TEL AVIV (May. 22)
The Israeli commandos who abducted a Muslim fundamentalist leader in Lebanon on Saturday brought back videos and documents that officials here hope will shed light on the whereabouts of Ron Arad, the long-missing Israeli airman whose case has been taken up by supporters around the world.
Israeli officials were quick to begin interrogating Shi’ite Muslim guerrilla leader Mustafa Dirani about Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1982.
But military leaders say they are not planning to use Dirani, 43, as a bargaining chip for Arad’s return.
Arad is one of six Israeli soldiers listed as missing in Lebanon, and he is the one believed to have the greatest chance of still being alive.
Dirani was abducted from his home in eastern Lebanon early Saturday morning, when some 40 Israeli commandos in two helicopter gunships flew over the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley and descended upon the Shi’ite leader’s village of Kasanara.
The commandos snatched Dirani from his bed while his family looked on. During their seven-minute stay in Dirani’s house, the commandos also collected documents and videotapes that they hope will prove useful in locating Arad.
Acting on direct orders from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who also serves as defense minister, the Israeli commandos refrained from shooting at any civilians around the targeted house.
The predawn kidnapping was nearly identical to the 1988 abduction of Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, then a leader of the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. At a news conference Saturday night, Rabin admitted that the attempt to use Obcid as a bargaining chip had been a mistake.
He told reporters that Dirani had been abducted solely to obtain information about Arad — a statement seconded by the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, and the IDF’s intelligence chief, Uri Saguy.
COULD SPARK NEW ATTACKS
Dirani was head of security for Amal, a Syria-backed militia operating in Lebanon, when Arad was captured during Israel’s 1982 Lebanon campaign. Dirani is said to have held Arad for two years in a hideout in Beirut.
Dirani subsequently broke away from Amal and founded the Believers Resistance Group, and organization linked to Hezbollah and closely connected with Iran. The Israeli government believes Dirani’s supporters later sold Arad for $300,000 to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
But Israel is convinced that Dirani still has information about Arad’s present whereabouts.
Dirani’s abduction took place after attempts to locate Arad through diplomatic channels led nowhere.
Israeli opposition leaders initially joined the government in praising the planning and execution of the daring raid.
But by Sunday, opposition politicians were on the attack. They charged that the Labor government was using the plight of Arad and public concern about his safety for “cynical political purposes, to divert public attention from Rabin’s lack of leadership and his disastrous policies, which are helping to establish a Palestinian state.”
The abduction is considered likely to spark new attacks by fundamentalist militias against Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah attacks increased after Obeid was kidnapped in 1988 and after another Shi’ite leader, Sheik Abbas Musawi, was killed during a 1992 Israeli assault on his motorcade.
Hezbollah officials were quick to denounce the abduction and to charge American complicity.
“This is an act of state terrorism sanctioned by the Great Satan, America,” read a statement issued by Hezbollah. “It proves once again Israel’s terrorist nature.”
Syria, the leading wielder of power in Lebanon, had no immediate comment on the abduction, nor was it clear how the raid would affect the long-stalled Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.