kidnapped idf soldiers.
(photo credit: IDF)
The following is an archive story from January 30, 2004:
An intricately orchestrated prisoner swap that navigated Israeli national ambivalence, Hizbullah's brinkmanship and in its last moments a deadly Palestinian suicide bombing, appeared to go off without a hitch Thursday.
The swap brought to a close one of the more painful chapters of Israeli history, and brought the Jewish state one step closer to airman Lt.-Col. Ron Arad, missing for 17 years.
After 1,200 days Israel repatriated civilian Elhanan Tannenbaum and the remains of three soldiers abducted and killed by Hizbullah, while Hizbullah gained the release of some 30 Arab nationals and 400 Palestinian prisoners.
While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon issued congratulations for the successful repatriation of the soldiers and Tannenbaum, he also tried to ensure that such a thing would never happen again.
'The State of Israel will not allow any enemy or terror organization to make kidnapping and ransom a regular practice,' Sharon told the audience at the state military service for the soldiers at Lod Air Force Base.
'There are measures to which we didn't resort. But if, God forbid, the circumstances change, we won't hesitate to use them. That's a promise.' The threat was clearly aimed at Hizbullah, and its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who has recently called for additional kidnappings of soldiers.
The only future exchanges, the speakers made clear Thursday night - their voices quaking, some with emotion, others with anger - would be for Arad, for Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz, missing from the Sultan Yakoub battle in 1982, and Guy Hever, who disappeared from the Golan Heights in 1997.
Thursday's exchange, however, hinged on an Israeli forensic team's identification of the remains of St.-Sgts. Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham, and Omar Sawayid.
Before dawn, two air force jets, one Israeli carrying 29 Arab prisoners, the other German carrying Tannenbaum and the soldiers' coffins, taxied into the same hangar and parked side by side. Within a couple of hours the team confirmed that the three bodies indeed belonged to Avitan, Avraham, and Sawayid.
After Haim Avraham, father of Benny, heard the identification process was complete, he said, 'This is the moment when 1,208 days of uncertainty ends.' Like his two comrades, his son died shortly after his jeep was attacked. Hizbullah had apparently tried to resuscitate the soldiers, but to no avail, military sources said. They had bled to death. The forensic report indicated that the bodies had not been mutilated, according to military sources.
The forensic report from Germany started a cascade of action in Israel.
Along five crossing points in the West Bank and Gaza: Erez, Tarkumiya, Beitunya, Tulkarm, and Salem, bus doors opened and 400 Palestinian prisoners, flew into the arms of loved ones.
In the North, along the cliffs of Rosh Hanikra, the Red Cross facilitated the delivery of the remains of 59 Lebanese fighters back into Lebanon.
And finally in Cologne, Germany, the 29 Arab prisoners, among them Sheikh Karim Abdul Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, Israel's chief bargaining chips for Ron Arad, were released by Israel into German custody, said government sources.
With the aid of the German mediators, the complex series of exchanges, confirmations and flights worked like clockwork.
Before takeoff from Beirut, earlier Thursday, Tannenbaum briefly spoke to reporters as he was escorted to the German air force plane. Israeli reports had said Tannenbaum's health is failing and that he was tortured by Hizbullah. However, he appeared surprisingly fit and walked without assistance.
'My name is Elhanan Tannenbaum and I am an Israeli citizen,' he told reporters as he walked to the plane. Asked about his treatment, he replied: 'I was treated very well by the Hizbullah.'
Fran ois Belon, head of the delegation of the ICRC, said that he had not even seen Tannenbaum. Belon too believed that his job is not yet over. 'We will continue to work to find information on the five other prisoners, the three soldiers from Sultan Yakoub, Ron Arad, and Guy Hever. Tannenbaum was held in quarantine on the plane as he was being examined by doctors. He was allowed a visit with his family for about 90 minutes before being sent for medical treatment and questioning by the Shin Bet and police.
Earlier, Hizbullah's Al-Manar television showed an interview with Tannenbaum, the first video of the businessman since he was seized in October 2000.
The video showed him getting dressed in a suit and folding his clothes on a bed. The presenter said Tannenbaum was preparing to leave for freedom. It was not clear when the video was made or if Tannenbaum was under duress.
'I have to say that the treatment I received was good, almost without exception, even very good,' he said.
Tannenbaum's son, Uri, confirmed the man in the video was his father, adding 'he's not looking well.' Shortly before Tannenbaum was scheduled to land in Israel, his sister Esther told The Jerusalem Post: 'The pressure is enormous.'
While the ceremony in Tel Aviv was marked by a somber, sedate tone, the welcome received by the 23 returning Lebanese was the opposite. They were greeted by the leaders of the state and were then ushered to huge Hizbullah- sponsored event where tens of thousands were expected.
While Hizbullah has effectively managed to gain the release of all Lebanese in Israel - save for Samir Kuntar, who murdered three members of the Haran family in Nahariya in 1979 - Israel said the dignitaries remained focused on locating its lost men.
We have not forgotten them,' Sharon said. 'We will not give up, rest or spare resources to bring them home. This is my personal obligation and the personal obligation of the entire government,' he added.
Sharon described the government's decision to go ahead with the prisoner exchange as a decision based 'on Jewish feeling.' Minutes earlier, Haim Avraham and Ya'acov Avitan said Kaddish, the traditional mourner's prayer, and Kassim Sawayid said the Fatiha Muslim mourning prayer, cupping his hands over his face.
'Omar, Adi and Benny left together on their last mission, they died together and today they come back together to be buried,' the prime minister said.
Ironically, Tannenbaum, arguably the catalyst for the entire swap, was mentioned only once in the program, that seemed as much an explanation of why the government felt it necessary to agree to the swap as a eulogy to the fallen soldiers.
Still criticism of the deal remained sharp Thursday afternoon. MK Yuval Steinitz, who spearheaded much of the rancor against the deal, did not attend the ceremony. He felt such a high-profile ceremony of so unbalanced a swap a 'humiliation for Israel.' That the event comes so soon after the terrorist attack in Jerusalem, 'transforms the ceremony from the macabre to the humiliating and shocking.'