Squaring of the circle
It was the high water mark of the Southern Confederacy .The great battle of Gettysburg, which was to decide the conflict, had yet to be played out. In Washington, thousands of Union troops en route to the battlefields were marching in review before their Commander in Chief, President Abraham Lincoln. Beside him on the reviewing stand was Harriet Bleacher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most powerful book of fiction attacking the institution of slavery. As the troops marched by, with bands playing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Lincoln turned to his diminutive guest, and said in effect, ‘so you’re the little lady who caused this great big war.’
143 years later and a young republic, Israel, is fighting its seventh war. Incarcerated in an Israeli prison is a heavy-set man with a thick mustache, and the stare of a fanatic. His name is Samir al-Qantar. And while Samir has not written a popular book he is well known in Israel as a cold-blooded killer, a killer devoid of remorse. Like Stowe, he did not envision that his act would have such dramatic repercussions. His terrorist activity launched a conflict that began at 09.05 hrs July 12 when Hezbollah staged a well-executed ambush of two Israeli Defense Force Humvees near the Lebanese Village of Zar’iyt. By the time the action was over, eight Israeli Soldiers were dead, two reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldada Regev, were kidnapped.
A few hours later, Sheikh Sayyid Hasan Nasr Allah, the charismatic leader of the Hezbollah, ‘The Party of God’ appeared on Al-Jazeera.
“I want to thank God for the victory, the Jihad, and the results. I want to turn to the brave fighters who today fulfilled the promise and therefore this operation is called ‘The Promise that was kept.’ I thank them, and kiss their hands. Today is the day of loyalty to Samir al Qantar and the rest of the Lebanese prisoners in Israel’
He names the Operation, ‘Truthful Promise.'
He is thus willing to bargain for the release of the two captured soldiers, for an unknown number of convicted (or suspected) terrorists now in Israel’s prisons. But the key person is Qantar.
It was on April 22, 1979 that Samir al-Qantar achieved his brief but infamous moment in history. In a small boat, he and three other members of the Palestine Liberation Front set off from Lebanon. A short time later, eluding Israeli patrols, they landed near the town of Nahariya, six miles south of the Lebanese border. It was called “Operation Nasser”, after the president of Egypt, and their leader was Ahmed al Abras.
Dashing from the beach, they smashed their way into an apartment and took 28 year old Danny Haran and his four-year-old daughter hostage. A police sergeant, thinking he was responding to a burglary, was shot and killed. Haran’s second child, a two-year-old daughter hid with her mother in a crawl space. The child died, suffocated by accident as her mother tried to keep her from crying out. After trying to find and kill more residents, Qantar and Abras end up in a shoot-out with the police while trying to get to their boat. On the beach, al-Qantar bashes the four-year old daughter to death with his rifle butt, and reportedly turns to the father and says, “the last thing you see will be your child being killed” and then shoots the father at close range. Now wounded, he is captured, tried, convicted and sentenced to 542 years in prison. Abras too was incarcerated.
Now 44, Qantar, languishes in Israel’s Nafha prison, studying for his doctorate in sociology. Abras however, was released in a prisoner exchange in May of 1985 when Ahmad Jubril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine returned three Israeli soldiers. In exchange Israel released 1150 terrorists.
As the Defense Minister Yitzchak Rabin, (who as Prime Minister approved the Entebbe raid) neatly put it, “When no military option exists, there is no choice but to enter into negations and pay a price.”
And a price Israel often paid. Over the past 56 years since the War of Independence, Israel has traded over 30,000 POWs, terrorists, and civilians, including the remains of terrorists (a.k.a. freedom fighters, depending on one’s perception) for 1270 Israeli civilians and military including the deceased, who have been held by various Arab nations or Terrorist groups.
But Qantar was never one of the ‘traded.’ He had “too much Israeli blood on his hands”, one official stated.
Yet, hostage taking and bargaining for the dead, wounded or living has become one of the more sordid aspects of the political realities of the Middle East. Both sides indulge in it; Sayyid Hasan Nasr Allah stated bluntly that “our experience with the Israelis shows that if you want to regain detainees or prisoners …you have to capture Israeli soldiers.”
If Israel does not openly subscribe to its version of this axiom, it certainly accepts it as truth. It has to because of the tremendous pressure on the IDF (Israel Defense Force) and government to adhere to its often-stated pledge to repatriate its civilians and military, dead or alive.
