Lebanon, Israel swap war dead, prisoners Negotiation was aided by French, Red Cross

June 27, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israel buried yesterday the remains of an Israeli soldier returned in a swap for Islamic guerrillas killed in the war in South Lebanon, ending a family's personal tragedy and the nation's remorse over a botched commando raid.

Navy commando Itamar Ilya was one of 11 Israeli soldiers killed in a Sept. 4 raid in South Lebanon that went awry. The Israelis mistakenly triggered two bombs, which detonated a pack of explosives being carried by Ilya. The 21-year-old soldier's body was dismembered in the explosion.

His burial in the southern Israeli town of Arad drew hundreds of mourners, including Israel's prime minister, president and defense minister. But the military funeral was unusually somber. No eulogy was given; no speeches were made, according to Israel Radio.

Most of the Israeli media, an ordinarily aggressive bunch, respected the family's wishes to stay away.

The return of Ilya's remains was the result of an arduous negotiation carried out over 10 months with the help of the French and Lebanese governments. As part of the deal, Israel freed 60 Lebanese prisoners yesterday who returned to a joyous reception in south Lebanon. The exchange was carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Of those freed, 55 crossed into Lebanon. But one Lebanese held in an Israeli prison asked to remain for reasons a Red Cross spokeswoman would not disclose.

The exchange also included the return of the bodies of four Islamic guerrillas killed in fighting with Israel, which has occupied the southern tip of Lebanon since 1985. Among the dead was the 18-year-old son of Sheik Hassan Nusrallah, the secretary general of Shiite Party of God known as Hezbollah. Hezbollah fighters have waged a guerrilla war against Israel and its surrogate, Christian-dominated South Lebanon Army.

The Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to withdraw from Lebanon, but only if the Lebanese army helps prevent attacks into Israel. Last year, 39 Israeli soldiers were killed in south Lebanon fighting. The death toll so far this year is eight, including two killed Thursday.

The exchange of war dead and prisoners has occurred in the past, most recently in a July 1996 deal in which Israel received the bodies of two dead soldiers held since 1986 in return for the remains of 126 Lebanese guerrillas.

The return of war dead is important to both Muslims and Jews.

"For us, a return of the bodies of our martyrs is of the highest moral importance," Sheik Nusrallah told Radio Monte Carlo in an interview.

Sheik Ikrama Sabri, an Islamic cleric in the Palestinian Authority, explained that the graves of Muslims killed in the cause of Islam become memorials. "To keep the body with the enemy is humiliation," said Sabri. "Burying him with respect encourages people to follow his example to be martyrs."

In Israel, returning fallen soldiers to their homeland is a social as well as religious imperative. A commentary on the issue appeared on the front page yesterday of one of Israel's leading daily newspapers, Yediot Aharanot.

'We always want our children at our sides, alive, or God forbid, dead, at our homes, resting in peace according to the ancient tradition of Israel," wrote Eitan Haber, a chief aide to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "We will always pay in a currency of thousands of prisoners in exchange for one prisoner or three caskets with soldiers' remains."

Rabbi Gad Navon, Israel's chief military chaplain who holds the rank of major general, said Israel military developed a tradition "that you never leave fighters behind -- not alive, not dead."

Pub Date: 6/27/98

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