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Avi Katz
Avi Katz
Exclusive'They think I'm a dumb Arab, but I still love Israel'

Save me! Lebanese man caught spying on Hezbollah begs Israel not to abandon him

‘Benjamin Philip’ says he worked for the Mossad for 9 years, helping to fight the Iran-backed Hezbollah; now he faces deportation to Lebanon and says Israel’s nowhere to be found

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Main image by Avi Katz

Benjamin Philip decided to help Israel and the Mossad fight Hezbollah in 2011, gathering intelligence on the Lebanese terror group’s activities and recruiting additional assets within the organization, including, he says, a member of one of its most elite units. His work, he says, has ruined his life and the lives of his family members in Lebanon.

After being found out as a Mossad asset and incarcerated in a Hezbollah prison for two years, Philip fled his native Lebanon in 2015, eventually winding up in East Asia, where he lived for approximately two years until he was forced to flee late last year as he was facing deportation. Now seeking asylum in Europe, he says Israel — the country he’s helped in its fight against the Iran-backed terrorist organization since 2011 — is refusing to take him in or even respond to his phone calls and emails.

The Prime Minister’s Office, which is responsible for the Mossad, refused to comment on the case.

Philip says he contacted The Times of Israel out of a sense of desperation, hoping — as a last-ditch effort — that by making his case public, he could pressure Israel and the Mossad to help him, as he says they promised to do.

Benjamin Philip is not his real name; it is a pseudonym. The Times of Israel is legally barred from publishing his true identity or any identifying details, despite Philip explicitly requesting that we name him, believing that it will help him in his effort to seek asylum, and despite the fact that Hezbollah and the Lebanese government already know who he is, having incarcerated him and indicted him, respectively.

Philip has tried to contact any Israeli official possible, emailing virtually all public email addresses for the Prime Minister’s Office, the Mossad, the military, the Foreign Ministry and nearly every other government office. In December, he received a response from the office of Israel’s ombudsman, saying, “We brought your complaint to the attention of the security forces.”

The Mossad seal, quoting Proverbs, reads: "Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety. (Photo credit: Wikicommons)
The Mossad seal, quoting Proverbs, reads: “Where no counsel is, the people fall, but in the multitude of counselors there is safety. (Wikicommons)

A former Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was unfamiliar with Philip’s case, but explained that there were several reasons why the Mossad might cut ties with one of its assets, including questions about their trustworthiness, security concerns, or whether or not they were still valuable to the organization, regardless of their contributions in the past.

“It’s a cold, cold world out there,” the former official said.

Philip maintains that while he is frustrated and disheartened by the actions of his Mossad handlers and the Israeli government, he feels no ill will toward the State of Israel.

“My complaints against the Mossad are like a lover blaming a lover. It’s not a blame with hate,” he said. “I’m not speaking out to do something against Israel. I’m doing this to correct how the government handles these things. Why do you have to be like the KGB? You finish with someone and you throw him away.”

Most of the things that the Israeli government brags about, the attacks in Syria and attacks in Gaza, the attacks on Iranian targets. It doesn’t happen because the Mossad is sitting at home and a fairy tells them the Iranians are moving weapons here or there.

Officially labeled a traitor and a spy for Israel, Philip says he will likely face decades of imprisonment if he’s deported back to Lebanon — a scenario that he, a gay man, cannot accept, knowing that such a sentence in a Lebanese prison would mean rape and torture.

He is now seeking asylum in Europe, having scraped together enough money for a plane ticket from East Asia by selling some of his electronic devices. He is receiving assistance from a local LGBTQ organization, including therapy for the trauma and abuse he experienced throughout his life, and believes he has a good chance of being granted asylum. However, if this fails and it appears he will be sent back to Lebanon, Philip says he is seriously considering suicide.

“Of course I’m not going to go to Lebanon. I’ve already ordered carbon monoxide gas. I’ve been looking for the least painful ways to commit suicide. I’ve already spent two years in prison. I know that humiliation. I can’t imagine what would happen if I went back to Lebanon,” he said over the phone late last year.

