TEL AVIV (Aug. 2)
As American and United Nations officials arrived in Israel on Wednesday, in part to discuss the hostage situation, Israeli leaders shed new light on the decision-making process that led to the capture of Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told the Knesset on Wednesday that Israel’s Inner Cabinet considered “every possible reaction and repercussion — that which actually happened, and even worse” before approving the July 28 raid on Obeid’s home in Jibchit, Lebanon.
Rabin was replying to three no-confidence motions introduced by the Arab Communist parties. All three were soundly defeated.
Obeid, the leader of a Shiite extremist faction called the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, and two of his aides were seized by Israeli commandos and spirited away to Israel.
In retaliation, the group, which is believed to be connected with the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah, or Party of God, announced Monday that it had hanged Lt. Col. William Higgins, an American Marine who headed the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization in Lebanon before he was kidnapped in February 1988.
Neither Israeli nor American officials have been able to confirm that Higgins was actually murdered Monday, while Obeid was in Israeli custody. Sources here say Israel passed information to the United States at the beginning of the year indicating that Higgins had been killed at the end of 1988.
U.S. OFFICIAL MEETS WITH ARENS
In the hope of establishing whether and when Higgins was actually killed, U.N. Undersecretary-General Marrack Goulding arrived in Israel on Wednesday and was flown by helicopter from Ben-Gurion Airport to the headquarters of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
Goulding is due to visit Beirut and Damascus, where he is expected to try to convince Hezbollah leaders to release Higgins’ body for forensic examinations.
Also arriving in Israel on Wednesday was John Kelly, the new U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. He is on an introductory study mission to the Middle East, which was planned before the Obeid-Higgins affair began.
The crisis was on the agenda of talks Kelly held Wednesday with Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, but no further details of the meeting were disclosed. The American official also was scheduled to meet Wednesday with Vice Premier Shimon Peres.
Speaking in an Israeli television interview immediately after his session with Kelly, Arens said the events of the past few days, while tragic, had also produced some positive developments.
He observed that both the United States and the Soviet Union were pressuring Iran and Syria to use their influence to win the release of all hostages being held by Shiite groups in Lebanon.
Obtaining the release of three Israeli soldiers being held in Lebanon as prisoners of war was Israel’s primary motivation in seizing Sheikh Obeid. But Israeli officials have also said they hoped from the start that the Moslem cleric could be used to win the release of all civilian hostages in Lebanon.
OBELD’S HOUSE USED TO PLAN ATTACKS
Rabin told the Knesset on Wednesday that plans to capture Obeid were first discussed and ratified by the Inner Cabinet two months ago,with the operation due to take place a month later.
But as that time approached, there were signs that efforts to negotiate a prisoner exchnge, through intermediaries overseas, might bear fruit. Rabin then suggested the operation be postponed for a month.
Three weeks ago, it became clear that Hezbollah would not cooperate in a prisoner swap. The Inner Cabinet met again and voted 11-1 to approve the operation carried out last Friday.
The defense minister also disclosed that the International Committee of the Red Cross had requested Israel’s permission last Friday to visit Obeid and his aides in their place of detention.
He said he had agreed on condition of mutuality – that the Red Cross also meet with the three Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon.
Rabin told the Knesset that Obeid had played an active role in the planning and implementation of terrorist operations against Israeli soldiers and innocent civilians in Israel and Lebanon. Those who Kidnapped two of the Israeli soldiers had left for their operation from Obeid’s home in Jibchit, he said.
And he said the three terrorists who kidnapped Higgins had also planned that abduction in Obeid’s house, where one of them returned afterward. The private car used in the Higgins kidnapping had been hidden in Obeid’s garage for at least a month after the event, Rabin said.
All these facts were admitted by Obeid during his interrogation in Israel, he said.
ISRAELI OFFER STILL GOOD
Rabin said there was also evidence that Obeid had been involved in a car-bomb attack that killed 12 Israeli soldiers near the IsraeliLebanese border four years ago.
The defense minister listed a series of terrorist actions that Hezbollah had carried out, operating under the aegis of the Khomeini regime in Iran. They included the murder three years ago of eight Beirut Jews, whose bodies were thrown out into the street.
Hezbollah was also responsible for car-bombings that led to the deaths of more than 300 Americans stationed in Beirut, as well as a number of French citizens.
But despite all of these terrorist acts, Israel’s offer to exchange prisoners still stands, Rabin said.
According to the deal, first proposed Monday, shortly before Higgins’ death was reported, Israel would free all Shiite prisoners in its custody, including Obeid, in exchange for the release of the three Israeli prisoners and the 18 foreign nationals held hostage in Lebanon.