A case in point that deeply troubles many Israelis, is that of Air force Major Ron Arad. A navigator, he was captured on Oct 16, 1986 after his Phantom Jet was shot down. Bailing out, he was taken by the Islamic Fundamentalist Militia in South Lebanon, and became the personal prisoner of its head of security, Mustafa Dirani. Sometime later he was handed over to the Iranians’ Revolutionary Guard for cash. What his fate was after that squalid transaction is unknown. To find him Israel resorted to ongoing measures that smelled of desperation. In two daring raids by its Sayeret (Special Forces/Recon) Matkal, Sheikh 'Abd al-Karim al-'Ubayd was abducted in Jibshit in South Lebanon in July 1989, and Mustafa Dirani in May 1994. Both were members of the Hezbollah were bargaining chips to get Arad back. Arad became the Hezbollah’s Qantar. But there is no trade. Arad's fate remains unknown.
And the stakes are about to get higher.
October 7, 2000, an Israeli patrol of three Non-Commissioned Officers is operating inside Israel at Mount Dov. Suddenly they come under fire from a Hezbollah ambush. The three are wounded and captured. Of the three Israelis, one is a Bedouin Muslim and a career soldier, the other two are Jewish, one an Ethiopian. Soon after, Nasr Allah tells the world that the three are “at an undisclosed place.” After examining the evidence, the Israeli authorities believe the men were all killed.
Nine days later Hezbollah announces that it has kidnapped 54-year old Elchanan Tenenbaum in Kuwait. What rankles the Israeli Defense Establishment is that they allege that Tenenbaum, a ‘businessman’ and a reserve army Colonel was lured to Kuwait to take part in a supposed drug deal. According to Hezbollah he was transported to Lebanon. The seeds of the war in Lebanon, now planted start to grow.
It takes four years but the ‘sons will return.’ Brokered by German negotiators Israel agrees to an exchange. Thirty Lebanese and Arab prisoners, the remains of 59 Lebanese militants, 400 Palestinian terrorists, and maps showing the placement of 300,000 Israeli land mines in South Lebanon are traded for the Israeli businessman Tenenbaum and the bodies of the three IDF soldiers. But the key element of the trade is the release of Samir al Qantar, in return for which Hezbollah ‘promises’ to divulge information concerning Arad. Trusting no-one, with good reason, Israel dispatches medical examiners to certify that the three remains retuned by Hezbollah are the missing IDF soldiers. Coffins filled with sand have been returned before. The deal is consummated 29th January 2004. Among the freed prisoners are the two Hezbollah leaders, Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani. But despite promises made by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, al-Qantar remains an Israeli Prisoner. Sharon says that it was understood that al- Qantar, ‘with Israeli civilian blood on his hands,’ was not going to be released.
In Lebanon, at a huge rally welcoming the released prisoners, and standing near a poster of the action during which the three Israelis were killed, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah tells the exultant crowd that his movement was "more determined than ever" to fight Israel, and would capture more Israelis if Israel did not release Samir al-Qantar.
Qantar however, exalts in the swap: “We congratulate the resistance and our nation for this great achievement which will lead to the rapid release of our comrades.” In Israel there is more anger and sorrow as the three soldiers arrive at Ben-Gurion. The country is divided over the deal. Sharon had to twist arms to get the Cabinet to approve the trade; it squeaks through by one vote – 12 to11.
Many see the trade as giving credibility to Hezbollah. Haaretz commentator Ze’ev Schiff summarizes the feelings of Israel when he writes “it is seen as a triumph among the Palestinians and the Arab world.” Others like Professor Yehoshua Porath, angrily claim that Israelis “behave like fools and cowards without compare. Get ready for the next abduction” The most damning comment comes from the daughter, Yuval, of the missing Ron Arad who writes to Sharon “I can’t understand how, “... you’re about to release the man (Mustafa Durani) who tortured my father.”
Far worse for Israel is the feeling sweeping across the Arab populations that Israel can be brought to heel. Israel’s defense establishment, about to become enmeshed in a miserable campaign against the Hamas in Gaza and the still simmering Intifada in the West Bank, realizes that Palestinian resistance might well be fueled by the success of Hezbollah. Even more alarming is the belief generated by the hostage deal that the exchange forced Israel to recognize Hezbollah as a legitimate movement, not a terrorist organization. To most Arabs the hostage deal was a “tremendous political achievement for the Party of God.” Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas pledged that his movement would follow in Hezbollah's footsteps by kidnapping more Israelis, a pledge he later kept with bloody results. More important, Ayatollah Ali Khomeini the former spiritual leader of Israel’s implacable enemy Iran, whose backing of Hezbollah is unquestioned, stated “the evil Zionist regime can be defeated by the strong will and concrete faith of the fighters of Islam."
For the Hezbollah there is unfinished business: the release of Qantar. So was launched “Operation Truthful Promise”.