Avi Katz

Philip first contacted The Times of Israel in August 2019, after he says the Mossad broke contact with him and stopped providing him with living expenses. (Under the visa for the country where he lived in east Asia, which he says Israel paid for, he was not able to legally work, forcing him to be further dependent on Israel.) In September, I traveled abroad to meet Philip, speaking to him three times in person, in addition to many conversations over the internet, using encrypted applications, in the interim months. The location of these meetings is also legally barred from publication.

In the hours of interviews and conversations with Philip, he was calm, collected and forthcoming. His recollections were consistent, but did not appear to be rehearsed. He provided many screenshots of emails and WhatsApp conversations that he said were with representatives of the Mossad with whom he’d been in contact. The Times of Israel could not independently verify that these were in fact from Israeli agents, but was able to corroborate certain parts of Philip’s story. Some pieces of evidence that Philip provided, which were used to validate portions of his story, are also barred from publication.

‘Like stray dogs’

Philip hopes that Israel will intervene on his behalf and save him from deportation, but is growing increasingly doubtful that this will occur.

“Israel, a country that is capable of sending a drone into Dahiya, it can’t save me?” he asked, referring to a drone attack on a Hezbollah target inside Beirut in August that was attributed to Israel.

“They’re treating us like stray dogs,” Philip said of the Mossad and the Israeli government.

Philip’s mother in Lebanon is already being harassed by Hezbollah, with members of the terror group breaking into her house and trashing it in December; and his father has effectively been excommunicated from his religious community, he says.

Israel, a country that is capable of sending a drone into Dahiya, it can’t save me?

Philip is not the first Lebanese asset of the Mossad to accuse the organization of abandoning him. In 2014, Amin al-Hajj, codenamed Rummenigge, a longtime Israeli agent who gathered critical intelligence on Palestinian terror groups in Lebanon beginning in the 1980s, went public about his disappointing interactions with Israel’s security services, which ended with him stuck in Israel with an expired temporary residence permit, no health care and no job.

“It’s a little hard for me to understand why I’m being treated like this; why, after everything I did, everything I provided, all those who were caught thanks to me, they’re tossing me aside like a used rag,” al-Hajj told Yedioth Ahronoth’s intelligence correspondent Ronen Bergman.

Al-Hajj, at least, successfully made it out of Lebanon and into Israel.

According to Philip, one of the people he helped the Mossad recruit as an asset was a former member of Hezbollah’s crack Radwan Unit, allowing the intelligence service to gather critical information about the Shiite terror group, an Iranian proxy. The former Hezbollah member agreed to have his story included here, but asked that his name not be published, instead asking to be referred to by the pseudonym “Gabriel.”

A child in tiny military fatigues waves the Hezbollah flag as supporters of the group’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah wait for his televised speech in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020 following the US airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Earlier this year, Gabriel was also imprisoned for approximately two months by Hezbollah for being an Israeli spy. He was released in August, after his family convinced the terror group that he was mentally ill — indeed he has been diagnosed as bipolar — Philip says. Upon release, Gabriel was placed under house arrest.

In late September, Hezbollah officials told Gabriel that he was going to be exiled from Lebanon and forced to remain outside the country for at least five years. At the end of October, he fled the country to be with Philip. He plans to seek asylum elsewhere.

To keep himself relevant, Philip even now maintains contact with other Hezbollah operatives and their relatives through social media — without them knowing he’s an Israeli asset — in order to gather intelligence about the terror group. In many cases, he makes contact with homosexual Hezbollah members through Tinder, Grindr and other relationship smartphone applications. Despite ostensibly being a strict Shiite Muslim organization, Hezbollah has a “surprising” number of gay members, Philip says.

I know that they just think I’m a dumb Arab. But I still have an Israeli flag in my house. I love Israel. I do love the country. It’s a principle. I felt my identity was closer to Israel than to Lebanon.

