Israeli Arab Officer Sentenced for Spying

The Associated Press
Sunday, June 18, 2006; 5:52 PM

JERUSALEM -- A high-ranking Israeli Arab army officer was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Sunday for passing military secrets to one of Israel's most bitter enemies in exchange for money and drugs.

Lt. Col. Omar el-Heib, 43, denied spying for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, and accused the military court in Tel Aviv of racism after the sentence was handed down.

"I didn't confess, I won't confess," el-Heib told reporters. "I didn't do anything. The only reason they are coming after me is because I am an Arab."

One of his attorneys, Barry Rosenthal, said el-Heib would appeal the conviction and sentence.

Israeli Arabs make up nearly one-fifth of the country's seven million people. Most do not serve in the military, but many Bedouin men, like el-Heib, volunteer for service, in part because of the opportunities for advancement.

As part of the sentence, el-Heib was dishonorably discharged and stripped of his rank.

El-Heib was indicted four years ago at the height of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. At the time, the case raised questions among the Jewish majority about the long-standing loyalties of the Bedouin, who have fought for Israel for decades. Among the Arab minority, it prompted allegations of continued discrimination.

Hezbollah said at the time of the indictment that it was "not obliged to confirm or deny" the spying reports.

Prosecutors accused el-Heib of relaying maps, information about tank positions and troop deployments along the border with Lebanon, and information about the whereabouts of top Israeli commanders. In exchange, they said, he received thousands of dollars, as well as heroin and hashish.

Israel fought an 18-year war against Hezbollah while occupying a strip of southern Lebanon. During that time, Hezbollah frequently launched rockets at northern Israeli border communities.

Israel's presence ended with a sudden pullout in May 2000, but friction remains. Hezbollah refuses to recognize a border drawn by the United Nations, and continues to attack Israeli targets, drawing Israeli reprisals.

El-Heib was himself gravely wounded by a Hezbollah roadside bombing while serving in Lebanon in 1996. Surgeons had to remove one of his eyes. The injuries left him partially paralyzed and with shards of metal still lodged in his head.

© 2006 The Associated Press