Israeli in Lebanon jail not a spy-family

( AP ) - Israel denied Sunday that one of its citizens arrested in Lebanon was a spy. The man's family said he converted to Islam years ago and was fascinated with the Arab world, particularly Lebanon - an enemy country where Israelis have been kidnapped in the past.

Lebanese security officials said Daniel Sharon, 32, was arrested Thursday in a Beirut hotel and handed over to military police for interrogation on suspicion of espionage. Sharon has Israeli and German citizenship and entered Lebanon on his German passport.

The Lebanese said Sharon had aroused suspicion because he visited Lebanon frequently - 11 times in the past two years - using his German passport. He also spoke Arabic fluently.

Shaul Mofaz, Israel's transportation minister, told Israel Radio Sharon entered Lebanon "on his own accord" and in doing so had "crossed the line" - a reference to the ban on Israelis visiting enemy countries.

An Israeli government official insisted Sharon was not working with Israeli authorities in any role. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case.

Israel's Foreign Ministry said only that it was looking into the matter.

Moshe Sharon, the father of the arrested man, said his son had converted to Islam several years ago and immersed himself in Arab culture. He told Israel's Army Radio his son was not a spy.

"No, no, there is no chance. This boy doesn't even smoke, he doesn't drink, he's not a criminal," the father said. He described Daniel as "childish" and said it was possible he got mixed up "with the wrong people and didn't know what he was getting into."Lebanese media reports said Sharon's arrest came after an investigation into the murder of a Lebanese citizen found dead in a Beirut apartment.

Sharon had been in contact through the Internet with a Lebanese security agent who was the roommate of the dead man and who was under investigation in the killing. The reports said police found the victim had been shot with a gun belonging to the security agent.

When questioned by authorities, the security officer claimed he had lost his gun and was with a German friend who was staying at a hotel in Beirut when the killing occurred, the reports said. Police then went to the hotel and detained Sharon.

Sharon denied allegations he was spying for Israel, the reports said. He told police he visited Lebanon for tourism and that he was a homosexual who had relationships with Lebanese men, according to the reports.

Because the two countries are officially at war, any Israeli found in Lebanese territory would automatically be suspected of espionage, explaining Sharon's transfer to military police.

Sharon's father said he feared Daniel could be held in Lebanon for years.

Germany's ambassador to Lebanon was in contact with Lebanese authorities about the case, a German Foreign Ministry official said.

Exceptional among Israeli Jews for his identification with Arab culture, a young Sharon was interviewed by the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot in 1996 after his first visit to Lebanon.

In the article, Sharon said he had been in Beirut during an Israeli offensive against Hezbollah and he felt "disappointed" when he saw an Israeli assault helicopter flying overhead evade a Lebanese missile.

Photographed wearing an Arab headdress around his neck, Sharon recounted how he bought a copy of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, at age 16 and later converted to Islam. Disillusioned with Israeli policy, he said he went AWOL from his Israeli combat engineering unit while doing compulsory military service and was discharged early after serving five months in an army jail.

"To a certain extent, I feel I don't have any connection to Judaism. I'm Muslim," Sharon said.

He went to Jordan after the two countries signed a peace deal in 1994, and later traveled to Lebanon.

"I love the Lebanese. They're the most wonderful people in the Middle East," Sharon told the paper, praising Beirut's beaches and nightlife.

Maram Hamud, a friend of Sharon's and an Israeli Arab lawyer, dismissed the possibility that Sharon was spying for Israel.

He described Sharon as someone who "loves Arabic and Islamic culture very much" and spends most of his time outside of Israel, mainly in the Gulf nation of Dubai.

Hamud said Sharon was a homosexual who "feels comfortable" in Lebanon and who recently started going by the last name "Trabilsi" - meaning someone who hails from the Lebanese city of Tripoli.

During Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, Lebanese authorities arrested and jailed many people on charges of spying or working for Israel. Israel pulled out of Lebanon in 2000.

In October 2000, Israeli reserve colonel Elhanan Tannenbaum was captured by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah while traveling on a foreign passport and held for three years. He later admitted he had been lured by the promise of a lucrative drug deal.

Hezbollah is currently holding two Israeli soldiers it captured in July 2006 in a raid that sparked a monthlong conflict with Israel. Their condition is unknown.

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