TEL AVIV (Jun. 24)
Israel released 31 Shiites from the Atlit detention camp and transported them to Lebanon today. But few Israelis believe the government’s repeated assertions over the past 24 hours that this is in no way linked to the hostage crisis in Beirut.
The released prisoners left the Atlit camp south of Haifa shortly after 10 a.m. in a convoy consisting of two Israel Defense Force jeeps, three tarpaulin covered IDF trucks and a van. It crossed the Lebanese border at Rosh Hanikra and continued to the northern perimeter of the security belt where the freed men were turned over to representatives of the International Red Cross which will return them to their homes in south Lebanon’s Shiite community.
The truck convoy was surrounded by scores of local and foreign reporters and television crews when it left Atlit. The prisoners were apparently forced to lie on the floors of the trucks but one of them poked his head out of the tarpaulin cover and, grinning broadly, showed the media that his hands were bound with red cord.
An official statement by the IDF today said the 31 Shiites were released following investigations of the activities that led to their original detention at the Ansar camp in south Lebanon and on the basis of appeals they made to a civilian-military appeals board.
The statement said the freeing of 31 Shiites today was part of an ongoing process by which all Lebanese nationals detained by Israel will be released as the security situation in south Lebanon stabilizes.
In the opinion of most Israelis however, today’s release was intended to test the response of Shiite leader Nabih Berriwho is serving as an intermediary between the hijackers of TWA Flight 847and the U.S. with respect to the 40 American hostages. The hijackers demand that Israel free all 766 Shiites held at Atlit. Israel and the U.S. have affirmed repeatedly that neither country will make concessions to the hijackers.
MORE RELEASES EXPECTED
Some observers here believe Israel will free more Atlit prisoners in small batches over the next few days or weeks but will continue to hold a sizeable number to be exchanged eventually for the American hostages.
In that way, these observers say, President Reagan can claim he is not surrendering to terrorist demands and Israel can claim it is simply following normal procedure that existed before there was any hostage crisis.
The newspaper Hadashot said today that Likud members of the unity Cabinet opposed today’s release of Shiite prisoners on grounds that it would be seen as a concession to terrorist demands. But Premier Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin were able to win over a majority of the Cabinet to approve the release.
RABIN CLAIMS ISRAEL ALWAYS HELD RESPONSIBLE
Rabin, in a speech in Tel Aviv today, complained that whenever anything happens in the region, the world seems to look to Israel which by its very existence is held responsible for what happens to other people and is urged to find a solution to problems in which it is not involved.
Rabin also alluded to the futility of Israel’s three year war in Lebanon. It not only failed to end terrorism, it led to an increase, he said. “Whoever looks at what is happening at Beirut airport, the hijacked aircraft, the behavior of fanatic Shiite terrorists — and nobody knows what other fanatic terrorist actions they can carry out — and anyone who considers what effect it has had on relations between friendly nations faced with emergencies — and the problems in south Lebanon have not been solved — you sometimes have the impression that you are living in a sort of crazy world,” Rabin said.