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Copyright 1993 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

December 7, 1993

HEADLINE: Rabin Welcomes Syrian Offer on Missing Israelis

BYLINE: By CLYDE HABERMAN, Special to The New York Times


Israel today welcomed Syria's offer to help it learn the fate of long-missing Israeli servicemen, but said the gesture also showed that the Syrians controlled anti-Israel Islamic guerrillas in Lebanon.

The unusual Syrian move, relayed to Secretary of State Warren Christopher in Damascus on Sunday, touches an extremely sensitive spot in the Israeli national consciousness because of the importance attached to rescuing captured soldiers and retrieving the bodies of the dead.

Mr. Christopher said President Hafez al-Assad had also promised to give exit visas by the end of the month to the 1,200 Jews remaining in Syria.

'An Important Step'

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called the Assad gesture "an important step forward" and "a big window of hope for the families" of the missing men.

Israel lists six men as missing in action in Lebanon since its invasion of the country in June 1982, even though reports from Syria spoke of seven. Syria has been the dominant power in Lebanon since it invaded in 1976, ostensibly to end a civil war.

Relatives welcomed the news about the soldiers, who in some instances were last seen 11 years ago. But they question why Mr. Assad took so long.

"All these years the establishment we have worked with asked him to help, and he always said he doesn't know anything," said Penina Feldman, whose son, Zvi, is one of three tank-crew members missing since a battle in the Bekaa region of eastern Lebanon in June 1982.

"Maybe now at last we will be able to hear something," she said.

Mr. Rabin's positive tone was almost as unusual as the Assad offer itself. He rarely has good things to say about Syria, accusing it of harboring Palestinian radicals in Damascus and aiding guerrillas of the Iranian-backed Party of God, who frequently attack Israeli targets in southern Lebanon and who are believed to know what happened to some of the missing servicemen.

"Their headquarters are in the Bekaa valley, which is 100 percent under Syrian supervision and control," said Oded Ben-Ami, a Rabin spokesman. So when it comes to the Israeli soldiers, he said, "if the Syrians would like to be able to have the information, then they can have it."

Invitation to U.S. Congress

Syria reportedly plans to invite members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States House of Representatives next month to help in the inquiry, which a senior official traveling with Mr. Christopher said would presumably include a meeting with Party of God representatives.

In Beirut, Foreign Minister Faris Bouez said Lebanon had no information on the Israelis.

The six missing men have recently been the focus of a campaign to draw fresh attention to their situation.

Although Israel talks about them as a group, much of the Government's attention is on Ron Arad, an air force navigator who was shot down over Sidon, Lebanon, in 1986. He is the one serviceman believed with a high degree of probability to be alive, most likely in the hands of the Party of God, Israeli officials say.

The others are the three tank-crew members from 1982 -- Zvi Feldman, Zachary Baumel and Yehuda Katz -- and two soldiers who were caught in an ambush in southern Lebanon in 1986, Yossi Fink and Rachamim al-Sheik, both of whom have been declared dead by rabbinical authorities but whose bodies have not been returned.

The soldiers also figure in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was based in Lebanon until driven out in 1982. Mr. Rabin has connected his receiving new information about the six men with agreeing to demands for Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners.

In a gesture of his own last week, Yasir Arafat, the P.L.O. chairman, gave Israel part of Zachary Baumel's identification tag, which the Israelis say was in the Palestinians' possession for 10 years.

"There's no question the P.L.O. has more information -- they were there," Mr. Ben-Ami said.

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