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Copywrite 2001

Jerusalem Post - FRIDAY

January 26, 2001


TITLE: The Waiting Game


BY: Heidi J. Gleit


For almost four months there’s been no word about the fate of Adi Avitan and the two other soldiers kidnapped at the Lebanon border by Hizbullah. Heidi J. Gleit talks with the Avitan family on how they’re coping with their ordeal.

LOOKING FOR: Adi Avitan, Mail, Age 21, Born and raised in Tiberias. Black hair and eyes. Average height. Well dressed. Always smiling. Enjoys hiking, basketball and organizing excursions for his friends.

Last seen patrolling the Lebanese border in a jeep with Benny Avraham and Omar Suwayid on October7.

Anyone with any information about his whereabouts is requested to contact Tzipora, Ya’acov, Eyal, Avi, Netta, Assaf or Oshrat, as soon as possible.

"He always smiles. He’s cheerful, and he loves life," says Tzipora Avitan, 49, when asked to describe the third of her four sons. "Everyone always likes Adi-he’s sociable and friendly," she adds.

"Adi is lighthearted. He’s not heavy.... not a complainer," says his brother Eyal, 27, who works in computer communications in Tel Aviv.

It is difficult for the Avitan family to smile and be light-hearted these days. They have had no word from Adi since October 7, when Hizbullah terrorists snuck over the border from Lebanon at Mount Dov and kidnapped him and two other soldiers. Dealing with Adi’s absence and the uncertainty of his fate has been a trying ordeal for his family and friends. Last week one of Adi Avitan’s closest friends-Ariel Balter , a soldier in the same unit- was found dead in an IDF outpost at Mount Dov, shot with his own weapon. Preliminary reports have stated that he apparently committed suicide, although what role, if any, the kidnapping of Adi played in his death is unclear.

The Avitan family is coping as best as it can. The entrance to the family’s second-floor apartment in Tiberias is decorated- as is much of the neighborhood- with banners and stickers offering support to the family’s of the kidnapped soldiers, and demanding their return.

"Adi, Benny, and Omar, we’re expecting your return," read several of their banners outside their home on a winding street in the upper part of the city overlooking Lake Kinneret.

"Adi, we’re with you forever- the gang," declares a banner opposite a nearby basketball court.

Shortly after the kidnapping, one of Avitan’s former teachers organized a huge demonstration at his old elementary school, located just a few blocks from their home. The Avitan’s neighbors also spent a day at the Golani Junction handing out stickers and information about the soldiers.

The family is spending a great deal of time receiving visitors offering their support and attending demonstrations. A number of them are former POW’s.

"It was encouraging to meet with them and to see that they survived it," says Eyal. "It gives you hope."

The Avitan home is full of evidence of the many visitors. The walls of Adi’s bedroom, previously decorated with posters and photos of friends and relatives, now also sport balloons and a mobile of birds- meant to symbolize freedom- brought by pupils at local schools.

Relatives, neighbors, and friends, including Omar Suwayid’s wife and sons, aged three and five, crowded into the family’s apartment during Hannuka to celebrate Adi’s 21st birthday.

"We always have a birthday party for him," his father says as he looks at pictures of the party, "so we did this year too."

In the living room, a collage of cards made by children from a nearby Kindergarten is prominently displayed, while some of the flowers brought by the mother of a soldier in Adi’s unit are dying in the laundry room.

"She brought 120 flowers," says Tzipora. "And she will bring another 20 when we celebrate Adi’s return."

"WE COULD have prevented this kidnapping," said Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz at a press conference two weeks ago, in which he presented the results of a fourth a final IDF inquiry into the incident. "This was a grave operational failure in the light of the fact that we had information of plans to carry out a kidnapping," Mofaz admitted.

To the relief of the Avitans and the other hostage families, Mofaz also dispelled the initial reports that the soldiers had violated regulations by going down themselves to the border fence at Mount Dov - where rumors had them carrying out a drug deal, among other things.

In fact, the standing regulations allowed for the patrol to use its own judgment when to approach the fence, despite the risks. The IDF has information that guerrillas were then able to surprise the three soldiers by disguising themselves as UN peacekeepers.

Adi, like the other soldiers in the area, had heard warnings that Hizbullah wanted top kidnap soldiers, says his father, Ya’acov, 49. He wasn’t sure whether Adi had participated in an exercise performed by his unit several days before his abduction on how to respond to a kidnapping attempt. Adi didn’t like to worry his mother, so he didn’t like to mention things like that in his conversations with the family, Ya’acov says.

