Time to Speak out for Israeli Mias

As a new session of the United Nations General Assembly gets under way, a grave human rights issue remains unresolved. Four Israeli families do not know whether their sons are alive or dead.

All over the world, every mother and father who sends a son or daughter to serve in the armed forces dreads the horror of their loved one falling into enemy hands.

Exacerbating the pain and anguish are captors who manipulate the family and nation of the captive by refusing to admit they are holding anyone, who deny international humanitarian organizations the right to visit with the captive, who refuse to reveal whether the hostage is dead or alive.

For years, four Israeli families have suffered with this pain. Ten years ago, on Oct. 16, 1986, the fighter plane of Israeli Capt. Ron Arad was shot down in southern Lebanon. After parachuting safely to the ground, Arad, the plane’s navigator, was captured by members of the Lebanese Shi’ite organization, Amal.

It is widely believed that Arad was bartered and sold over the years to different Lebanese factions and was moved back and forth between Lebanon and Iran. His last known captor was the pro-Iranian Hezbollah group, which claims that Arad disappeared from its hands when his guards left their post.

Arad’s family has not heard from him since September 1987, when they received a letter from him. Photographs given to Israel in 1991 indicated that he was still alive at that point. Recent German media reports, based on leaked intelligence information, report that Arad is still alive and is being held by Hezbollah as a bargaining chip.

The three other Israeli soldiers who remain missing — Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz — disappeared in June 1982, after a savage tank battle in Lebanon’s Syrian-controlled Beka’a Valley.

On the day of the battle, foreign correspondents in Damascus reported witnessing a captured Israeli tank and three Israeli soldiers being paraded in the streets of the Syrian capital and in the nearby village of Ayta. Since that day, their whereabouts and their fate remain shrouded in mystery.

These four Israeli soldiers have been denied their basic humanitarian rights. No international assistance organization has been permitted to visit them or to investigate their plight. Their families have been denied any communication with them or any information concerning their fate.

The leading power brokers in Lebanon — Syria and Iran — repeatedly claim that they have neither information regarding the whereabouts of the missing Israeli servicemen nor the ability to seek information regarding their fate. Iranian influence in and Syrian control of southern Lebanon, however, belie their claims.

Further, Syria and Lebanon also have been involved in previous prisoner exchanges between Israel and various Lebanese factions. After consistently denying knowledge of the whereabouts of Sgt. Hezi Shai, one of the tank commanders in the 1982 battle, Syria was involved in the May 1985 prisoner exchange between Israel and Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, which was holding Shai.

Most recently, in July 1996, Germany brokered a deal between Israel and Hezbollah whereby the bodies of two other missing Israeli servicemen, Rahamim Alsheikh and Yossi Fink, were returned to Israel in exchange for the Israel releasing the bodies of Hezbollah guerrillas. The two had been captured by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1986. Israel thanked both Iran and Syria for their cooperation in the exchange.

The fate of the four missing Israeli servicemen is a humanitarian issue that transcends political differences and geographical borders. The international community must raise its voice and put an end to the suffering of the Israeli families.

Why raise our voices now? Throughout the last decade, quiet diplomatic efforts by Israel, the United States, Germany and the United Nations have produced no significant results.

Israel was led to believe that when it released Hezbollah prisoners in 1991 in exchange for the remaining Western hostages being held in Lebanon, the release of Arad and the other missing Israelis would soon follow.

In short, all avenues have been exhausted.

The time has come for the international community to speak out, take action and hold Iran and Syria publicly accountable for this grievous human rights violation.

As Arad’s family commemorates the painful 10th anniversary of his capture, let us recommit ourselves to raising the profile of this humanitarian concern in the public arena.

Bluma Zuckerbrot-Finkelstein is director of Special Projects– Middle Eastern Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.

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