Philip acknowledges that he has not been a “perfect person” in his interactions with Israel, having initially lied to the Mossad about aspects of his past and also using the threat of exposing the identities of agents in order to pressure the organization into providing him with the resources that he says they have promised. The Times of Israel made it clear to Philip that it would not participate in such an exposure as it would potentially put lives and Israeli national security at risk and would serve no concrete benefit to the public.

“I was just trying to provoke a response,” he said. “I would never sell them out. I could go to the Iranians or Hezbollah and make a deal, but I would never do this. It goes against my principles. I fucking hate Hezbollah and Iran — I wish to see their end.”

Philip maintains that the level of assistance he and Gabriel provided Israel are worth far more than what the Mossad has given them. He routinely expresses frustration, anger and deep disappointment at his situation and the Israeli officials responsible for it, but speaks of the Jewish state with admiration.

“I know that they don’t give a shit about my life. I know that they don’t give a shit about my future. I know that they just think I’m a dumb Arab. But I still have an Israeli flag in my house,” he said. “I love Israel. I do love the country. It’s a principle. I felt my identity was closer to Israel than to Lebanon.”

A desperate childhood

Philip does not look like the type of person who has dedicated their life to fighting an international terror group. He is short and wiry, with striking bright blue-green eyes, a meticulously sculpted beard and dangling earrings. In all of our interactions, he sported pristine tight black clothes, tinted glasses, silver jewelry and wide-soled black platform sneakers. He looks more like a chief graphic designer for a slick new startup than a globetrotting spy.

He speaks impeccable English, Arabic and French and sprinkles his discussions of Israel with Hebrew words and phrases. On Fridays he wishes me a “Shabbat shalom.” He curses liberally, but always apologizes for it. He prides himself on his ability to read and manipulate people, which  routinely led me to question his motives, perhaps unfairly. When he interrupted one of our interviews to give money to a homeless man outside the cafe where we met, was that altruism or a performance for my benefit? I’ll never know for sure. I’m not sure the homeless man cares.

Philip was born to Lebanese parents elsewhere in the Middle East. The family later returned to Lebanon, living in the area of Nabatieh, a city known to be a Hezbollah stronghold.

The town of Nabatieh in southern Lebanon, in an undated photograph. (CC BY 3.0 / ansam61@hotmail.com, WikiMedia)

The Hezbollah terror group was created in 1985 in response to Israel’s then-occupation of southern Lebanon, which began three years earlier following the First Lebanon War. In the ensuing 35 years, the Iran-backed group has swelled into a massive militia with thousands of fighters and an arsenal of some 120,000 rockets and missiles of varying sizes and explosive capabilities. Israel fought Hezbollah in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and the organization is currently considered the Jewish state’s primary military foe in the region.

Philip recalls having “a desperate childhood in a really beautiful village” in southern Lebanon. As a child, he joined Hezbollah’s youth scouts, and it was during that time that his hatred toward the group developed, he says.

When he was four years old, Philip says, he was sexually abused by the son of a senior Hezbollah commander. “That went on for 11 years.”

Throughout that period, he says he was routinely humiliated, bullied and raped by the senior Hezbollah commander’s son and others. Philip recalls that one of the few bright points of his childhood was watching cartoons on Israel’s Channel 1, whose broadcast signal reached their home in southern Lebanon.

The characters from the television show ‘Moomins,’ a Japanese cartoon based on a Finnish book series, which was broadcast on Israeli television. (WikiMedia)

“My brother’s favorite show was ‘Moomins,'” Philip said, referring to a Japanese cartoon based on a Finnish book series and dubbed into the Hebrew, about a family of hippopotamuses.

As a teenager, he denounced his abuser in his hometown mosque, noting the hypocrisy in the fact that while he was insulted for being homosexual, the person raping him was not. “They said, ‘He’s not gay, he’s ill. You’re gay, and a person like you should be killed and burnt,'” Philip recounted.

The next day he was picked up by members of Hezbollah and threatened: “They told me, ‘If you ever speak about what you said yesterday, you will disappear.'”

