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Copyright 2003 The Jerusalem Post
April 21

HEADLINE: Those not yet free

BYLINE: Saul Singer

America is celebrating, as it should, the safe return of seven prisoners of war from Iraq, as well as Private Jessica Lynch, whisked away from an Iraqi hospital by US forces. The latter seems to be emerging as the most prominent figure of the war, lauded for her heroism even by hardened veterans of World War II and Vietnam War POW camps, and with several films in the works about her experience.

We hardly wish to begrudge Americans any of their joy and pride, which is certainly warranted to a nation that so willingly and decisively put its own soldiers in danger for the sake of free nations all over the world. It is entirely appropriate that President George W. Bush, in a moving message for Passover and Easter, spoke of the 'special meaning' of the festival of freedom this year, of the sorrow of those who lost loved ones, and of gratitude for the returning prisoners.

Yet the Americans who have come home are not the only Americans whose loved ones are waiting for them, nor the only soldiers who deserve the attention of the United States. Almost 21 years ago, an American citizen, Zachary Baumel, was taken hostage in southern Lebanon along with two other Israeli soldiers, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman.

On October 16, 1986, IAF navigator Ron Arad bailed out of his falling jet over Lebanon and was taken into captivity. On August 17, 1997, Guy Hever disappeared from his base on the Golan Heights, along the Syrian border. On October 7, 2000 Sgt. Adi Avitan, St.-Sgt. Binyamin Avraham, and St.-Sgt. Omar Suwayed were abducted by Hizbullah. The IDF later declared that it was 'highly likely' that the three were no longer alive, but there is still no definitive information regarding their fate, nor have their bodies been returned. Also in 2000, Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum was kidnapped by Hizbullah in Europe.

The International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers (www.mia.org.il) has been pursuing the cases of six Israelis who may still be alive: Baumel, Katz, Feldman, Arad, Hever, and Tannenbaum. Hizbullah openly admits that it kidnapped and now holds Tannenbaum, who has been in captivity for more than 500 days.

Though some of the MIAs have been missing for more than 20 years, information that some or all of them may still be alive continues to emerge from Syrian and Palestinian sources.

Last month, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met with the MIA families and pledged to raise the issue with the US. Now, indeed, is the time to press for a complete resolution of the remaining Israeli MIA cases, given the changing regional situation. As Ori Tannenbaum put it just before the war in Iraq, 'When this war is over, the US will undoubtedly be dealing with the issue of terrorist organizations and those countries which have harbored or assisted such organizations. We are seeking to ensure that when this occurs, the issue of my father and the other missing Israelis will be raised and efforts made to ensure their release and return.'

Tannenbaum's family at least has good reason to believe that he is alive. The mother of Zvi Feldman describes what the families of the other MIAs go through year after year: 'My husband is no longer well, and I have to take care of him. He only asks if he will live long enough to see Zvi again. The pain is so great. I don't wish this on any other family. Every year, on Remembrance Day, I ask myself what I should do. Should I light a candle? I don't know. We don't even have this day. I am in the middle of a meal, and I think: 'What does Zvi have to eat? How is he being treated?' It is so hard. We don't know whom to turn to anymore.'

The place to turn should be the US, which should openly demand that Hizbullah, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran resolve these cases, starting with the provision of full information and access to third parties, such as the International Red Cross, as required by international humanitarian law. Those countries and organizations responsible should be on notice that the failure to cooperate will be seen in the same light as support for terrorism or harboring Iraqi leaders and weaponry.

In his holiday message, Bush said, 'This holy season reminds us of the value of freedom, and the power of a love stronger than death.' The freedom of those in captivity should not be forgotten, nor the suffering of those who do not even have the bitter privilege of a grave upon which to mourn.

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