Three Israeli soldiers held captive since 1982 by a Damascus-based Palestinian terrorist organization, returned home tonight in the course of a lopsided, complex prisoner exchange during which Israel simultaneously set free 1,100 Palestinians and others, among them some of the most notorious terrorist mass killers in its prison population for as long as two decades.
The soldiers, Hezi Shai, Yosef Groff and Nissim Salem, were captured in the early days of the war in Lebanon nearly three years ago and held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, headed by pro-Syrian Ahmed Jabril.
Their return triggered an outpouring of joy nationwide. But the exchange agreement will be the subject of prolonged soul-searching and possibly sharp criticism in the days and weeks ahead.
Although there is ample precedent for the unbalanced ratio — in November, 1983, Israel, under the Likud-led government, traded some 3,000 prisoners in the Ansar detention camp in south Lebanon for six Israeli soldiers — the situation is not entirely analogous.
MANY RELEASED ARE CONVICTED KILLERS
The Ansar prisoners, mostly Palestinians, were never tried and convicted for specific crimes. Many of those released today are convicted killers serving life sentences, who would not be alive had there been capital punishment in Israel. Moreover, both the ratio and terms of the exchange apparently were determined by Jibril in months of secret negotiations which employed the good offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Dr. Herbert Amery, the Austrian Ambassador in Greece.
The Israelis involved in the negotiations included Shmuel Tamir, a former Minister of Justice, Gen. Amos Yariv, head of the Israel Defense Force Manpower Branch and former Knesset member Arye Eliav.
The IDF today praised the Swiss government for its help. The exchange was carried out in Geneva, under the direct supervision of the ICRC, and partially in Israel.
The three Israeli soldiers were flown from Damascus to Geneva in three separate aircraft earlier in the day and were placed in custody of the ICRC there until the arrival of about 400 Arab prisoners from Israel in three Boeing transport planes.
At the same time, some 600 Palestinians convicted of terrorist acts in Israel or against the IDF in Lebanon were released from Israeli prisons and sent to their homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Another 150 Arabs were released on the Golan Heights and handed over to Syrian authorities, presumably to be returned to their homes in Lebanon.
The three freed Israeli soldiers arrived in Israel late this evening, only hours after a day-long news blackout was lifted by the authorities here. But thousands of Israelis already knew of the prisoner exchange from foreign media reports. It was officially announced here only after it was reported on Jordan television’s Hebrew Newsreel at 7:30 p.m., a program widely watched in Israel.
Israel’s policy always has been that one Israeli prisoner is worth hundreds of enemy detainees and there is a long record of exchanges of dangerous Palestinian terrorists for captured Israelis. These date back as long ago as 1971 and were carried out under both Labor and Likud governments.
JAPANESE TERRORIST AMONG THOSE FREED
But a perusal of the list of terrorists turned loose today may give pause to many. The best known by far is not an Arab but a Japanese, Kozo Okamoto, the sole surviving member of the Red Army terrorist gang that carried out the Lod Airport massacre in 1972.
The gang opened fire in the passenger terminal of Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, killing 27 persons and wounding 72. Among those slain were 16 Puerto Rican tourists on a pilgrimage to the holy sites in Jerusalem.
Okamoto, now 37, was sentenced to life imprisonment. In the ensuing years his name appeared on almost every list of terrorists whose release was demanded in exchange for hijacked plane or bus passengers or hostages held by Palestinian and other terrorists.
BACKGROUND OF OTHER PRISONERS
Other terrorists released today are not as well known outside of Israel. Among them are: Daud Turki, 57, a Haifa bookseller sentenced in 1973 to 17 years’ imprisonment for his activities in a Syrian espionage group; Adnan Kleihal and Subhi Naarani, Arabs from Galilee who were convicted for the bombing of the Hebrew University library cafeteria in which 28 persons were hurt. A third member of the group, Miriam Shahshir, was freed in an exchange in 1978.
Abdulla Daoud Jaloud, a senior officer of El Fatah, led an attempt to attack Eilat from the sea in 1978. He commanded a Greek freighter armed with Katyusha rocket launchers and carrying 400 tons of dynamite. Jaloud was serving a 25-year sentence.
Ahmed and Rubhi Sharabati, a father-and-son terrorist team from Jerusalem who, with others, planned a massive car bomb attack in the capital in 1978. They were captured and the bomb defused; Jabriz Mohammed Kawasmi, of Hebron, was sentenced to several life terms for a series of attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians in the early 1970’s; Louis Nafa Abdo, a Fatah agent, was caught trying to plant a bomb at Ben Gurion Airport in 1975. He was serving a 22-year sentence.
Ahmed Zmurid was serving a life sentence for the 1968 car bomb attack in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem which killed 15 people and injured dozens of others; and Abed-Jaber Gheith who, in 1968, at the age of 16, tossed a hand grenade into a group of Jewish worshippers at the Machpela Cave in Hebron, killing one person and injuring 44.
Many of the freed terrorists were given heroes’ welcomes by ecstatic friends and relatives as they returned to their hometowns today and this evening.
The buses which transported them from prisons in different parts of Israel were met by fleets of private cars, horns blaring and headlights blazing. There was dancing in the streets and a general carnival atmosphere in Nablus tonight, the largest Arab town on the West Bank.
There was also heavy Israeli security but border police and soldiers kept a low profile. Jewish settlers in the territory were nowhere in evidence but were obviously seething with anger. In Hebron this afternoon, Jewish demonstrators demanded the expulsion of all hostile Palestinians from the West Bank.
It is expected that the settlers, backed by rightwing politicians in the Knesset, will now demand the freeing of some 20 alleged members of a Jewish terrorist underground currently on trial in Jerusalem for a series of violent acts against Arab civilians on the West Bank dating from 1980 and conspiracy to blow up Islamic shrines on the Temple Mount.
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.