After a suicide attempt, Philip’s parents decided he should leave their hometown of Nabatieh and study in a boarding school in Beirut.

Becoming a target for Hezbollah harassment

Philip graduated from high school, studied in the American University of Beirut and then started working in a variety of non-governmental organizations in Lebanon.

Philip said that during that time he also worked as an observer for the Lebanese Association For Democratic Elections group.

“These were the golden years of my life. I was in my country, doing what I loved,” Philip said.

The following year, everything changed. “The year 2010 was the worst year of my life,” he said.

While working as an observer during the country’s national elections in 2009, Philip reported on illegal activities by Hezbollah at polling places in the village of Houmine el Faouqa, near Nabatieh.

“After I did that, I was put on a list,” he said.

Suddenly, he says, friends would get phone calls from blocked numbers, asking why they would want to “hang out with a gay guy”; the principal of a school where Philip was working was told to fire him; and his boyfriend at the time was outed as a homosexual to his conservative Sunni Muslim family.

I decided — this is a war, literally a war. And those shitty people, I want to make them fucking pay for everything they did

“They went to his family and told them, ‘Your son is gay and he’s dating someone.’ His family beat him up, a lot,” Philip said.

At that point, he said, he decided to change his life’s purpose to fighting Hezbollah.

“When this happened, I decided — this is a war, literally a war. And those shitty people, I want to make them fucking pay for everything they did,” he said.

First the CIA, then the Mossad

Philip was initially wary of reaching out to Israel and so instead, he says, he contacted the CIA and offered to give the Americans information about Hezbollah.

“I was afraid of contacting the Mossad because I thought then that the Mossad — they use you and then they kill you. That’s what you used to hear in Lebanon,” he said.

Somehow Hezbollah discovered that Philip was working with the Americans and arrested him in 2011, imprisoning him for a few months, before releasing him on condition that he become a double agent, providing the terror group with intelligence on the CIA.

Fearing that he would again be arrested by Hezbollah since he had no intention of acting as a double agent, Philip fled Lebanon with his mother, traveling first to Syria — before the civil war began there in earnest — and then to Turkey.

In Turkey, he says, he made his first contact with the Mossad, eventually meeting with agents of the organization abroad, in a number of countries around the world that do not require visas for Lebanese citizens. Philip says that at this point the US cut ties with him.

In December 2012, Philip says, his problems with the Mossad began. He had never told the Israeli spy service that he had previously been imprisoned by Hezbollah, and the Mossad wanted him to return to Lebanon and gather intelligence about the terror group from there, he says. Fearing that he would be again sent to prison, Philip took off, traveling around the world in order to avoid returning to Lebanon.

The Mossad caught up with him in East Asia and he confessed to his Israeli handlers that he had not told them of his first incarceration by Hezbollah.

He then traveled to Europe and sought asylum in Switzerland. According to Philip, Swiss officials denied his request, saying they couldn’t independently verify that he was gay and at risk of abuse for his sexual orientation in Lebanon, adding that since Israel was the cause of his problems, it should take him in.

He was put on a plane and flown back to Beirut. “After all this, I had no choice but to go back to Lebanon,” Philip said.

The second arrest

Hezbollah officials assured his parents that Philip would not be abducted or immediately imprisoned, but would be required to speak with them. Panicking, Philip tried to make contact with Israel in order to leave Lebanon on October 7, 2013.

“I went to an internet cafe and I did the most stupid thing ever — I was afraid and I opened the Mossad website and I messaged them: I’m in Lebanon and I might be arrested. Please help me. At least let me jump over the border,” he recalled.

“While I was writing the message, they arrested me.”

According to Philip, a group of young men entered the internet cafe, hit him and then took him away. He assumes that the owner of the cafe saw what he was doing on the computer and contacted Hezbollah.

Philip says he was taken back to a Hezbollah prison, put in a cell a few doors down from where he’d been put the first time. “The first time I was in cell 13; the second time it was 17,” he said.

