BEIRUT — This week's arrest of a well-respected retired general and politician allied with Hezbollah on suspicion of spying for Israel has sent shock waves through Lebanon and left many wondering how deep the Jewish state has infiltrated the country.
Fayez Karam, a member of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), is the first political figure to be arrested in Lebanon as part of a wide-ranging probe launched in 2009 into Israeli spy networks.
A well-informed source close to the investigation told AFP that after his detention last Monday on the orders of the prosecutor general, Karam confessed to spying for Israel.
"You don't arrest someone like him without rock-solid proof and there was enough evidence against him," the source, who requested anonymity, said.
"He may not have given the Israelis much technical information, but his arrest has a huge political impact because of his position and rank," he added.
He said Karam, 62, who stood in parliamentary elections last year, allegedly used cell phones with roaming numbers from European countries to contact his Israeli handlers.
He reportedly met them in Paris, where he travelled regularly, and was nabbed because of an unspecified mistake.
Ironically, in the 1980s Karam headed the Lebanese army's anti-terrorism and counter-espionage unit where he worked closely with FPM leader Michel Aoun, who was army chief at the time and who also served as interim prime minister.
Aoun was staunchly anti-Syrian and was forced into exile in France at the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war when Damascus imposed its rule over its tiny neighbour.
Aoun returned to Lebanon in 2005, one month after Syria withdrew its troops following a 29-year presence.
In a controversial move in 2006, he entered an alliance with the Iran- and Syria-backed Shiite group Hezbollah. Aoun also caused a stir by visiting both Damascus and Tehran.
Karam, who through the years has remained close to Aoun, was himself arrested by Syrian troops in 1990 and spent five months at the notorious Syrian jail of Mazzeh.
He went to Israel after his release through southern Lebanon, which was then occupied by Israel, and then headed to France where he set up a dry-cleaning business.
"He may have begun to spy for Israel in reaction to the harsh treatment he suffered during his detention at the Mazzeh prison," the source said.
Karam's arrest, which has been the talk of the capital Beirut, has shocked political circles in Lebanon, which along with Syria is still technically at war with Israel.
"We are stunned," said Simon Abi Ramia, a deputy with the FPM. "We just cannot believe it."
Another retired general who knows Karam well and who considered him to be a friend said the entire military community was incredulous.
"We're all in shock because he is really the last person you would expect to be implicated in this," the ex-general, who requested anonymity, told AFP.
"He is extremely polite, honest and very disciplined," he added. "That's all we have been talking about this week at the officers' club."
Local media reports questioned whether Karam had provided Israel with information about Hezbollah since he was very close to Aoun.
"Did Fayez Karam have details on the timing of the meetings that took place between Aoun and (Hezbollah chief) Hassan Nasrallah?" asked the Arabic-language daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hezbollah.
Members of the militant party refused to comment on the case.
Some 100 people have been arrested in the spy probe, among them members of the security forces and telecommunications employees.
Karam's arrest has many people now wondering who will be next.
"When you catch a big fish like him you always have others that follow," the source close to the investigation said.
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