Israel girds for retaliation after its kidnapping of Lebanese guerrilla leader

May 23, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israel readied yesterday for likely retaliation for its kidnapping of a Lebanese guerrilla leader in a pre-dawn raid Saturday.

The government instructed its foreign diplomats to increase security and placed its forces in northern Israel on alert for rocket attacks and guerrilla infiltration from Lebanon.

The last time Israel singled out a Lebanese Muslim leader -- killing Hezbollah chief Sheik Abbas Musawi and his family in a helicopter attack inside Lebanon in February 1992 -- Muslim groups rained hundreds of small rockets on northern Israel. They also set off a massive bomb at the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, killing dozens.

A source from an Islamic group told Reuters yesterday in Lebanon, "Retaliation is coming and, by God, it will be spectacular," the news service reported from Beirut.

The Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, predicted that the guerrillas "will try to carry out operations" against Israel.

Israeli commandos flew in two helicopters on a night raid 50 miles inside Lebanon Saturday to abduct Mustafa Dirani in his pajamas from his bed.

He was being interrogated yesterday at an undisclosed location.

Mr. Dirani was believed by Israel to have held an Israeli prisoner of war, air force Capt. Ron Arad, between 1986 and 1988. Israeli authorities said they wanted to interrogate him in their effort to get the aviator back.

In Israel yesterday, there was universal praise for the military raid. Cabinet members and political parties across the spectrum brushed aside legal or moral questions about the operation to congratulate the Israeli military on its bold strike.

The effectiveness of the kidnapping remained unclear, however. Israeli officials acknowledged that Mr. Dirani is not important enough to try to exchange for Captain Arad and further admitted that he probably has no knowledge of the officer's whereabouts in the last six years.

"The abduction needs no moral justification," commentator Alon Pinkas said in the conservative Jerusalem Post. But "why do it at all, and why now?" he asked.

Yossi Olmert, an expert in Syrian affairs, said the kidnapping may have been meant to send political signals to Syria, and to Shiite groups in Lebanon, about Israel's determination to retrieve Captain Arad.

But he said, "The domestic consideration may be very, very important. This sends a strong signal to the Israeli public that we are doing whatever we can.

"The question of Ron Arad has become almost a national obsession," Mr. Olmert said.

Israel fought five wars with its Arab neighbors, but Captain Arad is the only member of the Israeli military believed held alive. The navigator was captured when his Phantom jet was shot down while bombing southern Lebanon in October 1986.

His location is unknown. Israeli sources say that Mr. Dirani "sold" the captive for $300,000 to other Shiite groups in 1988. Nothing definitive about him has been heard since. Mr. Rabin said that he believes the navigator is being held by Iran or pro-Iranian guerrillas in Lebanon or Syria.

That he was captured during a military attack on Lebanon has not dampened the public anger in Israel at his continued captivity. His wife and family have created a groundswell of public emotion with a campaign that includes frequent interviews, special songs, buttons and posters.

"I believe that, first and foremost, the responsibility of the government to the soldiers, the pilots . . . is to do the utmost to bring them back home," Mr. Rabin said Saturday, in explaining the kidnapping.

Israel has used political kidnapping before in an attempt to free Captain Arad. In a similar operation, in 1989, it kidnapped Muslim Sheik Karim Obeid, a Shiite clergyman, who still is being held captive. Mr. Rabin acknowledged that that failed to work. In 1988, Jawad Casfi and two others, all members of Mr. Dirani's group, were abducted by Israel.

Its willingness to stage commando operations inside Lebanon also is not new. General Barak won fame in Israel for having dressed up as an Arab woman to help break into a Beirut apartment in April 1973 to kill three Palestinian guerrillas.

Also yesterday, Israeli army units surrounded a house in the West Bank near Hebron and blasted it with anti-tank rockets when two Palestinians wanted by the army refused to surrender, according to Israel Radio.

One Palestinian was killed, and a search was being made for the body of the second man. The dead man was identified as Ibrahim Mohammed Asfur, 28, a member of the radical group Islamic Jihad. The army said that he was on its wanted list in connection with an attack in February 1993 in which two Israelis were wounded.

Reports said the army sealed off Hebron, a site of clashes since the Feb. 25 massacre of 30 Arabs by a Jewish settler, before the operation.

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