Back in Hezbollah prison

Philip was imprisoned for two years before his family was able to convince Hezbollah to release him, with his mother threatening to go public on the years of rape and sexual assault he faced at the hands of a senior Hezbollah leader’s son.

Philip says he was not subjected to physical torture during his time in prison, but was psychologically abused and subjected to weeks of intense interrogation. But, he says, he never broke.

“I didn’t tell them I worked for the Mossad. I told them I’d just written them that I wanted to work with them, that it was my first contact with them. I’m not sure if they believed me. After 15 days, they got bored with me, so they left me in prison,” he said.

I got a small, thin mattress in the corner where I can sleep and sit. A blanket, a spoon, a plate that looks it it’s a dog bowl — for more humiliation. A water bucket. Three small plastic cups with toothpaste, soap and shampoo; a Quran and a prayer book — and that’s all that you have

Philip says he believes if he were to return to Lebanon now, Hezbollah would not refrain from torturing him as they did the last time.

“It will be totally different this time. This time, I’m accused of recruiting someone from Radwan,” he said, referring to Gabriel, whom he recruited from the Hezbollah crack unit.

From his two years in prison, Philip recalls the minutiae of prison life, the day-to-day indignities, how everything was painted a blinding white “to drive you crazy,” he said.

“I got a small, thin mattress in the corner where I can sleep and sit; a blanket, a spoon, a plate that looks it it’s a dog bowl — for more humiliation; a water bucket, three small plastic cups with toothpaste, soap and shampoo; a Quran and a prayer book — and that’s all that you have,” he recalled.

With a sad smile and a glazed look in his eyes, he added, “It was the worst shampoo I have ever tried in my entire life.”

Two years, a month and a day after he was sent to prison — on November 8, 2015 — Philip was released. “You have no idea, it was an overwhelming day. For two years you don’t see the sun,” he said.

When I expressed surprise that he was released from prison after only two years for what seemed like a serious crime of cooperating with Hezbollah’s sworn enemy Israel, Philip said the sentence was relatively common for the terror group.

“Hezbollah doesn’t keep people in prison forever. Standard is two years then exile, unless you’re a member of the Islamic State or a murderer,” he said.

Upon his release, Philip was told to leave Lebanon. He says he traveled to Turkey, Dubai and Hong Kong, among other countries, working odd jobs. “I was a photographer, I did some translations, I helped with Syrian refugees in Turkey,” he said.

Recruiting a Radwan fighter

In February 2017, when he was living in Dubai, he decided to again visit Lebanon in order to see his family. Philip’s parents reached out to the terror group for permission, and he was allowed to return.

He says that during this trip, he recruited Gabriel, the Hezbollah Radwan commando, as a Mossad asset.

“He and I went camping for two days, and I convinced him to work with the Mossad,” Philip said.

“I traveled back to Dubai, and I sent a message to the Mossad. They answered and they were really interested because he was in the Radwan unit.”

A picture taken on June 3, 2019, during a guided tour with the Israeli army shows the interior of a tunnel at the Israeli side of the border with Lebanon in northern Israel. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The Radwan unit is one of Hezbollah’s most elite forces. Had Israel not succeeded in locating and destroying the terror group’s attack tunnels into northern Israel last winter, Radwan fighters would have been the ones coming through them to massacre and pillage Israeli border towns.

Getting a member of the unit to defect represented a significant coup for the Mossad.

In 2017, Philip says, the Mossad told him to move to East Asia. He assumes this was because of the relative ease with which he could get a visa.

Later that year, he met Mossad agents in Asia, received a special communication device from them and was instructed to return to Lebanon in order to deliver it to Gabriel, which he says he did in September 2017.

From that time, Gabriel was able to directly provide the Mossad with detailed evidence on Hezbollah’s activities.

This continued until May 2019, when Gabriel was arrested suddenly by Hezbollah and imprisoned. Philip says he does not know how the terror group came to suspect that Gabriel was spying for Israel. He says he immediately contacted his Mossad handlers with news of the arrest and warned them that the communication device had also fallen into Hezbollah’s hands.

