JERUSALEM (Jul. 21)
A decade of uncertainty and anguish for two Israeli families came to an end this week with the arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport of two metal coffins containing the bodies of Israeli soldiers Yosef Fink and Rachamim Alsheikh.
Fink and Alsheikh were taken captive in Lebanon in 1986, when Hezbollah gunmen ambushed a convoy of the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army that the two were escorting inside the security zone.
They were officially declared dead five years later, but their remains were only returned to Israel this week as part of an exchange of prisoners and bodies that was mediated by Germany.
Sunday’s exchange raised hopes of a possible agreement between Israel and Lebanon for halting Hezbollah hostilities in what is the Jewish state’s sole active war front.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he did not believe that the exchange indicated a shift in the policies of Hezbollah, which has been waging an armed conflict against Israeli and SLA forces in the southern Lebanon security zone.
“If there is such a change, we welcome it,” Netanyahu told a news conference after the exchange took place.
But he added that Israel did not intend in the meantime to withdraw its troops from the security zone.
The two metal coffins containing the remains of Fink and Alsheikh arrived Sunday at Ben-Gurion Airport on a German military plane from Beirut.
The bodies had been handed over to the German mediators by the Red Cross, which received them earlier from Hezbollah.
In return for their bodies, Israel exhumed and returned to Lebanon the remains of 120 Hezbollah fighters killed in clashes with the Israel Defense Force in the security zone.
And in the second part of the exchange, Hezbollah freed 17 SLA soldiers it was holding in exchange for the release of 45 Shi’ite prisoners held in southern Lebanon by the SLA.
As the bodies of the two soldiers were returned to the Jewish state, Israeli officials vowed to continue efforts to obtain information about other missing and captured Israeli soldiers.
“We see this as an encouraging sign for the continued effort to bring all of Israel’s missing and captured soldiers home,” Ya’acov Peri, a former head of the Shin Bet domestic security service who served as the leader of the Israeli negotiating team in the exchange, told the news conference.
Bernd Schmidbauer, the German official who mediated the exchange, hinted this week that he hoped to continue efforts to obtain information from Syria and Iran regarding other missing Israeli soldiers.
“This is an important step toward additional discussions on the same matter,” said Schmidbauer.
Germany was able to negotiate the exchange as a result of its ongoing ties with Iran, which sponsors Hezbollah activities in Lebanon.
The German mediation effort reportedly intensified three months ago.
During a telephone call at the time with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres gave Germany the go-ahead to negotiate on the basis of “bodies for bodies, live prisoners for live prisoners.”
While Israel has in the past protested Germany’s ties with Iran, Netanyahu said Sunday that he did not oppose any contacts between Germany and Iran regarding the exchange.
“This is a humanitarian issue, entirely separated from other matters in dispute,” Netanyahu said.
He said he hoped that other missing and captured Israeli soldiers would soon return to Israel.
Netanyahu added that he had no new information regarding four other missing Israeli soldiers: Ron Arad, the air force navigator shot over Lebanon in 1986; and Zechariah Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, who were taken prisoner during the 1982 Operation Peace for Galilee.
Of the four, only Arad is believed to be still alive.
To retain its bargaining position for more information about the four MIAs, Israel refused to free two Hezbollah leaders, Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani.
Obeid was abducted from his home in Lebanon by Israeli commandos in 1988; Dirani was abducted in a similar operation in 1994.
Meanwhile, in Ra’anana and Rosh Ha’ayin, members of the Fink and Alsheikh families expressed an odd sense of relief at being finally able to bury their sons in Israel.