In Israel, grieving father willing to pay any price for son's return

Israel's prisoner swap with Hezbollah divides public and government

January 29, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMAT GAN, Israel - It is a deal with the devil, Haim Avraham concedes, but it is a deal that the anguished father is willing to make for the return of his kidnapped son - even if his son comes home today in a coffin.

Israeli authorities are expected to complete a prisoner exchange today with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, repatriating three Israeli soldiers who were widely believed to be dead, including Avraham's son Benny, and a businessman who is known to be alive.

In exchange, Israel is to release Arab prisoners, including 400 Palestinians, and return the bodies of 59 Lebanese killed in clashes with Israel in southern Lebanon.

Late last night, Hezbollah confirmed that the three Israeli soldiers are dead.

The swap, negotiated by German mediators, has divided the Israeli public and the government, which is famously uncompromising in its battle against what it terms terrorist groups yet no less uncompromising in its efforts to rescue its citizens, whether for a hero's welcome or a proper burial.

As a bereaved father, Avraham says he is willing to pay any price to get his son back, dead or alive, after his disappearance three years ago. As a former soldier who served in the Israeli army for 23 years and lost a brother to war, he says the only way to talk to groups like Hezbollah is "on the battlefield."

He struggles to reconcile the love for his child with duty to the state.

"It is inhumane to put someone in this position," he said tearfully. "To ask a father this question, `What price do you pay for your son?' is unfair. Any price to bring back my son is OK."

Asked whether he would support the deal if his son were not involved, he paused, lowered his gaze and slowly shook his head no.

The Israeli Cabinet narrowly approved the framework of the exchange in November, but critics warn that it will encourage the kidnapping of Israelis. When details of the agreement were announced last weekend, Palestinians marched through the streets of Gaza, chanting, "Kidnap a soldier and free a hundred Palestinians."

Skirmishes along the Lebanese border between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli soldiers are frequent. Even as negotiators finalized the deal, Hezbollah leaders vowed to continue their armed campaign and threatened to kidnap more Israeli soldiers. Last week, Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel, killing a soldier.

Yesterday, Israel continued making preparations for the exchange even as both sides warned that last-minute complications could undo the agreement. If all goes as planned, planes are to take off simultaneously today from Tel Aviv and Beirut, Lebanon, and fly to an airfield near Cologne, Germany, where the transfer is to take place shielded from public view.

The three Israeli soldiers - Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Suwad - were kidnapped in northern Israel in October 2000, at the beginning of the Palestinian uprising. A roadside bomb disabled their jeep, and Hezbollah militants crossed the border and hustled them away in a car marked to resemble a United Nations vehicle.

Israeli officials, including the chief army chaplain, declared them dead in October 2001. Family members have received a few items belonging to the soldiers. Avraham said he received a bloodied scrap of newspaper that he believes was in the trunk where the soldiers were put, and an empty body bag.

Hezbollah's promise to return the Israeli soldiers also includes the return of businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was captured three years ago when he made an illegal trip to an Arab country that authorities here have never identified. Israeli prosecutors say he might be charged with a crime upon his return.

Israelis are angry that the deal does not include the return of the nation's most famous missing military figure, pilot Ron Arad, who was captured 17 years ago when he ejected from his fighter jet over southern Lebanon. His fate remains unknown.

Israeli officials say they are prepared to release another Hezbollah prisoner, one linked to the killings of five Israelis in 1979, for information on Arad.

Boaz Ganor, director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, said Hezbollah emerges victorious on several fronts. Israel, through its indirect talks, has in effect recognized Hezbollah as a legitimate group, he said.

"Hezbollah can now promote itself as a regional power-broker that is able to force Israel to free terrorists that others were not able to," Ganor said.

"Israel has shown that in most cases, it is ready to make concessions, even unwise ones, to save one life," he said. "It is easy to appreciate such a culture, but at the end of the day, I think it is counterproductive and dangerous."

The State Department puts Hezbollah high on its list of 36 groups it labels as terrorist organizations. The Bush administration's stated policy is to "deny hostage-takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes or any acts of concession."

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