31 January 2004
If they had been fêted in life as they were in death, how many of the young men freighted across the border from Israel yesterday might still be alive? They came - all 59 of them, Hizbollah guerrillas for the most part - in pine coffins, escorted by the International Red Cross, fresh from their shallow graves in the secret cemetery which Israel maintains for its enemy dead at Gesher B'Not Ya'acov in Galilee.
And just as Lebanon provided a state welcome for the 29 living prisoners who returned to Beirut on Thursday as part of the latest hostage bazaar, the Lebanese army provided solemn music for the arrival of the corpses of those who were killed during the last years of Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon.
There were Lebanese flags and flowers on the coffins, three glass-topped trucks to take the remains back to Beirut, andceremonies to pay tribute to the dead of the army that drove Israeli occupation troops from the land. But although the Hizbollah have undoubtedly won this round of the hostage souk - 429 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners and 59 Hizballah bodies were swapped for three dead Israelis and a possible Mossad spy - their chairman, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah has asked Arabs for the names of other prisoners in Israel whom they would like freed. The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, warned, predictably: "Israel will not allow any enemy or terror group to turn kidnapping and ransom into a system."
But that, of course, is what Israel and its guerrilla enemies have been doing for years. Indeed, in a secret 1994 ruling made public only four years later, Israel's Supreme Court officially ruled, in total violation of the Geneva accords, that Lebanese prisoners could be held without trial to secure the release of missing Israeli servicemen, a practice later described by Amnesty International as "contemptible".
So how important - and this remains one of the two unanswered questions in the whole affair - was the Israeli army reservist colonel Elhanan Tannenbaum, handed back to Israel by the Hizbollah on Thursday? His family maintain he was a businessman in Switzerland although no one has denied he travelled to Lebanon three years ago in an effort to find Israel's missing aviator Ron Arad, shot down during an Israeli air raid on a Palestinian refugee camp 18 years ago.
Those anonymous "sources" close to Israeli security say Tannenbaum was a Mossad operative based in Zurich who was expelled by the Swiss authorities after a botched assassination attempt on two Hizbollah men almost a decade ago, on the understanding he would never return. The same "sources" say Tannenbaum was sent to a Mossad retraining school near Natanya and, after an internal security feud involving Ehud Barak, later to become Israeli Prime Minister, sent back to Switzerland. Swiss agents were so angry that the Israelis had broken their word that they then "shopped" Tannenbaum to the Hizbollah who lured him to Beirut via Dubai.
Robert Fisk wins award
The Middle East correspondent of The Independent, Robert Fisk, has been awarded the Godo Prize for Journalism by the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia for his first-hand account of the looting of Iraq's archaeological treasures from Baghdad's national museum last year. The Godo, named after La Vanguardia's publisher, is awarded for "outstanding journalism which demonstrates documentary precision in an important news story". Last year, Fisk won the Martha Gellhorn award as well as the European Journalist of the Year award.