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Copyright 2004 Jerusalem Post
May 12

HEADLINE: Report: Hizbullah says has found Ron Arad's grave


Hizbullah has uncovered a grave purportedly that of missing IAF navigator Ron Arad in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and awaits confirmation that a bone fragment it sent Israel last week is indeed that of the missing airman, the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat revealed Wednesday.

The Jerusalem Post quoted European sources on Saturday saying that a bone fragment allegedly belonging to Arad arrived in Israel last Thursday.

The report follows several revelations over the past two weeks regarding Arad, who bailed out of his malfunctioning Phantom jet over Lebanon in 1986. Some have indicated that Hizbullah transferred an Arad bone fragment to Israel via Germany, while others intimated that Arad, or his remains, are not in Iran, as Israel has long claimed, but in Lebanon.

Hizbullah began scouring Lebanon for Arad's body shortly after Israel and the Lebanese-based group sealed the first stage of what was to be a two-stage prisoner swap which was slated to include Arad in late January, said the report.

Al Sharq al-Awsat is considered the Arab world's most reputable newspaper.

Following a 1988 IDF raid deep into Lebanon, "his captors, enraged by the loss of over 18 Hizbullah and Amal men in the operation [in the village of Meidoun], killed Arad in retaliation," claimed the paper.

The two Hizbullah guards reportedly buried Arad in the Bekaa Valley village of Nebi Shait, where he was being held as a bargaining chip for the release of Lebanese militiamen captured by Israel. Hizbullah had taken Arad from the Shi'ite militia Amal's security chief Mustafa Dirani in 1987, only a year after Dirani captured him.

The Prime Minister's Office Wednesday night denied "any basis to this report or any others about major breakthroughs in the case of Ron Arad."

The report contradicts what has become the semi-official file on Arad that says Dirani captured the airman in 1986 and held him in Lebanon until members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard "stole" the captive in 1988 and transported him to Iran.

In the 17 years since Arad's disappearance, Israel has never issued a definitive report on his fate. In Israeli courts, Dirani claimed to have held Arad until 1988, when Iran's Revolutionary Guards "stole" his prisoner.

Dirani is known to have traveled to Teheran in 1989 to ask for Arad's return to his possession. At the time Amal was in the final stages of negotiations with Israel on a deal that would have swapped Arad for about 130 Amal militiamen, which later fell through.

Foreign Intelligence sources said Wednesday that the only clear part of this increasingly complex puzzle is that Iran appears to be washing its hands of the Arad affair, something that has blighted its already tarnished international image.

Iran has steadfastly denied any connection to Arad, although it has played a significant role in negotiations with German mediation teams that have shuttled between Berlin, Beirut, and Teheran over the past three years.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are said to direct many of Hizbullah's regional operations, while giving the Lebanese Shi'ite group a relatively free hand in local politics.

Al-Sharq al-Awsat added: "The Hizbullah leadership mistakenly believed that the Iranian intelligence services 'took' Arad to Iran to interrogate him and use him as a bargaining chip for the release of four Iranian diplomats kidnapped by the Lebanese Forces, a pro-Israel militia, in East Beirut in 1982, and later handed them over to Israel."

Statements from Iranian expatriates and former prisoners in Iranian jails indicate that Arad was likely alive up to the mid-1990s. Israel has confirmed none of these reports, and information on the missing airman began to fizzle out entirely in the late 1990s. The loss of the Arad trail prompted former coordinator of Germany's intelligence agencies, Bernd Schmidtbauer, to conclude in 1997 that Ron Arad had likely not survived the torture and mistreatment of his handlers.

Sources close to Sharon attributed the various reports about Arad to "a massive spin campaign" linked to elections in Lebanon to be held the week after next. "Hizbullah is trying to pry loose a deal from Israel by holding out Ron Arad like bait. [Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah knows that to gain seats in the Lebanese Parliament he has to bring Samir Kuntar home," a source close to Sharon said.

Kuntar, one of the few prisoners Nasrallah could not get from Israel during intense year-long negotiations last year, remains the crowning symbol of Lebanon's prisoners in Israel. For Nasrallah, he remains the fish that got away, said the source.

Hizbullah currently holds 12 seats in the Lebanese Parliament in Beirut. Hizbullah hopes for a sweep in local elections in Baalbek, the Shi'ite stronghold in the Bekaa Valley.

Still, negotiations appear to be on track as German and Iranian officials met this week to discuss the swap.

According to the deal that appears to have crystallized in the past few weeks, Israel would receive the bodies of Arad and three Armored Corps soldiers missing from the 1982 battle of Sultan Yacoub in the Bekaa Valley, Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman. In exchange Israel would release Lebanese Druse Kuntar, and Israeli-Arab, Palestinian, and Syrian detainees.

France and Germany would chip in by freeing George Abdallah, a member of the Lebanese Revolutionary Factions, and at least two Iranians held in connection with the 1992 murder of four Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant.

Abdallah was arrested in 1984 and sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with attacks on foreign diplomats in Paris in which Israel embassy official Ya'acov Bar-Simantov and a US attache were killed.

His group was later reported to be behind a wave of attacks in Paris, aimed at pressing the French authorities to release Abdallah, in which 15 people were killed. A French court recently rejected an appeal for him to receive a pardon.

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