Why Israel will do business in the hostage bazaar

By Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent

30 January 2004

The man in the turban was called the "Voice of Faith" by his Hizbollah supporters and he could never have guessed - emerging yesterday in his white turban and brown robe from the German aircraft that brought him to freedom at Beirut airport - that a mere prelate from the scruffy village of Jibchit could earn such an official reception from the highest men of state in Lebanon.

For there were President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and squads of MPs and ambassadors to embrace the man who had spent 15 years in an Israeli prison, almost a decade in solitary, without charge or lawyers or family visits. Next from the aircraft walked Mustafa Dirani, the bearded guerrilla who first seized the Israeli airman Ron Arad back in 1986.

And there they were, with at least 20 other Lebanese prisoners, on the same Tarmac where - only a few hours earlier - an apparently fit and healthy Israeli called Elhanan Tannenbaum was freed, a man who was - according to your point of view - an innocent Israeli businessman or a top Mossad spy.

They were all hostages, of course: for the corpses of three Israeli soldiers and for the living businessman/spy, for 29 Lebanese in Israeli prisons and for 400 of the 7,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails who were also freed yesterday afternoon. And for the bodies of 460 Lebanese guerrillas killed fighting Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

The Israelis liked to call their prisoners "bargaining chips" but it was a hostage bazaar that the world witnessed yesterday. Sheik Obeid was a tough, bearded supporter of the Lebanese Hizbollah when he was kidnapped by Israeli troops from his home in 1989. His son had maintained a website for the imprisoned father he had never seen. Only recently did he receive a visit from the Red Cross.

Ditto Mr Dirani, abducted by Israeli troops in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley because he had originally held Mr Arad, who was captured when the aircraft he was navigating was shot down during an Israeli raid on the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Helweh in 1986.

If Mr Arad is still alive - and the Lebanese, Syrians and Iranians have denied holding him captive these past 18 years - then Israel will later release its longest held Lebanese hostage, Samir Kantar, who killed three Israelis in 1979. It was for Mr Arad that Mr Tannenbaum had flown to Lebanon, lured apparently by the Hizbollah who were convinced he was a Mossad agent.

Mr Tannenbaum was a free man yesterday, along with Mr Obeid, Mr Dirani and the other Lebanese prisoners and the 400 Palestinians - most of whom were to have been released later this year anyway - and today it will be the turn of the dead. The remains of three Israeli soldiers - Beni Avraham, Avi Avitan and Omar Saoud - were handed over to their country's military representatives at an airport near Cologne in Germany yesterday. They were seized - dead or dying - after Hizbollah guerrillas had attacked their base at Shebaa farms in a tiny rectangle of occupied Lebanon in 2000, months after the Israeli army's retreat from the south of the country.

Later today, the Israelis will hand over 460 Hizbollah and Amal militia bodies which have been lying, most of them, in shallow graves in a secret Israeli "enemy" cemetery.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, has been criticised for yesterday's hostage bazaar but the German government comes out of the whole affair smelling of roses. The country's intelligence head, August Hanning, arranged the exchanges and was on his way to Israel yesterday.