TEL AVIV (Nov. 24)
The six Israeli soldiers held as POWs by the Al Fatah arm of the PLO for 14 months — and recently incarcerated in strife-torn Tripoli– returned home to their families in Israel Thursday, under a prisoner exchange in return for some 4,600 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners held in Israel and the Ansar POW camp in south Lebanon.
The exchange was negotiated in complete secrecy, through the offices of the International Red Cross (IRC), with the actual transfer carried out with the aid of the French government.
The exchange was carried out in a complicated series of parallel moves, with each step at either end of the exchange — in Tripoli, Ansar and Israeli prisons — coordinated by IRC representatives receiving and passing on code words signifying that a certain stage had been reached and completed, allowing corresponding steps to be undertaken elsewhere.
NO IMPLICATIONS REGARDING THE PLO
At a press conference in the Defense Ministry shortly after the six POWs were reunited with their families, Defense Minister Moshe Arens stressed there were no political implications to any talks held with the PLO on the release. While Israeli and PLO representatives had been in Geneva together, where the final stages of the negotiations for the prisoner exchange had taken place, talks between the Israelis and the PLO were carried out by IRC representatives shuttling between the two groups.
The return of the six Fatah-held prisoners still leaves in enemy hands two IDF soldiers held by the anti-Arafat dissident Ahmed Jabreel, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, three held by the Syrians, and five still listed as missing whose fate and where abouts is not known.
The original negotiations for the return of the Israeli POWs, started shortly after their capture, involved the repatriation of all eight men held by the PLO. But the inter-factional fighting within the PLO led to Israel’s regretful recognition that separate talks might have to be held.
The knowledge that those held by the Arafat forces were being held in Tripoli while violent fighting, bombing and shelling went on around their heads, forced Israel to abandon temporarily the efforts to free the others, and concentrate on getting those held in Tripoli out of the battle zone. “We paid a very high price for their return, ” Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir noted today, “but it was a matter of life or death.” (See related story.)
STAGES IN THE NEGOTIATIONS
The final stage of the negotiations with the PLO in Geneva was carried out by former Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir and IDF manpower head Amos Yaron.
Earlier talks were carried out by leftwinger Arye Eliav, who today expressed thanks to Austria’s former Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and the late Issam Sartawi, an Arafat aide in the PLO who was assassinated while attending a Socialist International meeting in Portugal, who had taken part in early talks with the PLO.
The Arabs exchanged last night included about 60 PLO terrorists serving up to life sentences in Israeli prisons for terrorist actions inside Israel, including aircraft hijackings and terrorist attacks which left many Israelis dead. All the Arabs held in the Ansar camp, nearly 4,500 of them, were also released, as were a group of 40 PLO officers and soldiers captured at sea in recent weeks while making their way to join Arafat’s forces in Tripoli.
ARAB PRISONERS GIVEN A CHOICE
The prisoners at the Ansar camp, Palestinians and Lebanese, were given the choice of being released in Lebanon, or flown to Algiers, together with the terrorists freed from Israeli prisons. Some 1,000 in all chose to go to Algiers, The Israeli citizens among the PLO terrorists were deprived of their Israeli nationality when their expulsion orders were issued by the Interior Ministry.
Army sources said the Ansar detainees freed in Lebanon might represent a security risk to Israel, as they may now take up arms against Israel once again.
THE PROCESS OF EXCHANGE
The first move in the exchange came last night with the handing-over of the six Israelis to the IRC in Tripoli. Once they were in IRC hands aboard a fishing vessel in the harbor, a code word was flashed to the IRC man in Israel, whereupon the terrorists in Israel were moved to Ben Gurion airport where three Air France jumbo jets, chartered by the Red Cross, were waiting. At the same time, the first batch of inmates were transferred by Israel Air Force helicopters and planes from Ansar to the airport.
As the six Israelis were transferred to other boats, first a French warship and then an Israeli missile boat for their passage to Haifa, other code words were sent, setting in motion other steps, including the take-off, one after the other, of the three French jumbos from Ben Gurion airport to Cairo on their way to Algiers.
Also involved was the transfer in a fleet of Israeli busses of all the prisoners from the Ansar camp, to release points in Tyre, Sidon and other points.
The only discordant note in the exchange came from the Council of Jewish West Bank Settlements, which objected to the release of convicted terrorists, even in exchange for Israelis held prisoners or war for over a year.
During the jubilation in Israel, promises were made by government officials and army officers that every effort would now be made to effect the release of the five men held by Syria and Jabreel and to obtain information about the five Israelis still posted as missing.