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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
October 16

HEADLINE: Thousands attend Ron Arad rally in Tel-Aviv


The thousands that turned out to mark the 17th anniversary of the abduction of Lt. Col. Ron Arad Thursday evening not only mourned his absence but delivered a stinging rebuke of the government's perceived abandonment of the navigator.

As many as 5000 supporters crowded the Tel Aviv Museum Square to hear a heavy weight line-up of Israeli pop-stars, former generals and members of the Arad family express their grief at Arad's absence, their hopes that he might soon be returned, and their unbridled criticism of the impending prisoner swap between Israeli and Hizbullah.

Yet it was Arad's 16 year old niece, Gal, whom the navigator never met, who most succinctly summed up the very political meaning behind the star studded extravaganza: "it cannot be that Dirani will return home before Ron."

Mustapha Dirani, a leader of the Lebanse Shia militia AMAL captured Arad in Lebanon in 1986 and ultimately "sold" the navigator to Iran, before his own 1994 abduction by elite IDF forces.

Dirani is the key bargaining chip a the prisoner swap which aims to return Elchanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers to Israel in exchange for about 4000 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners.

Gal Arad's message was hammered home by countless banners reading: "no Dirani without Arad." The family has argued that both morally and ethically, Israel must tie the fate of Dirani to Arad. They have fiercely lobbied Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to demand that at the very least Hizbullah include information about Arad in the deal.

Hizbullah has refused, saying it knows nothing about Arad.

"We cannot allow the last chip to get you back alive to slip from our grasp," said family lawyer, Eliad Shraga who then asked the crowd to call on Sharon "not to let Dirani go.". Beckoning the crowd to repeat after him, Shraga then chanted "No Ron - no Dirani," three times.

Hizbullah as said that it will walk away from any deal that does not include Dirani.

Shraga then accused the government of abandoning Arad by bungling past deals, and failing to include the navigator in the last four successful hostage swaps.

Yoske Harari, the chairman of the Foundation for Ron Arad, called for more drastic measures. "If they want to free Dirani, then first bring Nasrallah here." Nasrallah is the man who can free Arad "with a single phone call, "observed Harari in his fiery speech

Both Shraga and Arad's brother Chen have demanded that Sharon share with the entire cabinet all the relevant information on Arad, including parts of the Winograd Commission Report, which concluded that the navigator could be alive.

The Arad family campaign, a massive multi-million dollar drive to keep the Arad issue focused in the minds of Israelis, has met a measure of success. In a Maariv poll 57% of Israelis said they would support Israel giving up key bargaining chips Mustapha Dirani and Shiekh Abed Karim Obeid if the deal includes information on Arad.

In addition the family announced that over 120,000 people signed the "No Dirani without Arad," internet petition.

Among those weighing in over the price of the impending prisoner swap was Education Minister Limor Livnat. She intends to request in Sunday's cabinet meeting that any relevant information on the missing soldiers, immediately be revealed to the cabinet before the ministers are asked to make any decision regarding a possible prisoner exchange, she said Thursday.

Livnat said she opposes voting on a done deal before the ministers receive reliable insurance needed to make a responsible and ethical decision.

Last week Arad's 18-year-old daughter, Yuval, lashed into the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, for abandoning Arad. "How can you not be ashamed of yourselves? How dare you free Dirani, who kidnapped my father and stuffed him into the trunk of a car, where he was kept for almost a year while Dirani moved him from place to place in his car?"

Apparently the answer lies in Dirani's value to the Iranians and Hizbullah. The Lebanese families of Hizbullah men held in Israel are increasinlgy pressuring Nasrallah to work for their release. However, Iran, which is said to hold Arad, or at least information regarding his fate, has displayed no interest in Dirani, say security officials.

To Iran, Dirani - whose family is still on the Iranian payroll - is only a minor chip in what could be a much larger gamble. They have no intention of uncovering the mystery over Arad for a "minor Lebanse militia leader" like Dirani, the security sources added.

Arieh Eliav, who brokered a prisoner swap in the 1980's wondered why Iran would have let Arad rot in prison all these years without dangling any hints that it is ready to do business with Israel through European negotiators.

The Sharon administration is adamant to forge ahead with the deal with or without Arad. Hizbullah's leader Shiekh Hassan Nasrallah has insisted from the start that he possess no information on Arad, and Israeli negotiators are starting to believe him.

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