Copyright 2003 The Jerusalem Post
HEADLINE: What's up Hizbullah's sleeve?
BYLINE: MATTHEW GUTMAN
Hizbullah's sudden eagerness to seriously negotiate the return of kidnapped Col. (res) Elhanan Tannenbaum likely stems from a combination of factors, according to a well-placed source in Israel with ties to Lebanon.
Firstly, Tannenbaum's condition. He was already ill at the time of his abduction, and could be deteriorating. Hizbullah might be pressured to cut a deal over Tannenbaum sooner than later because it knows that a "damaged commodity" could be worth less in negotiations.
Hizbullah has charged that the 57-year-old Tannenbaum who was abducted around the same time as the October 7, 2000 attack in which St.-Sgts. Omar Sawayid, Benny Avraham, and Adi Avitan were wounded and captured from an IDF position on Mount Dov was a Mossad spy. Israel denies the charge.
After fierce negotiations, German mediator Enrst Uhrlau was permitted to visit Tannebaum and pronounced him in "reasonable condition," but Hizbullah has refused to allow the Red Cross to visit him.
Red Cross officials have said privately that, in regular meetings, Hizbullah representatives are polite and even "slightly embarrassed" over their refusal to hand over humanitarian information regarding Israeli MIAs. Hizbullah is clearly under pressure, according to the Israeli source. With the US war in Iraq and its threats to target Syria next, along with increasing reports from think tanks that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are being stored in Hizbullah's stronghold of the Bekaa Valley, Hizbullah is being pushed to show a moderate side.
Hizbullah also faces pressure from its own constituency, said the source. The families of missing Hizbullah fighters are applying increasing pressure on Hizbullah's leaders to quit politicking and bring home their "martyrs," he said.
At the eulogy for the two Hizbullah fighters Israel returned to Southern Lebanon, local Hizbullah leader Sheikh Nabil Kaook promised locals that returning the "bodies of martyrs is our foremost obligation." Sources say that bringing home martyrs could even provide a tidy boon for Hizbullah's faction in the Lebanese parliament, perhaps even boosting it into power.
While the International Committee of the Red Cross was quietly preparing to transfer the bodies of the two Hizbullah fighters to Lebanon on Monday, it was surprised to hear that the international scoop had already burst into all media outlets. The disclosure did not come from Israel's leak-prone military establishment, however.
Instead, it came from Hizbullah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who proclaimed that a deal could be hammered out within a week. Apparently Hizbullah is desperately trying to drum up international support, and earn some international credit from its largesse, said the Israeli source. "Part of it is propaganda and part is putting pressure on Israel, through the families. And part of it is genuine," he said, adding, "Clearly, something is cooking." But Daniel Grisaro, spokesman for the International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers, countered that optimism. "Hizbullah's raison d'etre is to play for us. They kidnap not for money or ideology, it is for the pure sake of terrorism," he said. "We can never be sure of what is going on." Hizbullah has proven itself a master at tugging Israeli heartstrings and then letting them go, leaving crushing despair in the place of hope. Countless deals between Israel and the Iranian-backed group have collapsed over the past 15 years, some of them over Israel's refusal to fork over cash to Hizbullah.
In response, Israel has amassed a stack of bargaining chips. High-profile captives Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani are locked up in administrative detention, as are about a dozen other Hizbullah members. Also, Israel possesses the corpses of more than 1,000 fighters from both Hizbullah and Palestinian terrorist groups including the body of Nasrallah's son said sources close to Prof. Yehuda Hiss, director of the L. Greenberg Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir.
Another factor is the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, which has shown that vital information can be obtained from informants hungry for US dollars. In addition to whatever sum the Israeli government is willing to part with in exchange for its missing, Grisaro said that several funds have been established to secure their release. One such fund established by Yona Baumel, the father of missing soldier Zachary Baumel, is worth $1 million.
A French fund, established at Grisaro's request, is worth $1.8 million. Baumel and fellow Armored Corps soldiers Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz have been missing since the battle of Sultan Yakoub in Lebanon in 1982. Transferred from the PLO to other Palestinian factions and placed under Syrian custody, it is unknown whether the three are alive or dead.
In 2001, IDF intelligence independently confirmed information provided by former Odessa mayor Eduard Gurvitz, obtained via informal channels with Chechnyan supporters of Hizbullah, that Sawayid, Avraham, and Avitan were dead.
Few are willing to discuss why the current negotiations have focused on Tannenbaum to the exclusion of the MIAs including IAF navigator Lt.-Col. Ron Arad, who was downed over Lebanon in 1986. According to rumors, the government is concerned with Tannenbaum only because all the rest are considered dead.
Grisaro rejects this philosophy. "All eight must be returned together, I don't care what we have to give. We can throw [Marwan] Barghouti into the lot if we have to."
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