Thursday, July 17, 2008

Diary twist in Ron Arad story

Ron Arad, an Israeli Air Force navigator, was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and captured by Amal, a Shia militia. For more than 20 years, Israel has been trying to rescue him, or to find out what happened to his body, and his story has gripped a generation of Israelis. Now, in one more excruciating twist, sections of a diary he wrote in 1987 have been returned to his family as part of a wider Israel-Hezbollah prisoner swap deal.

Wikipedia provides an excellent resumé of the uncomfortable Arad story. After being captured by Amal, he was bartered in negotiations for the release of Shia and Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. Letters Arad had written and photos of him were used to prove he was alive, but, in 1988, the talks broke down. Since then, the Israelis have never stopped trying to find him. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, they captured and interrogated first Abdul-Karim Obeid, a member of Hezbollah, and then Mustafa Dirani, Amal’s security chief. Dirani indicated that Arad had been handed over, in some way, to the Iranians. In 2003, Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, admitted that an intelligence agent had been killed during an operation to find Arad.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz (also recently the source of this blog’s Kafkaesque diary story) gives a detailed explanation of the various theories about Arad’s fate, and the ongoing debate within Israeli about whether to accept Arad is dead. Other Haaretz articles have followed the brokering of a new deal (by German negotiators over two years) which culminated yesterday in the exchange of five live Lebanese prisoners, including a notorious murderer, and the remains of many others, for the remains of two dead Israeli soldiers. The BBC called it a day of great emotion on both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border - of triumph and defiance in Lebanon, but of grief and anger in Israel.

Interestingly, though, it seems that a comprehensive report from Hezbollah on Arad paved the way for the prisoner/remains swap - even though the report was considered inadequate. According to Al Jazeera (which, like Haaretz, quotes Israel’s Channel 10), the Hezbollah report is simply an updated version of a similar one in 2004. It details further efforts to find Arad, but the conclusion remains the same: he went missing on the night of 4 May 1988.

However, the new Hezbollah report does also include previously unseen photographs of Arad, from 1987, and letters, as well as sections from his diary, and these seem to have been an important element in making the prisoner deal work. In the last couple of years, one or two photographs and bits of video footage of Arad, dating from the 1980s, have turned up, but this appears to be the first time diary fragments have been returned. According to Haaretz, Israeli officials said the diary and the pictures had only sentimental value and did not shed light on Arad’s fate. Nevertheless, it is thought there might be more of the diary still in Lebanon’s possession.

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