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Copyright 2004 Jerusalem Post
October 24

HEADLINE: Former German intelligence chief: Ron Arad is dead

BYLINE: Matthew Gutman

Downed Israeli Air Force Navigator Ron Arad is dead, former German intelligence chief Bernd Schmidbauer flatly told German Television in an interview set to broadcast Monday night.

In his capacity as coordinator of the German Intelligence Services in the mid-to-late 1990s, Schmidbauer played a key role in negotiations for hostage deals between Israel and Hizbullah, shuttling between Berlin, Beirut, Tehran and Jerusalem.

Israel poured tens millions of dollars, kidnapped dozens of Lebanese fighters and cut several lopsided deals in a fruitless 18-year quest to locate and repatriate Arad. Citing lack of evidence, Israel refuses to list Arad - who parachuted from a plane and into the hands of Lebanese militiamen in 1986 - as dead.

"The only question remains whether he died from a disease, from an injury related to his crash or was killed. But that he is dead, is clear," Schmidbauer told Germany's WDR Television in a documentary about the horse-trading of prisoners and hostages between Hizbullah and Israel over the past two decades.

Germany's Federal Intelligence Services, known as the BND and roughly equivalent to the CIA, shelled out tens of millions of dollars in efforts to mediate negotiations between Israel and Hizbullah. The German involvement in mediation to locate Arad, dubbed Operation Orchid, began in 1994 and evolved into one of the longest and most expensive foreign operations in the country's post WWII history, according to the film, titled "An Eye for an Eye." The Jerusalem Post received segments of the film's script, which contains details never published before of the Arad affair.

In response to the German claims, Asi Shariv, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, "I would refer you to the Winograd report, which contradicts the German statements." The Winograd report, released to Arad's family in September 2003, came to the assessment, "based on all the available evidence," that the possibility that Arad is still alive overrides the possibility that he is dead.

So intent has Israel been to retrieve the missing navigator that it has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to Arad. The press was not allowed to see the report.

Arad's family would not comment on the issue, and has cut off almost all contact with the media since Israel's January 2004 prisoner swap with Hizbullah. However Shariv added, "If the Germans could grant us real proof or evidence, we would accept it."

German intelligence documents obtained by the "An Eye for an Eye" filmmaker Hubert Seipel reveal that the BND believed Arad to be dead as early as 1996. Secret documents compiled in 1997 show that German agents under the command of BND director August Henning discovered that Arad had been held in Lebanon until April 1996.

Militiamen, likely affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, hid Arad in a cave near the village of Nabi Sh'it. In October 1996 he was transferred to the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. From there, Revolutionary Guards officers shipped Arad through Syria to Iran, according to the document. In Iran, the Arad trail faded entirely in the bowels of the country's complex of prisons and detention centers, according to the documents.

The film sets up one of the more credible scenarios for the fate of Ron Arad broadcast in over a decade; much of the information on the Arad file is published in Arabic newspapers citing "sources."

The secret protocol, lifted from BND archives, shows that by 1996 German agents suspected their Hizbullah interlocutors of "playing for time," and feigning that they know nothing of Arad's fate when the opposite is true.

According to the film, the BND shared all this critical information with their counterparts in the Mossad.

Israel came closest to retrieving Arad in 1989 when it turned down an offer by Mustafa Dirani - kidnapped to Israel in 1994 - to trade Arad for some 120 Lebanese Amal militiamen. But by 1989, court documents from Dirani's trial in Israel show he had "lost" the airman to Iran.

The film suggests that Israel also knew what "carrot" Germany offered Iran for compliance. Both sides apparently agreed that blame would fall on neither side. In exchange for Iran's cooperation, Germany was to help Tehran in securing World Bank credits and also agreed to help ease the US embargo against the Shi'ite state.

At that point Iran began trickling information over to German agents. But the information was never enough to piece together the Arad puzzle, according to the film.

Iran, Hizbullah and Israel are still theoretically enmeshed in negotiations for the second phase of the January prisoner swap in which Israel released 430 prisoners in exchange for Col. (res.) Elchanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers kidnapped in October 2000: Staff-Sergeants Benny Avraham, Omar Sawayid and Adi Avitan. By March 2004 the sides, with German mediation, were to have yielded results.

While Israel is said to have helped clarify the fate of four Iranian diplomats missing since 1982, Hizbullah has sent over several bone samples for matching with Arad's DNA samples. However none of the bone fragments matched Arad's genetic code, and the negotiations appear frozen. German forensic experts even scoured parts of Lebanon, according to the German documents, but found no trace of Arad, either living or dead.

In December 1999 Israel released five Hizbullah detainees. At the time, Israel did not say what it received, if anything, in return. Yet according to the BND documents, Hizbullah handed over a piece of Arad's parachute, his flare gun and parts of the flight plan.

Filmmaker Seipel concludes the documentary by saying that the key to solving the Arad affair is locked away in Iran, and that the significance Israel has put on rescuing Arad and his elevation to the status of national Israeli hero "might have cost him his life."

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