The fate of missing airman Ron Arad came to the forefront for Israelis once again after a hijacked Iranian jet was forced to land on Israeli soil this week.
Arad’s mother, Batya, and his two brothers, Chen and David, flew to the Ovda military air base in the southern Negev on Wednesday to ask the passenger of the hijacked airplane to issue a plea to the Iranian government for Arad’s safe return.
“When you return, each of you appeal to your government to [President Hashemi] Rafsanjani to help us get information about him and his release,” Batya Arad told the passengers.
One of several Israel MIAs being sought by government officials and by distraught family members, Arad bailed out from a fighter plane over Lebanon in 1986 and was believed to have been held by pro-Iranian troops in Lebanon.
The last time any message was received that he was alive was in October 1987. Since then, there have been sporadic reports that he was subsequently transferred to captivity in Iran.
At the air force base, the family distributed leaflets about Arad, as well as “Free Ron Arad” stickers.
Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein said Israeli officials had questioned some of the passengers about Arad.
But most of the passengers on the hijacked flight said they had never heard of Arad.
“I feel sad for the family, but I believe whatever my government says about this story,” Mehdi Darayli, an English teacher from Tehran, told Israel Radio.
Others said they felt that they were being subjected to a propaganda effort.
“We are civilians, not government officials,” one of the passengers, an engineer from Tehran, told Israel Television. “This is all public relations for the Israeli government.”
The saga of the hijacked plane began when a pistol-brandishing flight attendant in his 30s commandeered the Boeing 707 during a domestic flight. Tuesday morning headed from Tehran to the Persian Gulf resort island of Kish.
He demanded to fly to Europe. But the plane, which was short of fuel, landed in Israel after both Jordan and Saudi Arabia refused its request to land.
The hijacker surrendered to Israeli security officials after the plane landed.
The passengers, mostly tourists, spent the night at the Ovda base. The men were questioned by security officials.
On Wednesday, Israel released the hijacked plane and its 174 passengers and crew some 35 hours after its first touched down on Israeli soil.
The plane took off several hours after the planned departure was delayed by what military officials described as technical problems.
Two Israeli F-16 jet fighters accompanied the plane until it left Israeli air space. The plane was then routed over Turkey for the three-hour flight back to Iran.
The hijacker, who reportedly sought political asylum in the United States, was detained for further questioning.
Earlier Wednesday, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had approved the plane’s release after holding top-level consultations.
The Ministerial Committee on National Security issued a statement officially announcing that the Israeli government was letting the flight return to Iran, with which Israel maintains no diplomatic relations.
Arad’s family called on Israel to hold the plane as a bargaining chip for Arad’s release, but the government rejected the idea.
“I believe that we made the right decision not to support any piracy in the air,” Rabin said.
The Cabinet issued a communique stating that “Israel stands by its strong opposition to air piracy and is releasing the plane and passengers despite the hostility of the Iranian regime towards Israel.”
Iran had demanded the immediate return of all passengers, including the hijacker.
Iranian Television had condemned Israel for holding the passengers and crew, and demanded their immediate release from “occupied Palestine.”
Shortly before the plane took off from Israel, Iran’s U.N. envoy, Kamal Kharrazi, accused Israel of hostage-talking and called the hijacking a “preplanned Zionist operation.”
Israel rejected Iran’s demand that the hijacker be extradited. Instead, police said, he was taken to Eilat for further questioning.
Israel Radio reported that the hijackers would be handed over to authorities from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Five others passengers reportedly asked for asylum in Israel, but they were traveling with the rest of the passengers when the flight returned to Tehran.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.