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Copyright 1992 The Jerusalem Report
The Jerusalem Report

December 17, 1992

HEADLINE: Tracing Ron Arad

BYLINE: Joseph Matar

Sources in Lebanon indicate that missing Israeli navigator Ron Arad is being held by Hussein Mussawi, a pro-Iranian Shi'ite leader, in the Biqa valley village of Nabi Chit

"The Lebanese government has information that leads it to believe Arad is still alive."

When Suhayel Shamas, the head of Lebanon's delegation reported this to his Israeli counterpart at the peace talks in Washington last September, he cast a sudden light on the fate of Ron Arad, the Israeli airman who went missing in Lebanon six years ago. A flurry of similar hints followed; now The Jerusalem Report has gained exclusive information on Arad's likely whereabouts, and who is holding him.

Shamas's remark first gained support on November 18, in a White House meeting between U.S. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and a group from the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations. From its contacts with the United Nations and other involved parties, Scowcroft declared, the U.S. administration had formed the impression that Arad was indeed alive. And recent Western media reports have placed him in the Baalbek area of Lebanon's Syrian-controlled Biqa valley.

Still, the Lebanese government refused to elaborate on its statement, and since 1988 there have been no confirmed reports or information on where the captured navigator was being held, or if he was indeed among the living.

But sources in Beirut who have had access to Lebanese and Syrian intelligence files have now told The Report that Arad is most likely being held in Nabi Chit, 17 kilometers (11 miles) southwest of Baalbek, the Biqa's biggest town.

Nabi Chit is the home village of Hussein Mussawi, head of Islamic Amal, a pro-Iranian Shi'ite organization. Mussawi is believed to have been holding Arad for the past 41/2 years. Originally an independent group, Islamic Amal is now virtually a branch of Hizballah, and Mussawi himself has become a prominent figure in that fundamentalist terrorist organization. The village is also a base for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the elite wing of the Iranian military which maintains a presence of several hundred troops in the Biqa.

Arad, navigator of an F-4 Phantom jet, was shot down on a bombing mission against Palestinian positions east of Sidon in South Lebanon on October 16, 1986. He and the pilot bailed out over an olive grove. The pilot was rescued in a daring helicopter mission; Arad, after a wide-ranging search, was presumed dead.

In fact, it transpired by the next day, Arad had been captured alive by members of Amal, the pro-Syrian Shi'ite militia led by Nabih Berri, and had been quickly removed to a secret location. Amal acknowledged that it was holding him and Berri offered, unofficially, to discuss a prisoner exchange with Israel.

Arad was kept in the custody of Mustafa Dirani, head of Amal's security service, until February 26, 1988. Then Berri expelled Dirani from Amal, accusing him of trying to create an Iranian-controlled faction within the militia. Dirani moved to Baalbek, where he established the headquarters of his "Faithful Resistance," an Islamic fundamentalist organization financed by Iran. Amal announced that Dirani had taken Arad with him and that the organization could no longer be held responsible for his fate.

According to a well-informed Shi'ite source, Dirani shortly afterwards traveled to Syria, where he met the Iranian ambassador to Damascus, Hassan Akhtiri. Akhtiri offered Dirani $700,000 to finance terrorist attacks by the "Faithful Resistance" against Israeli forces in South Lebanon, which Dirani accepted. At the same time, the source says, Akhtiri convinced him to hand Ron Arad over to Hussein Mussawi, a former teacher of religion. Mussawi had also split from Amal in the 1980s and founded Islamic Amal, another Iranian-backed Shi'ite fundamentalist faction, which would eventually come under Hizballah control.

Akhtiri reportedly told Dirani that in his opinion, Mussawi was better equipped to look after the Israeli prisoner. His fighters were much better trained than Dirani's and enjoyed direct assistance from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Biqa.

This is where the trail ends. But security sources in Beirut, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say Lebanese and Syrian intelligence reports indicate that Arad is now being held in Mussawi's home village of Nabi Chit in the Biqa valley, 71 km east of Beirut. Nabi Chit is a base for Lebanon's pro-Iranian fundamentalists. One source who has had direct access to some of the intelligence reports was unable to pinpoint Arad's exact location within the village, but said that the prisoner's meals are prepared in Mussawi's own kitchen.

Other sources express caution, saying there is no way to confirm such reports. To illustrate the point, one adds that a Western hostage had been kept in an apartment in Beirut right by a Syrian checkpoint, without the soldiers who were manning it ever suspecting the presence of a hostage under their very noses.

Israel's numerous attempts to exchange prisoners with Hizballah, the leading pro-Iranian fundamentalist movement in Lebanon, have failed until now. Israel insists on including Arad in any deal, while Hizballah has always denied holding him. Given Islamic Amal's link to Hizballah, that claim now appears hollow, if in fact the faction is holding him.

Arad is one of seven Israelis who went missing in action in Lebanon between 1982 and 1986. Of the others, Privates Yosef Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh were captured in a Hizballah ambush in February 1986 and confirmed dead by Israel last year (Hizballah is believed to be holding their bodies); the body of Staff Sgt. Samir Asad was finally returned to Israel in September 1991, 81/2 years after he was kidnapped by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; and Tzvi Feldman, Yehudah Katz and Zachary Baumel, who were captured during a tank battle with the Syrians at Sultan Yaqub in June 1982, are presumed to be in Syrian hands.

Israel has never given up trying to obtain the release of its MIAs. In July 1989, an Israeli commando unit raided the village of Jibshit in southern Lebanon and kidnapped Sheikh Abd al-Karim Obeid, the head of Hizballah's military section in the South, apparently for use as a bargaining chip in negotiations. Hizballah demands Obeid's release - the sheikh's portrait is strung up all over Hizballah's stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut whenever a prisoner exchange is in the air. But it also demands the release of hundreds of other prisoners in the Al-Khiam jail in the security zone, which is run by Israel's militia ally, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), and in Israeli jails. And it says it doesn't have Arad.

In September 1991, when Samir Asad's body was returned, Israel released the bodies of nine Hizballah gunmen, while the SLA released 51 Lebanese detainees from Al-Khiam. Over the next two months, another 40 were released, but this prisoner exchange came to a halt over the question of Arad. Hizballah again denied that it was holding the Israeli navigator.

Arad, believed by the Israeli government to be the most likely survivor of the seven MIAs, is highly prized by his captors because of his value as a hostage. Even the Lebanese government's qualified statement about Arad, which came in response to a specific inquiry from Israel and was immediately leaked to the public, caused a storm of criticism in Beirut.

In his sermon at the Mosque of Bir al-Abd in Beirut the following Friday, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual mentor of the pro-Iranian fundamentalist movement in Lebanon, accused the government of "giving free information to the Jewish state, without getting any corresponding information about the mujahideen prisoners in Israel." Fadlallah said Arad had come to Lebanon in 1986 "to kill people" and therefore, no concessions should be made.

Despite Fadlallah's uncompromising stance and Hizballah's public disengagement from the Arad case, the search for information about the missing navigator is not likely to let up. And the end of what has until now been a seemingly interminable trail suddenly appears to be within sight.

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