BEIRUT—Though largely unknown outside of the country, in recent years a string of well received plays have put Ziad Itani on Lebanon’s theatrical map. The comedy writer grapples with the minefield that is Lebanon’s recent history, poking fun at everything from sectarianism to the influx of more than a million refugees from neighboring Syria. But the comedian and self-described poet is now at the gripping center of an extremely serious scandal—he stands accused of spying for Israel. And for a brief moment in the Lebanese press, “Wonder Woman” Gal Gadot, who is Israeli, was cited erroneously as the figure at the center of a classic honey trap.
The tone of comments on Itani’s now disabled Facebook page suggest how high passions are running. “Burn in hell,” read one. “Go and live with the Zionists—Traitor!” says another.
Itani was arrested Thursday while on his way home from a theater rehearsal. He is accused of “collaborating and communicating with the Israeli enemy.”
His espionage reportedly comes in the form of a relationship with a woman who went by the name Collete Vianfi, which allegedly began on Facebook in 2014 when the two started exchanging messages. Speaking to investigators, Itani reportedly said that he believed he was communicating with a Swedish woman, and that she was “tall, with black hair and green eyes.” To begin with the conversation was innocent, they spoke of their relationship, “and the general situation in Lebanon”—this over the course of many months and into 2015.
In Lebanon, frequently invaded and sometimes partially occupied by Israel in its ongoing wars with Palestinian and Hezbollah militants, mere contact with Israelis is technically a crime; simply befriending an Israeli on Facebook could be considered a violation of an anti-Israeli boycott law. Of course, this is largely theoretical legislation, and its enforcement is rare. But Lebanese security sources insist that Itani was aware of Vianfi’s true identity as an Israeli intelligence operative.
In 2015, the two appeared to get closer. They exchanged emails and phone numbers. The Lebanese daily newspaper Al-Akhbar reported that by early 2016, Vianfi had “recruited” Itani. They add that Itani was “struck” by her attractiveness—a classic honey trap, it would seem, but up to that point conducted entirely online.
Through 2016, their messaging continued, on Facebook, on Gmail, and via encrypted messaging over WhatsApp. Eventually the two would message through various encrypted channels, using the password “HI IT’S ME”—typed in capital letters to ensure they were talking to each other. Investigators also point to a string of suspicious international phone calls to Itani from Sweden, Belgium, Palestine, Turkey, and Qatar, every phone call came from a different line.
Security sources told Al-Akhbar that Itani had begun receiving wires of between $500 and $1000 via Western Union from one Arif Marei. In return, he allegedly was asked to collect information on influential political figures and their inner circles. He was tasked with identifying Lebanese officials in favor of normalizing relations with Israel, and helping to promote them within the Lebanese political sphere, and in the media, too. They had to be “liberal, and supportive of peace in the Middle East.” After more than a year of online communication, in August Itani and Vianfi finally met in person for the first time in Turkey.
Security sources allege that the two identified the Lebanese former Minister of Defense Abdel Rahim Murad and Minister of Interior Nihad Machnouk as targets. Itani claimed to Vianfi that he was close to a senior adviser to Machnouk, one Mohammed Barakat. Vianfi allegedly instructed him to approach Barakat in order to further “strengthen the relationship.” It was around this time, that he was asked to provide Vianfi with the minister's address. He also claimed to know personally Abdel Rahim’s son. Security sources told Al-Akhbar newspaper that they believe he was gathering information for an assassination effort, but publicly the Internal Security Forces deny this.The two also began to discuss further sensitive issues, such as the security situation in Lebanon’s south, the Palestinian refugee camps, and Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s now rescinded resignation on the Nov. 4.
Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, has a long history of espionage activities in Lebanon and other neighboring states. Indeed, it wouldn’t be the first time they had attempted to honey trap someone. In 1986, Mossad agent Cheryl Bentov lured the infatuated whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu to Rome to be kidnapped by Mossad. Vanunu had worked on the Israeli nuclear program, and leaked details of it to the British press. After travelling to Rome to meet with Bentov, with whom he had fallen in love, he was kidnapped by Mossad, and returned to Israel for trial and imprisonment.
On Sunday, Nov. 19, Vianfi called Itani through WhatsApp and told him that she was to visit Lebanon on Dec. 2. They needed to meet, she said, and it was “urgent.” Itani told her that he was afraid of the idea of a meeting. During the call he used another code word, “D,” which was designed to sever communication completely for 30 days. But Vianfi appears to have broken this protocol when she called again later that day to inform him that they would meet in Beirut’s Al-Bustan Hotel along with another individual who would assist in training Itani in “security skills.”
It was this second meeting that prompted Lebanese security to swoop, and thus Itani was arrested.
The story took an even more extreme turn for the bizarre on Monday, as another Lebanese newspaper—Al-Liwaa, published an image of Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot, identifying her as Itani’s recruiter. The former Miss Israel 2004 previously served in the Israel Defense Forces and hit the A-list this year after starring in the Hollywood blockbuster Wonder Woman as the title character. The film was banned here when it was released earlier this year precisely because an Israeli starred in it.
Could Wonder Woman really be a Mossad agent? Not likely. The published photograph came from the 2011 film Fast Five—the fifth incarnation of The Fast and The Furious franchise, in which she played a supporting role. The paper was soon forced to apologize for publishing the image, reportedly lifted from social media, claiming it was an “unintended technical error.”
Gadot’s agent did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
While Gadot’s “involvement” looks like nothing more than an over-zealous newspaper editor’s decision to run photos floating around social media, the case of Ziad Itani remains a potentially combustible case of espionage.
Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces claim to have been tracking Itani for four months prior to his shock arrest. So serious are the allegations that Ziad’s own family have said they will disown him if they are proven. Further information is certain to emerge. And at a moment of rising tensions in Lebanese and regional politics, in a country where Iran-backed Hezbollah is the major political as well as military force, and as signs grow that Israel and Saudi Arabia are cooperating to fight it, this case does not look like it will go away any time soon.