On a jumpy frontier, drug officers wage quiet war

ALONG THE ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER, Israel (AP) _ Filmed with a night-vision camera just before Israeli narcotics officers pounced from nearby bushes, the video shows a Lebanese courier lobbing half-kilo packages of heroin over the border fence into Israel and an Israeli courier throwing back packages of $100 bills.

Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah guerrillas have been battling for years along this frontier. But a quieter war goes on here every night, one between Inspector Gal Ben Ish’s narcotics teams and the smugglers who have turned this jumpy border into the main conduit for heroin bound for Israeli drug markets.

Police here believe the trade, worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, is controlled in large part by Hezbollah, and call it “narco-terrorism.”

In the nighttime bust caught on camera last September, Ben Ish’s men netted 55 kilograms of heroin, 10 of hashish, $650,000 in cash, and both drug mules. Hopes of repeating that success, and a sense that the smuggling here is more than just crime, have brought them back to this wooded hill in the middle of a biting Galilee night.

“We know that it’s not just criminal activity _ here there’s always the aspect of national defense. We’re helping the country’s security,” said Ben Ish, whose black knitted cap hid a shaved head. He spoke as his men slipped batteries into night-vision goggles at headquarters ahead of the night’s ambush, their four green-painted M-16s resting on a beat-up sofa.

Israeli police say Hezbollah, the dominant power in the towns and villages of south Lebanon, takes a cut of the trade and uses the money to fund operations and recruit agents inside Israel, one of them an Israeli army colonel now in jail for trading secrets for drugs and cash.

Information freely changes hands between guerrillas and smugglers, police say. The hard-to-see spots along the fence where Hezbollah ambushed and captured Israeli soldiers twice in the past decade were previously used as drop points for drugs.

To drive home the point that Israeli addicts and dealers are helping Hezbollah’s war against their own country, a government anti-drug ad last year portrayed the group’s leader, the bearded cleric Hassan Nasrallah, emerging grinning from a bong like a genie from a bottle.

The security forces of the Lebanese government, in which Hezbollah wields veto power, say they are trying to combat the smuggling. A Hezbollah spokesman in Beirut refused to comment on the allegations that the group is involved in the drug trade.

At the night’s ambush site, two policemen sat amid bushes near the border fence, covering themselves with camouflage nets and pulling masks over their faces. Two other cops with rifles and motorcycle helmets waited nearby with an all-terrain vehicle while Eli Makias, a 20-year police veteran, manned a lookout point on a hill to the south.

Every month the policemen average hundreds of hours of boredom and one significant bust.

“You develop senses like an animal,” said Amir, a 10-year-veteran. “You’re coiled like a spring, and then when it actually happens, the catch, the adrenaline starts.”

Like most of the unit’s officers, he declined to give his family name because of concerns he could be located by smugglers.

Between four and five tons of heroin entered Israel in 2008, nearly all of it through Lebanon, according to an estimate from the government’s Anti-Drug Authority. Most originates in Afghanistan, with a small portion produced in Turkey, Iraq and in the opium fields of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which have recently seen a resurgence after several years of decreased production.

In that same period of time, Ben Ish’s men caught a total of 155 kilograms, along with smaller amounts of other drugs and nearly $1 million in cash _ a record year for the unit but a fraction of the drugs and money changing hands.

On the Israeli side, the trade is controlled by Israeli Arab crime families with close ties to their counterparts in Lebanon. The couriers are Israeli Arabs. Drops are arranged ahead of time by telephone or e-mail, or in notes thrown across with the previous haul.

Criminal coexistence between Jews and Arabs begins at the urban distribution points inside Israel, where dealers and users of both ethnicities pick up the drugs.

A kilo (2.2 pounds) of pure heroin goes for around $25,000 on the border, police say, but sells for at least four times that on the street. At that rate, five tons would be worth $125 million on the border and $500 million on the street.

That is reason enough for many to brave the Israeli soldiers along the frontier and the narcotics men lurking in the bushes. And those aren’t the only dangers. Early this year, the narcotics men found a courier with 4 kilos of heroin in his backpack on the mountainous border, frozen to death.

The lucrative trade has seeped into the ranks of the Israeli forces meant to fight it, including the police. Over the past decade, two drug officers were convicted of passing information to dealers and imprisoned.

Two Israeli military trackers, members of an all-Arab cadre of troops crucial to patrolling the border, are also in prison for collaborating with Lebanese drug dealers. One, Lt. Col. Omar el-Heib, was sent to jail for 15 years in 2006 for relaying maps and information about tank positions, troop deployments and the whereabouts of top Israeli commanders to Hezbollah in exchange for heroin, hashish, and thousands of dollars.

El-Heib, a Bedouin officer badly wounded by a Hezbollah roadside bombing a decade before, was an unlikely suspect. He was caught after police found cell phones on the bodies of guerrillas who crossed the border in 2002 and killed six Israelis, and traced the SIM cards back to him.

Hezbollah said at the time that it was “not obliged to confirm or deny” those accusations, and has never acknowledged involvement in the drug trade.

A Lebanese security official declined to say whether Hezbollah was involved. But he did say many of the drug smugglers were Shiite Muslims operating in predominantly Shiite border villages where Hezbollah _ the dominant force among Lebanon’s Shiites _ has authority.

After the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, Lebanese military forces moved into the border region alongside a contingent of U.N. troops. A senior Lebanese police official said authorities have themselves recently made at least 10 arrests and have seized drugs headed for Israel.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing regulations and the sensitivity of the issue.

Yasmina Bouziane, a spokeswoman for the U.N. force in Lebanon, said smuggling is a violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the fighting in 2006 and the force has “enhanced its security measures in areas that have been identified as potential smuggling routes.”

The Israeli military has contact with the U.N. contingent, though the ties appear to be used only seldom for cooperation against smugglers. The state of war between Israel and Lebanon prevents their security forces from cooperating, and the Israelis have been known to take matters into their own hands. In the September bust, they cut through the fence to arrest the Lebanese courier and retrieve the packages of cash.

The Lebanon border is only one of the ways drugs enter Israel. Last year, the Israeli military foiled a rare attempt to smuggle drugs from Syria, killing one smuggler in no man’s land along the border and wounding another.

Smugglers row loads of drugs from Jordan across the salt waters of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the earth’s surface, and Bedouin tribes who live in the desert on both sides of the Israel-Egypt border bring in most of Israel’s marijuana and hashish. Some of those loads are sent into Israel on camels unaccompanied by humans and picked up after they cross the frontier.

The government says several tons of cocaine are also smuggled every year, along with some 20 million Ecstasy and methamphetamine pills, largely brought in by sea and air from Europe.

But nearly all the country’s drug addicts _ some 15,000, according to government estimates, of a population of around 7 million _ are heroin users, and the drug drives much of the country’s drug-linked crime and violence. Ben Ish’s men are the country’s first line of defense.

But luck was not with them tonight.

When the Lebanese hills became visible across the border at first light, the officers in the bushes packed their camouflage nets into backpacks and shouldered their rifles, trekking back toward the meeting point where Ben Ish and a jeep waited to pick them up.

The couriers might have taken the night off. Or, as Ben Ish acknowledged, they might simply have held their border rendezvous somewhere else, and at that moment a relieved smuggler might have been throwing a knapsack into an inconspicuous car, sending packets of heroin on the last leg of their long journey to the addicts waiting in the Israeli cities to the south.


By Matti Friedman, with reporting from Zeina Karam in Beirut, April 13, 2009

Copyright 2009 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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