials said communications equipment had been seized at his home.
The extended hunt for Israeli agents is believed to have seriously disrupted the Mossad's operations inside Lebanon. Some of the suspects who have been rounded up allegedly told interrogators they had been recruited as long ago as 1982, when the Israelis invaded Lebanon.
The Israeli military unilaterally withdrew from its last foothold in south Lebanon, where it operated with a Christian-led militia, on May 24, 2000, after an 18-year guerrilla war spearheaded by Hezbollah's "resistance forces."
These days, both sides are jumpy -- Israel because valuable eyes and ears inside Lebanon have been lost as a new conflict looms, Hezbollah because the existence of these cells was an immense security failure on its part.
The range of suspects rounded up has illustrated how extensive the Israeli spy network is suspected of to have been and the extent to which the Mossad was apparently able to penetrate all levels of Lebanese society.
The suspects were rich and poor and came from all backgrounds and faiths -- Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shiites. Several cells were built around families, involving wives, brothers and in-laws.
The most prominent was Adib Alam, a general in Lebanon's principal security service, the General Security Directorate, until he retired eight years ago. Recruited in 1982, he allegedly ran a 12-member cell that included his wife and nephew, a GSD corporal.
The others included three army colonels, businessmen, a former mayor, a stone mason, a math teacher and a gas station owner who allegedly bugged vehicles used by Hezbollah chieftains.
The counterintelligence operation has in all probability dealt a serious blow to Israeli intelligence at a time when Hezbollah is bracing for another onslaught by the Jewish state.
Israel, as usual, has made no official comment on any of this. But The Jerusalem Post has acknowledged "the reports emanating from Lebanon are of such magnitude that, if accurate, they constitute one of the greatest intelligence blunders in the country's recent history.
"The value of intelligence vis-a-vis Hezbollah cannot be underestimated."