Behind the Headlines: Senator to Help Find Kidnap Victims but U.N. Says Some May Have Died

For 10 months, the families of four Israelis kidnapped by Hezbollah have been waiting for their loved ones to return home.

Now the families have found a new source of hope, after U.S. lawmakers and Jewish groups indicated that the families’ crusade has not been forgotten and that a new effort will be launched to get the four back.

But amid the uncertainty they have had to contend with since the abductions, the families now have to deal with a U.N. report indicating that as many as three of the four kidnap victims may have suffered serious injuries when they were abducted across the Israeli-Lebanese border — and that some or all of them may no longer be alive.

Last October, Hezbollah gunmen kidnapped three Israeli soldiers — Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad — from a disputed border area known as Shabaa Farms.

Shortly after, Hezbollah kidnapped an Israeli businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who also serves as a colonel in the Israeli reserves.

Last week, appearing outside the U.S. Senate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced he would take part in an international commission to get information about the four and secure their release.

There has been no word from Hezbollah about the condition or fate of the prisoners despite repeated attempts by the families and the International Red Cross to gain information and access to the men.

“These families deserve to know,” McCain said when he made his announcement Aug. 2.

McCain also said he would work with Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) on legislation calling for increased U.S. involvement in the effort to bring the four Israelis home.

His comment came one day before U.N. officials released a report indicating that the three Israeli soldiers who were kidnapped suffered serious, possibly even critical, injuries.

Many feel McCain’s prominence will speed along a solution and that the senator’s personal history will raise the issue’s profile.

In 1967, McCain, a naval aviator, was shot down over Vietnam and held as a POW in Hanoi for five-and-a-half years, much of it in solitary confinement.

“All of Israel appreciates his efforts,” Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said last week.

McCain accepted a pin depicting a blue ribbon of solidarity for the MIAs. Many officials wore stickers that read “Adi, Benjamin, Omar — Mother is Waiting.”

The atmosphere at last week’s announcement on the Senate steps — attended by the World Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and other groups – - was disturbed somewhat by protesters who shouted and held placards with such anti-Israel slogans as: “Condemn Israel’s Aggression” and “Free Palestinian POWs in Israel.”

The families of the four kidnap victims came to Washington to thank those involved with the increased efforts, including Israeli Ambassador David Ivry and former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

The family members were hopeful, but their words were mixed with pain.

After so many disappointments, Avitan’s father, Ya’acov, said he was optimistic that this is now “a turning point.”

Saoud’s father, Qassem, said his son’s children, ages 3 and 5, cry for their father every day.

Tannenbaum’s son, Ori, said, “I am haunted by anxiety day and night.”

Avraham Burg, the speaker of the Israeli Knesset, said he wants to continue pressuring the United Nations and the Red Cross and drumming up international support.

“This is a process which addresses the conscience of the world,” he said.

A day later, U.N. officials provided some information about the kidnapping of the three soldiers.

In an 18-page report released last Friday, the officials presented the findings of an internal U.N. investigation into the handling of a videotape shot at the scene hours after the three soldiers were kidnapped.

After denying for months that a videotape existed, U.N. officials reversed course last month and ordered an investigation.

The report included the assessment of a senior U.N. peacekeeper in Lebanon that the three soldiers may have died from their wounds.

It also indicated that there were not one but two videotapes.

The report acknowledged that U.N. officials had failed to keep Israel informed, but that this had resulted from “lapses in judgment and failures to communicate, not from conspiracies.”

The report left open questions regarding the role some U.N. peacekeepers may have played in the kidnapping.

Israeli officials later said they appreciated U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s willingness to launch an investigation. But the officials criticized the United Nations for taking so long to offer information about the soldiers’ possible condition.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said this week the Israeli defense establishment is working under the assumption that the soldiers are still alive.

“We have no information to say they are not alive,” Ben-Eliezer said in television interviews over the weekend.

An Israeli team will travel to New York to review items collected by U.N. forces from the vehicles Hezbollah used in the kidnapping.

Bloodstained items are expected to be checked by a third party, most likely the World Health Organization, for identification, and the results will then be conveyed to Israel.

Haim Avraham, father of one of the kidnapped soldiers, protested that the Israeli team has to travel to New York.

“This information in my opinion should be sent to Israel. We claimed all the time that the U.N. has a videotape of the kidnapping and items belonging to the soldiers.”

Avraham also said he believed U.N. officials have additional “important details about the kidnapping of the boys, which must be disclosed.”

For months, contacts have been held via third parties regarding an exchange of the Israeli abductees for Arab prisoners held by Israel.

Portions of one of the videos have already been broadcast on Israel’s Channel Two Television. They show U.N. officials trying to tow two cars that were apparently used by the kidnappers and later abandoned.

A U.N. spokesman who viewed the video said that the cars contained bloodstains, explosive materials and equipment belonging to the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, as the peacekeepers are known.

According to reports, the cars had forged UNIFIL license plates.

Rallies and protests over the past several months have sought to increase awareness about the four kidnap victims.

At a rally last month in New York, campers from Young Judaea’s Tel Yehudah solicited signatures for a petition calling on U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other political leaders to take action on behalf of the missing Israelis.

Israel has also been seeking information about three soldiers missing in action in Lebanon since 1982.

Zachariah Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz disappeared June 11, 1982, in the Battle of Sultan Yakoub at the beginning of Israel’s war in Lebanon.

Their families have since launched an international effort to obtain information regarding their whereabouts.

In 1999, President Clinton signed a law that requires the United States to raise the cases of the three MIAs when it meets with the governments of Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority.

In addition, the law calls on U.S. officials to take into consideration the willingness of the three governments to help secure the return of such soldiers when considering financial aid.

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JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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