"I spoke to Adi the night before [Hizbullah kidnapped him, Avraham and Suwayid] and I told him to be careful," Tzipora recalls. "He said everything was quiet and that he was safe."

Tzipora, who ha spent a great deal of time worrying about her son Avi when he was a soldier, had asked Adi not to opt for a combat unit, but he insisted. It was important for him to join a combat unit because he felt that he could contribute more to the state that way, Ya’acov explains.

Adi was also influenced by Avi, 24, who now lives in Ma’alot with his wife Netta and works for the civil service in Tiberias.

Avi had served in the engineering corps, and as a young teenager, Adi would listen to Avi and his friends talk about their experiences in the unit. When Adi was drafted into the IDF two-and-a-half years ago, he asked to serve in the unit he had heard so much about.

His family says that Adi makes friends quickly and had been doing well in the army. He is a person likes to be involved in everything, they say. When he was a toddler, Adi used to insist on joining his father and older brothers when they went on hikes. They enjoyed taking him, even thought they often ended up carrying him for much of the hike.

Adi is always the one who organized things for his group of friends, from hikes in the area around Tiberias, to weekend trips to Eilat, his father adds. Like most youths his age, he like to play basketball and hang out with his friends, as well as spend time with his girlfriend of the past three years, Oshrat Mizrahi.

The one thing that his relatives all keep repeating is that Adi was always smiling. "Adi is lighthearted and agreeable - he likes everything and can always get along with everyone," Eyal says. "He is simply a pleasure to be with" adds his mother.

Tzipora praises her friends - new and old - and family for their warmth and support. The family also praise the IDF officials who have been helping them deal with the crisis especially Avishai Tevet, who is their liaison with the army. However, they are not as forthcoming with praise for the government and IDF efforts to bring their son home, though they do not criticize them.

"When he’s back I’ll be satisfied. I know they are working on it, and according to their stories, they are working hard, but he’s not back yet and over 100 days have passed," Eyal says. "The final result is what counts."

The family is well aware of the ongoing tragedy of the Bamuel, Katz and Feldman families, whose sons went missing in action in Lebanon in 1982, and of the family of Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986, and whose fate also remains a mystery.

"We don’t want that to happen again," says Ya’acov. "I believe the State learned a lesson from that. The State sent Adi and it has a moral responsibility to bring him back, no matter what the price, especially since the army didn’t react correctly when it came to the kidnapping."

EVERY morning since the kidnapping, Tzipora has lit three candles in her kitchen to symbolize her hope that the three men are alive and well. Adi’s name is written on each square of a calendar hanging on the opposite wall.

"I can’t scream, so I scream on paper by writing his name each day that isn’t here," Ya’acov explains, pulling out his appointment book in which he has written Adi’s name each day and kept count of how many days have passed since he has been kidnapped.

Alongside Adi’s name are notations for the times and locations of meetings with army officers, government officials, ambassadors, politicians, community leaders and anyone else the Avitans could think of who could possibly facilitate the release of their son and his comrades.

They have met with Prime Minister Barak, President Moshe Katzav, and Senator Hillary Clinton, among others. While some meetings have been helpful, the family says others have been frustrating, like one with an unsympathetic foreign ambassador who used the occasion to criticize Israel.

"We go to meeting after meeting because we hope that someone will be able to bring the boys home.," Tzipora says.

Ya’acov says he believes Germany is the best hope, in that it is the only country thus far that Hizbullah has been willing to accept as a mediator.

The US also has the power to influence the situation, Eyal says, adding he would like to see the US use its financial, military, and/or political might to pressure Hizbullah and its supporters.

The Avitans, who before the kidnapping were quite content to spend their time in Tiberias where they were born and raised their children and where most of their extended family resides, have become world travelers since.

In November, along with their youngest son Assaf, 15, they toured the US, attending numerous meetings and addressing the General Assembly of American Jewish organizations in Chicago.

This month the parents are traveling to Paris and Geneva, while the older sons Eyal and Avi, go to Canada and the US. Assaf, who only recently returned home to school, is staying home this time. His parents don’t want him to miss more school and further disrupt his schedule.

Their normal schedules, however, have indeed been turned upside down. Ya’acov manages to put in a few hours a day at the Anmir recycling company, where he heads a departments. Tzipora has stopped running a nursery of preschoolers.

"I don’t have the energy to dedicate to the children, all my thoughts are on Adi," she says.

"I just think about this all the time and analyze every possibility ," Eyal says. "I work a few days a week, but this is the main thing... I am always thinking of him. But whatever we are going through is nothing compared to what he is going through."

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