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(photo credit: Channel 10)
In the late afternoon of October 16, 1986, an Israeli Air Force Phantom jet flying a bombing mission over southern Lebanon was severely damaged when one of its ordinance prematurely exploded near the aircraft. Although both the pilot and navigator ejected and survived, only one of them ever made it back to Israel.
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The last time navigator Ron Arad was seen alive by an Israeli was when he and his pilot were drifting toward the earth after their parachutes deployed. In an interview some years later, pilot Yishai Aviram described regaining consciousness after the explosion.
“Suddenly I wake up - something is pulling me up! I am under a parachute. I see my Phantom in pieces on the ground. Ron Arad is behind me in his parachute. I call to him on the radio, he doesn't answer, but he's fine. I yell to him, he doesn't answer, but he's fine. He's in one piece.”
Aviram, who was presumably more conscious and therefore aware of the dangerous situation, directed himself away from what he realized were terrorists waiting for him and his navigator below. Arad, presumably injured, apparently descended directly toward the waiting Lebanese militiamen.
Aviram hid himself in berry bushes and began communicating with other planes over his radio, but nobody heard from Arad as the terrorists closed in on the downed airmen. Aviram, who remained in constant radio contact with the F16s overhead, directed the fighter pilots’ machine gun fire against the terrorists approaching him.
In one of the most dramatic helicopter rescues ever captured on film, Aviram was extracted, hanging from the skid of a Cobra attack helicopter (see video below). The rescuers, however, never heard from Arad over the radio and were forced to return to Israel without him.
Shi’ite Lebanese group Amal took responsibility for the capture of Arad. Mustafa Dirani, then-head of security for Amal, was believed to be personally holding the Israeli navigator. The group held negotiations with Israel over his release but the talks did not progress. Israeli government officials believed that they could negotiate a better deal to release Arad, but instead, the negotiations came to an end.
Three hand-written letters from the navigator were sent to his family in
1987, but that was the last heard from him for nearly two decades.
Israeli intelligence agencies believe that Dirani continued to hold Arad
even after he defected from Amal that year. The search for information
on his fate after that point went in several directions, none of which
bore any fruit.
In 1994, as part of ongoing attempts to gain new information and
leverage toward the return of Arad, Israeli commando forces captured
Dirani from his home in Lebanon. It has been claimed since that time that Arad had been sold by Dirani to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for
$300,000 a year or two after his initial capture, a claim Iran has never confirmed.
Israeli efforts to learn more about Arad’s fate continued for decades.
In the early 2000s, as part of a deal to release Israeli soldiers and a
civilian held by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi'ite group released a report
it compiled about the IAF navigator.
According to the Hezbollah report and other sources, Arad attempted to
escape in 1988 while his captors were away in battle, but was somehow
killed, is presumed dead and has not been heard from since. However,
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, in an interview several
years later, said he believes it is possible that Arad is still alive.
The one exception to the complete lack of information on the whereabouts
and fate of Ron Arad was a video of the airman, broadcast by Lebanese
television channel LBC in 2006. The video, believed to have been filmed
in the early months of Arad’s captivity, didn’t provide any new clues,
although it did reinvigorate the Israeli public’s interest in the case.
In a country where the fate of captive and missing soldiers is a
supremely sensitive and traumatic topic, the case of Ron Arad has grown
to almost mythical proportions over the years.
There is little doubt that the 25-year mystery of the missing IAF
navigator played a major role in the public pressure that brought about
the deal to secure captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit this week.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in his speech following Schalit’s
return to Israel, referenced the missing airman, saying that part of
his motivation for making the deal was to ensure that Schalit did not
share Arad’s tragic fate.