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Copyright 2001 Ha'aretz

October 30, 2001

HEADLINE: Background / A tragic tale

BYLINE: Anat Cygielman

On October 7, 2000, Benny Avraham, Omar Suwad and Adi Avitan were kidnapped and taken to Lebanon. Avraham and Avitan served in an Israel Defense Forces engineering battalion, while Suwad was an army driver. The three were traveling in a vehicle on a routine patrol along the border at Har Dov. It was 12:40 P.M. The army had not yet erected a security fence at the site.

The initial IDF inquiry found that two anti-tank rockets were fired at the vehicle, two land mines had exploded on the scene and small-arms fire had been directed at the Israeli target. Shortly before the kidnapping, Hezbollah fired rockets and mortars at a number of IDF outposts in the area, apparently as a diversionary tactic. About a dozen Hezbollah fighters, dressed as UN peace-keeping forces, were waiting in cars on the Lebanese side of the border; they reached the army vehicle and abducted the soldiers, taking their weapons too.

The three soldiers did not have time to report their situation across the IDF's communications network and the army believed they were wounded during the attack. When IDF troops arrived on the scene, they found the vehicle burned, but the engine still running.

A few minutes after the incident, large numbers of Israeli forces began searching along the border, as helicopters and airplanes took to the air over Lebanon. The search, however, proved fruitless. According to military sources, Hezbollah incursions into Israel in the vicinity of Har Dov, about two months before the kidnapping, were designed to gather intelligence on IDF troop movements in the area.

Later that same day, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah announced that the soldiers would be released in exchange for Lebanese prisoners being held in Israel. He said his organization would not provide any information about the kidnapped soldiers - "not a picture, not an interview and not even a name."

Two days after the kidnapping, the IDF said that DNA tests on material taken from the army vehicle had shown that all three soldiers had been wounded in the attack. The International Red Cross asked Hezbollah to allow its representatives to visit the soldiers, but was turned down.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy and security chief asked then Lebanese president Emil Lahoud to provide proof that the three soldiers were alive. Solana, however, received no reply to his request.

On October 16, Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah was also holding Colonel (res.) Elhanan Tannenbaum. On the matter of the three kidnapped soldiers, Nasrallah also said that contacts were underway through two channels: "The channel of the UN secretary-general and the Russian channel." But the Israeli government "is not acting seriously to get them back," he added.

In response, sources in the defense establishment in Israel said that there were numerous channels for contacts, but no progress had been made. The Red Cross, noted Israel, had not been allowed to see the soldiers. Nasrallah said that he was demanding the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israel in exchange for information about the fate of the kidnapped soldiers. Thereafter, Hezbollah would make its demands for their actual release, he said.

On November 10, 2000, Al Watan Al Arabi, the Paris-based, Arabic-language weekly, reported that the three soldiers had died, "as a result of complications." The weekly also said: "Even the Lebanese government does not know where the bodies are located."

The next day, the Lebanese daily, The Daily Star, reported that at least one of the soldiers had been wounded and had lost a lot of blood during the kidnapping. The daily also reported that the two cars used in the operation had been abandoned, but had been found later by UNIFIL soldiers and had been returned to Hezbollah.

In one of the cars, the newspaper said, there had been a lot of blood; small traces of blood had also been in the other vehicle. A UNIFIL source said that based on the amount of blood found in the car, it was possible that at least one of the soldiers had died of his wounds.

In early December last year, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz was presented with the findings of the Northern Command's investigation into the incident. The inquiry detailed various flaws in the actions of the Hermon Brigade, including a slow and tardy response by some of the IDF forces to the kidnapping. On December 4, Mofaz appointed an outside committee, headed by Major General (res.) Yossi Peled to investigate the kidnapping.

On December 13, Mofaz said that Israel was negotiating with Hezbollah through Germany, but had yet to receive any information - "whether good or bad" - about the hostages.

