American Jews rally for Israeli prisoners in Lebanon


NEW YORK, May 1 (JTA) – After more than 200 days of captivity, there still is no word on the fate of three Israeli soldiers abducted into Lebanon by Hezbollah.

And a small clutch of American Jewish activists seem determined not to let Lebanon – or the Jewish community – forget about it.

Nearly 100 demonstrators, mostly members of Zionist youth organizations, gathered Tuesday on a tony, tree-lined street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to vent their anger at a symbolic target: the Lebanese consulate.

But they also inveighed against an American Jewish community of six million that they criticized as complacent and self-absorbed.

Instead of dozens, they said, there ought to have been thousands of Jews behind the blue police barricades.

Students held a blue-on-white banner that read “We are all prisoners ’till our brothers are free,” while Ezra Levine, a 21-year-old student at Yeshiva University, boomed into a microphone: “If a Jew doesn’t know how to feel the pain of another Jew, he doesn’t know what it means to be a Jew.”

The demonstration was not unlike events held over the past year in the name of the 13 – now nine – Iranian Jews jailed in Iran on charges of spying. The strategy is to draw public and media attention to the target nation by assembling in front of one of its diplomatic missions.

On Oct. 7, soldiers Benny Avraham, 20, Adi Avitan, 20, and Omar Souad, 27, were kidnapped while making a routine check of the Israel-Lebanon border fence near the contested Shabaa Farms enclave, a stone’s throw from an outpost of U.N. peacekeepers.

It was an elaborate operation, as Hezbollah guerrillas used remote-controlled bombs, shoulder-fired missiles and tear-gas grenades to disorient the Israeli soldiers and force the U.N. peacekeepers to duck back into their post.

Israeli and Jewish leaders blame both Lebanon and the United Nations for failing to secure the soldiers’ release.

The United Nations passed resolution after resolution demanding that Israel cease its occupation of southern Lebanon, which began in 1982, then joined Israel in demarcating an international border when troops pulled out last May.

However, the United Nations has not pressured Lebanon to fulfill its part of the resolutions, which call on the government to take control of the border region. Instead, Lebanon has allowed Hezbollah gunmen to continue to attack Israel.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which has been involved with both the Iran and Hezbollah cases, called on the U.S. government to halt aid to Lebanon and block Lebanese officials from visiting America until Lebanon takes responsibility for actions within its territory.

Also blamed is Syria, which helps finance Hezbollah and which keeps 30,000 soldiers in Lebanon – leading many to call it Lebanon’s real occupier.

Syria is considered less vulnerable to diplomatic pressure than Lebanon, however.

The Israeli soldiers are thought to have survived, but Hezbollah has not permitted them any contact with their families or even with the Red Cross, a flagrant violation of international norms.

Fathers of the three appeared at the demonstration Tuesday. Haim Avraham, Benny’s father said he believes Hezbollah “is doing this to make this as painful as possible for us.”

Indeed, Hoenlein noted that while he approaches world leaders without trepidation, he dreads meeting with the parents of Jews held hostage.

“Losing a child may even be better than not knowing what happened to your child. It’s unparalleled; nothing compares,” he said. “Their not giving up hope is inspiration to us all that we dare not give up hope.”

The three fathers arrived at the demonstration after meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, then later attended a press conference held by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

From New York, the fathers traveled to Washington, where they were expected to meet with legislators and attend a session of Congress.

Congress was expected to pass a resolution this week condemning the abduction of the soldiers and demanding their release. But activists are quick to note that the three soldiers are not the only Israeli hostages.

Several weeks after the soldiers’ abduction, Hezbollah also grabbed Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum.

Then there is air force navigator Ron Arad, who was captured by Shi’ite gunmen when his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. He was later sold to another Muslim group in Iran, and has since disappeared.

Three more soldiers – Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz – have been missing since a 1982 tank battle in Lebanon.

Israel, for its part, held several dozen Lebanese prisoners for years as “bargaining chips.” In response to pressure from human rights groups, however, it recently released all but two – a Hezbollah cleric and a leader of the Shi’ite militia Amal.

Third-party negotiations with Hezbollah for an exchange of prisoners appear to have broken down, however.

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