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« BBC paying off Google? | Main | German to be released »

Tuesday, January 27 2004

Background on prisoner releases

As Israel's prisoner exchange with Hizbullah nears completion, news outlets have provided the raw data of the deal - 435 Arab prisoners (400 of them Palestinian) and one German convicted of spying for Hezbullah, in exchange for Israeli Elhanan Tanenbaum and three IDF soldiers abducted near the Lebanon border in 2000 and assumed dead. (This is the latest in a history of highly lopsided prisoner exchanges between Israel and Arab groups.) A proposed second stage of the deal would involve the release of terrorist Samir Qantar for "significant, proven and clear information" about the fate of Israeli airman Ron Arad.

Absent from news reports, however, is the essential background of two terrorist leaders due to be released to Lebanon: Mustafa Dirani and Abdel Karim Obeid. Here are their stories, and their connection to Arad:


Ron Arad, a navigator with the Israeli Air Force, was captured on October 16, 1986, after parachuting out of his Phantom jet. He landed in the area of Say'da in southern Lebanon and was captured by members of the Islamic fundamentalist AMAL Militia. Arad was brought to Beirut and personally held by the then head of security of AMAL, Mustafa Dirani.

In early 1988, Dirani severed his ties with AMAL due to ideological differences and took Ron Arad with him. That year, Dirani formed a new group, called the 'Resistance of the Believers'.  Arad was held captive by Dirani's group until the beginning of 1989. After negotiations between 'Resistance of the Believers' and the Iranians, Arad was handed over to the Iranian 'Revolutionary Guards' in exchange for a large sum of money. Israeli intelligence believes that Ron Arad may still be held by this group somewhere in Iran, or perhaps in Syria.

The IDF captured Dirani in Lebanon in 1994. Since then, another of Dirani's former prisoners, Mustafa Abbas, has testified how Dirani personally tortured him for years, and the Arad family has formally petitioned to Israeli's high court to refuse the release of Dirani, whom they term 'a beast' undeserving of human freedom.

Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a key Hezbullah leader, was captured by the IDF south Lebanon in July 1989. Israeli officials later stated that Obeid was taken for the explicit reason of obtaining more information on Ron Arad's fate.

Israel's release of Dirani and Obeid before obtaining significant information regarding the fate of Ron Arad is therefore a departure from previous Israeli policy, and comes after years of international pressure on Israel to free the two. This aspect of the prisoner exchange, absent in nearly nearly all news reports, demonstrates an additional Israeli accommodation - beyond the lopsided numbers that Israel has long agreed to in order to free her captive sons.



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