The Lebanese newspaper, Al Mustkabal, owned by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, reported that a top official from the German government was in Beirut, with authorization from Israel to conduct negotiations. The newspaper said that Hezbollah was demanding the release of 19 Lebanese citizens who are being held in Israel, together with an Israeli withdrawal from the Shaba Farms and three other border points that the organization claimed were Lebanese.

Israeli officials said that Israel had only 15 Lebanese citizens in custody and that Hezbollah may have been referring to four Iranian diplomats that Iran claims Israel kidnapped in 1982. Israel denies these accusations.

On December 25, Austrian Defense Minister Herbert Scheibner was reported to have said that he had learned that the three hostages were alive. Scheibner, a member of Jorge Haider's extreme right-wing party, claimed he had been asked to mediate between Israel and Hezbollah. It was also reported that his associates had met in Tel Aviv with then-deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, as well as with senior Syrian officials in Damascus.

In mid-January of this year, the Lebanese weekly, A-Shara, reported that one of the hostages was "recuperating from an operation."

"In prisoner exchanges, we've received live people in exchange for bodies," said Hezbollah's deputy secretary-general, Naim Kassem, in early February, leading to a wave of rumors that the hostages were no longer alive. Around the same time, there were reports of an IDF reservist doctor telling Haim Avraham, the father of Benny: "The establishment is jerking you around. The three soldiers were killed during the kidnapping and everyone knows it."

Avraham, who took up the role of leader for the three families, demanded an explanation from the defense establishment. The commander of the IDF's Manpower Division, Major General Yehuda Segev, met with Avraham and said that there was a possibility the soldiers had been killed, but without any proof, the IDF was still treating the entire matter as if the three were still alive.

IDF sources added that the amount of blood that had been found in the vehicle from which the three had been kidnapped, coupled with the fact that it had taken a long time before the abducted soldiers could receive medical treatment, raised questions about their condition, but was not proof that they were dead. The soldiers "are alive, until it is proved otherwise," the IDF Spokesman's Office said.

On April 1, Al Mustkabal reported that the Germany-mediated negotiations between Hezbollah and Israel had been renewed following the establishment of the Sharon government.

On June 12, Nasrallah declared: "I tell the Israelis that losing time is not in their interests. There are living people who could die."

Daniel Sobelman adds:

On July 9, Hezbollah denied that photographs published in Israel, apparently showing the three soldiers, were authentic. Hezbollah said the pictures had been "fabricated" by Israel so as to put pressure on the UN.

On July 11, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan decided to initiate an inquiry into the chain of events involving a videotape recording made by UNIFIL soldiers a few hours after the kidnapping of the three soldiers. On August 3, the findings of the inquiry said: "The amount of blood found in the vehicles used to carry the soldiers proves that the hostages were apparently mortally wounded, and they may be dead."

This view appears in the report prepared by UNIFIL's deputy commander the day after the kidnapping, but the report was never sent to UN headquarters in New York. The report said that "serious mistakes" had been made in the way in which UN personnel in Lebanon and New York had handled the matter. According to the report: "The facts accumulated show there was bad judgment on several levels." As a result, said the report, "important information did not reach the people who should have received it."

The UN inquiry revealed that UNIFIL personnel who had examined the two cars used by the kidnappers had found 51 items in the vehicles. These were passed onto UNIFIL headquarters at Nakoura, except for seven blood-soaked items that were sent to New York. UN undersecretary-general Joseph Connor said that the UN would allow Israeli representatives to see the items. The report also confirmed the existence of two videotapes made during the kidnapping, on the orders of the UNIFIL commander at the time. On August 23, Israeli Defense Ministry officials began examining the items handed over by the UN. The defense establishment has kept these findings secret.

In early October, German Foreign Minister Joschke Fischer visited Beirut, where he met with the Lebanese prime minister. Reportedly, the hostage issue did not come up in Fischer's conversations there.

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