This is when his relationship with the Mossad again took a turn for the worse. According to Philip, despite his warning, the Israeli spy service sent a message to the communication device identifying him as the person who recruited Gabriel.

He was later informed that the Mossad did this deliberately as a way to ensure that Hezbollah wouldn’t recruit him and Gabriel as double agents.

Despite his arrest and two-year imprisonment by Hezbollah for being an Israeli spy, Philip says this message effectively sealed his fate with the terror organization and ensured that he could never safely return to his native Lebanon.

What next?

Philip is now seeking refuge in Europe, where he has some friends. However, this process is expensive and it may fail, as did his last attempt in Switzerland, though Philip hopes that publishing his story will make his asylum request more viable.

“Seeking asylum is risky,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, which it might not, I could again be deported [to Lebanon].”

Philip says he’s also considered working with other intelligence services, including Kuwait’s, but ultimately decided against it because “they’re against Israel. I don’t want to be with the other side.”

His relationship with Israel and the Mossad is complicated. He’ll rail against the government and his handlers and how they’ve abandoned him one minute, and a moment later, refer to the Jewish state with admiration and a sense of devotion.

In the Mossad, they told me, Israel is a nation of laws. Where is the law? What is the law?

He acknowledges that he never signed an agreement with the Mossad or otherwise made a formal arrangement about his future, but said he believed there was a “moral contract” that Israel should honor.

“In the Mossad, they told me, Israel is a nation of laws. Where is the law? What is the law?”

Philip says he believes that if he is deported back to Lebanon, Hezbollah — a terror group known for its adept public relations abilities — would use him to set an example for what happens to people who cooperate with the Mossad, which could dissuade others from helping Israel in its fight against the terror group.

Hopefully one day, Lebanese will have hummus in Haifa and swim in Tel Aviv and eat shakshuka at Dr. Shakshuka in Jaffa; and Israelis will go to Faraiya to go skiing. I hope that day will come.

“If I go back to Lebanon, they’ll use it against Israel. I came to work with the Mossad because I believe in peace and love and living together for a prosperous future as neighbors. I love Israel and I have been fighting for peace my whole life,” he said.

“Hopefully one day, Lebanese will have hummus in Haifa and swim in Tel Aviv and eat shakshuka at Dr. Shakshuka in Jaffa; and Israelis will go to Faraiya to go skiing. I hope that day will come.”

Philip says he has largely accepted that he may eventually commit suicide in order to avoid returning to Lebanon and facing rape and torture there. But he is concerned about what will happen after his death.

“I don’t want my body to be sent back to Lebanon. The same people who raped me, the same people who bullied me, the same people who sexually harassed me — they’ll see my naked body being washed and put in a coffin and a tomb. I’m just afraid that even my death won’t be with dignity,” he said.

“Regardless of how things end, I do feel proud. I feel proud that I am from a country where I could have been a terrorist, where I could have been a member of Hezbollah, but I chose not to be part of this fucking terrorist organization,” he said. “I’m not a killer, I’m not a terrorist.”

Despite feeling abandoned and scorned by Israel, Philip says he still believes people in Lebanon should cooperate with Israeli intelligence.

“I personally encourage people to keep working with the Mossad. It’s a real way to stop Hezbollah, and we really need to stop Hezbollah,” he said.

Philip notes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials routinely boast of the country’s military prowess, but that they rarely if ever acknowledge the sources of the intelligence that makes this possible.

“Most of the things that the Israeli government brags about, the attacks in Syria and attacks in Gaza, the attacks on Iranian targets — it doesn’t happen because the Mossad is sitting at home and a fairy tells them the Iranians are moving weapons here or there. It’s because there are people like me, choosing to work and putting their lives at risk,” he said.

“All the steps on this pyramid are part of this victory. The people at the bottom shouldn’t be left out.”

***

A Hebrew translation of this article appears on our sister site, Zman Yisrael, here.

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