For in Israel there were memories of previous Lebanese war, one that many Israelis say was their VietNam. Reserves tried to evade duty, some flatly refused. Combat Officers organized “Soldiers against Silence”, the silence over Israeli brutality. Many soldiers were appalled at the destruction that Lebanon suffered. It tore Israeli politics apart, with the divisions between right and left became more bitter, angry and -- too often -- violent. It was a time of massive demonstrations by the “Peace Now Movement” and Abba Eban, one of Israel’s respected elder statesmen saw the war as a “dark age in the history of the Jewish people.” The war became a miserable litany of atrocities that culminated in the killings in the Palestinian shanty towns of Sabra and Shatila. General Rafael Eytan, Sharon’s brother-in-arms from the first days of 101 (later 202) Parachute Battalion, (accused of deleberately killing civilians during reprisal raids), referred to the Palestinians as “drugged roaches.” As military historian Martin Van Creveld wrote, “Countless raids by some of the worlds best troops…two massive invasions and the repeated use of some of the most technologically advanced weapons in history have failed to silence the guerillas.” “Take us to Lebanon,” Israel’s soldiers sang, “We’ll fight for Sharon and we will come back in a coffin”. Too many did. Almost seven-hundred, the equivalent of the United States losing 35,000.The stomach for the war ebbed away. The start of the first Intifada in 1987, placed additional physical and moral strain on the IDF. Its morale sank. In a book, the “Broken Cedar”, by Martin Malone, a Lebanese remarks that “our resistance fighters are not afraid to die -- the Israelis are...They are not like the old Israeli warriors/ They wouldn’t have gone on patrol with mobile phones and alert an enemy to their position. ..Their soldiers don’t have the stomach for the fight.’ Then on May 24, 2000, the last Israeli soldier stepped off Lebanese soil and locked gate to the Fatima border crossing behind him.
For Israel’s government another “hostage exchange” was too much bile to swallow. Over the years Hezbollah had been pecking away at Israel’s military. A sniper killing, a land mine, an ambush, and the casualties mounted. What infuriated Israel is that they had not defeated Hezbollah during “Operation Peace” in the Galilee (Mivtsa Shalom HaGalil), a war that lasted 18 years, from 1982 to 2000.
Neither Israel’s Prime Minister nor his Minister of Defence were members of the “cabal of generals who eased into politics.” Now was the chance to show their mettle, to prove that they too were “tough and prepared to strike back.” This analysis is both hard to prove, but easy to accept. Can we the surmise that it was the generals, watching the IDF’s battle efficiency plunge, wanting to “test the army” who desired a ‘real war.’ For years they have been in a morass of low intensity operations dealing with the Intifada -- operations that the IDF was never trained for, and which eschewed the type of soldiering needed, restraint, patience, minimum force.
Now as this new war rages, set off by terrible miscalculations and failures of comprehension and intelligence on both sides. Israel badly underestimated the capability of the Hezbollah to stand and fight, Hezbollah, basking in the hubris of its previous hostage taking and exchanges gravely miscalculated Israel’s reaction. Arguments rage about what prompted Hezbollah to challenge Israel now. Robert Fisk, one of the most knowledgeable correspondents in the region (he lives in Beirut and speks Arabic,) says contrary to what the West thinks, it was not Iran who nudged the Hezbollah, rather Hezbollah was spoiling for the fight, and wanted to suck Israel into a high casuality ground war, where it could deploy it’s new anti-tank weapons with effect. These are weapons that have been purchased by Iran from the ex-Soviet states Kazakhstan and Aberbaijan, among others, and sent on to the Hezbollah. Now Israel is in a war it can not afford to lose. As long as Hezbollah survives Israel has lost. Hamas and like terrorist organizations will forsake any negations with Israel convinced that in time it can be ‘wiped out.’ It is way too late for negotiations or ‘trades.’ Israel in fighting Hezbollah is fighting for the West against Iran. In fact more than in 1967, and just as in 1973, Israel has created a situation where this is no longer about hostages, or an unstable border, it is about survival.
As the war drags on, can the resolve to continue be maintained against a rising list of casualties? There are nascent signs of protests demanding an end to the war. Some of Israel’s politicians are haunted by a letter written to Prime Minister Menachem Begin during the first Lebanese war. It was from a man who had survived the Holocaust, whose father had died in the Warsaw uprising, and who had come to Israel and had fought in Israel’s wars. Now he was enduring his greatest sorrow, the loss of his only son in Lebanon
… my beloved son is dead because of your war. Thus you have discontinued a Jewish chain of age-old suffering, generations which no persecutor had succeeded in severing. The history of our ancient, wise and racked people will judge you and punish you with whips and scorpions, and let my sorrow haunt you when you sleep and when you awaken, and let my grief be the Mark of Cain upon your forehead forever.
Begin, depressed by the growing attacks on his primeministership, his incomprehension and dismay over the vast protests against the war resigned a broken man.