Israelis in West Africa: We Live in Hezbollah State

Israeli diamond merchants active in West Africa, responding to the report in Haaretz yesterday that defense officials are worried Hezbollah terrorists will target Israeli communities there, said the Lebanese movement enjoyed the strong support of locals.

"The big problem for Israelis in West Africa is that there are countries whose diamond industry is controled by Lebanese locals, a majority of whom openly support Hezbollah," a source in the Israeli diamond business said yesterday. "In effect, these are countries which are known as Hezbollah states," he added.

Israeli companies that deal in diamonds, agriculture, communications and security operate mainly in Sierra Leone, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Kenya. Hundreds of Israelis reside on the African continent, for the most part families with children who live in the vicinity of the diamond mines in West Africa. Sources close to the Israeli companies say that some have begun evacuating employees from the area following the defense establishment's warning. At this point, the move is being billed as a vacation until things settle down, but it is not clear whether the companies will risk sending their staff back.

Israeli diamond merchants who live in West Africa say the region is extremely dangerous in terms of personal safety. "They've got bribery and crime, the police doesn't function, and the Israelis wandering around there are completely exposed and utterly unprotected," one source said.

"There are Muslim countries there, pro-Arab with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that are a very easy berth for Hezbollah activity," he added.

The most prominent Israeli businessman in the region is diamond tycoon Beny Steinmetz, who is worth an estimated $3 billion. Steinmetz operates through foreign companies in Sierra Leone, Botswana, the Congo and Zambia. He owns the largest diamond mine in Sierra Leone - Koidu, which produces an estimated $20-30 million worth of diamonds annually.