Copyright 1990 Reuters
May 7, 1990
HEADLINE: LEBANESE PRISONERS HELD BY ISRAELI ALLY KEY TO HOSTAGE FATE
BYLINE: By Paul Taylor
DATELINE: JERUSALEM, May 7
Some 350 Lebanese Moslem prisoners, most held in southern Lebanon by a militia wholly dependent on Israel, have become a central issue in efforts to gain the release of more Western hostages held in Lebanon.
Two senior U.S. senators, Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Republican Robert Dole, speaking out publicly while the Bush administration remains diplomatically silent, urged Israel on Sunday to free its Arab "hostages".
But Israel insists its captives, mostly from the pro-Iranian Shi'ite Hizbollah (Party of God) movement that is believed to control Lebanon's shadowy hostage-takers, will only be traded for six Israeli servicemen missing in Lebanon.
A senior Israeli official said recently the Jewish state would release "not one hair on the beard" of its Shi'ite prisoners until Israel's own men came home.
After releasing two American hostages, Robert Polhill and Frank Reed, last month Hizbollah and Iran have demanded Washington pressure Israel into freeing its Lebanese captives before the remaining 15 Western hostages are released.
The best known Shi'ite prisoner is Sheikh Abdel-Karim Obeid, a senior Hizbollah cleric in south Lebanon who was snatched from his home by helicopter-borne Israeli commandos last July.
Security sources say Obeid is one of the few prisoners held at a military base inside Israel.
Most are kept by the South Lebanon Army (SLA) of General Antoine Lahad at a prison in Khiam in Israel's self-declared "security zone", an arm's-length arrangement by which Israel evades direct responsibility for their detention and denies the International Committee of the Red Cross access.
Lahad told Reuters at his headquarters in Marjayoun on Monday that captured members of his own force and the Israeli servicemen must be included in any exchange of his Lebanese Moslem prisoners for the Western hostages.
Israeli officials bristle when the prisoners, some captured in clashes in the buffer zone just north of Israel's northern border, are described as hostages.
"These people are terrorists involved in attacks on Israeli forces, the Israeli border or the SLA. They are not innocent civilians kidnapped by gunmen," one official said.
Ariel Merari, an Israeli expert on Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas, said he saw a disturbing shift in U.S. attitudes.
"They are trying to present us and the Shi'ite terrorists as in fact the same thing. The United States, as American policy is trying to present it, is no more than a poor victim of two wild sides in the Middle East," he said.
However the Israeli authorities accept that their captives, some held since before Israel withdrew its invasion force from most of Lebanon in 1985, are bargaining chips. They simply seek a different bargain.
Above all the Israelis want to avoid any repetition of a 1985 deal with the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command.
Israel then swapped more than 1,100 Palestinians for three missing soldiers. Seven hundred Arabs were allowed to stay in the occupied territories and many later became leaders of the Palestinian uprising that erupted in 1987.
Western intelligence sources believe the hostages are being held in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon to prevent any Israeli or U.S. operation to free them by force.
The sources said the two recently freed were only taken to Beirut shortly before their release.
The issue of Israel's missing servicemen complicates any hope of a swap.
Three are believed to be in Hizbollah's hands -- an airman shot down in 1986 and two infantry men ambushed in the security zone earlier that year. The other three, a tank crew missing since the 1982 Lebanon invasion, are believed to have been captured by Syria or Syrian-backed Palestinian fighters.
Illustrating the complexity, one Western intelligence source said Israel abducted a south Lebanese Shi'ite militant, Jawad Csafi, eight months before it snatched Obeid in the belief that would pressure Hizbollah to free airman Ron Arad.
Arad was first held by the more moderate Shi'ite movement Amal, but his captor, Mustafa Dirani, defected to Hizbollah in 1987 and took the prisoner with him, the source said.
It turned out that Csafi, a Dirani supporter, was not a big enough bait to lure Hizbollah into a swap, the source said.
Although Israel declares it never deals with hostage-takers, there is a precedent for helping to free U.S. citizens. Israel freed some 700 Shi'ites and Palestinians in 1985 in three stages after Shi'ite hijackers freed 40 American passengers aboard a Trans World Airlines (TWA) jet in Beirut.