Like the proverbial glimmer of hope in the midst of total despair, and despite the dark cloud of gloom and defeat hovering over the Arab world, South Lebanon has once again emerged as the theatre of some of the most dramatic and promising developments in the Israeli-Arab conflict. On June 26, sixty Lebanese prisoners, some of whom had been languishing in Israeli jails for as long as 14 years, carried their tragic memories of cruel torture and prison anguish as they returned to their families and kinfolks.
The prisoner release was the second stage of a deal between Lebanon and Israel mediated by France and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The deal provided for the exchange of scores of Lebanese detainees and slain resistance fighters with the body parts of sergeant (1st Class) Itamar Ilya, an Israeli naval commando who was killed with 11 other soldiers during a foiled raid last September 4 on the southern Lebanese village of Ansariya. The first stage took place a day earlier and involved swapping the remains of Ilya with the bodies of 40 fighters who had fallen in resistance operations against Israeli occupation forces and their local South Lebanon Army (SLA) proxy militia.
Among the repatriated bodies was that of 18-year-old Hadi Nasrallah, the eldest son of Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, who was martyred in a clash with Israeli occupation forces last September 13. The released prisoners included Hussein Muqdad, who was crippled when a bomb went off in his Jerusalem hotel room two years ago.
Ten of the released prisoners were held in Israeli jails. The remaining 50 were held in the Khiam concentration camp in the Israeli-occupied zone in south Lebanon. The prisoners belonged mainly to the Hizbullah, which is spearheading the resistance against the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon, the Amal movement and the Lebanese Communist party. Most of them were held without trial on suspicion of aiding resistance fighters. According to official sources in Beirut, following this prisoner release, about 170 Lebanese citizens continue to be held under inhuman conditions either in Khiam or in Israeli jails.
In a statement issued by the Israeli government shortly before the exchange, zionist officials provided yet another display of their characteristic disregard for the human rights and dignity of the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples. The statement candidly said that the released prisoners did not have blood on their hands. If anything, this admission highlights the fact that holding innocent people hostage, where according to human rights organizations they are subjected to infernal torture sessions, in order to use them as bargaining chips is a common practice by the much-vaunted ‘only democracy in the Middle East.’
The deal was negotiated over a nine-month period and agreed upon two weeks before the actual release. Delays in carrying it out furnish monumental examples of the craven decadence permeating Lebanon’s ruling elites who see politics as the equivalent of the machinations of politicians.
Fearing that the swap would shore up Hizbullah’s and Amal’s positions in the recent municipal elections that were conducted last month, prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was handling negotiations on Lebanon’s part, sought to delay the exchange until after the balloting. Obviously, for Hariri prolonging the anguish and agony of tens of prisoners is worth scoring a few petty points in the game of municipal elections. For his part, house speaker and head of Amal, Nabih Berri, had also contributed to the delay and at some point threatened to scuttle the deal altogether unless the swap included 27 inmates whose freedom he demanded.
The prisoner and remains swap gave rise to some speculation that it was a sign of a budding rapprochement between Hizbullah and Israel. Yet such speculations were soon dispelled. At sunrise on July 2, the Islamic Resistance launched a massive and daring offensive, which included simultaneous attacks on 18 Israeli and SLA positions, killing and wounding a number of Israeli soldiers and SLA collaborator. Most of the assaults, which took place along a 50-kilometer-long front on the edge of the Israeli-occupied zone, were diversionary attacks to deflect attention from a major operation launched by a squad in Martyr Hadi Nasrallah’s Brigade of the Islamic Resistance’s Special Forces against a joint Israeli-SLA base on the outskirts of the village of Haddatha near the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jubayl.
A Resistance communiqu distributed in Beirut read: ‘Our fighters broke into the Haddatha post after making sure that there was a zionist and Lahdi [calling the SLA after its leader, the renegade general Antoine Lahd] force in the post.’ It added that the fighters, who held the post and raised the Hizbullah flags over it for two hours, ‘left the post after destroying its internal fortifications and the vehicles that were inside.’ The fighters, who crossed a 70-meter-wide minefield before storming the compound, also carried off some equipment.
Another communiqu said that one of the Resistance fighters, 22-year-old Hadi Mahmoud Mshaimesh, was martyred during the Haddatha operation.
In accordance with the traditional zionist disregard for civilian life, Israeli artillery retaliated by shelling a number of nearby villages, including Yater, Ayta al-Jabal, Kafra, Shaqra, Tooleen, and Qabrikha among others. This constituted yet another breach of the April (1996) Understanding, which prohibits attacks against civilian targets by either Israel and its proxies or the resistance, to be perpetrated by the Israeli occupiers. A 65-year-old villager died of heart attack in Yater as a result of the intensity of the bombardment. Moreover, many of the inhabitants of the village of Ayta al-Jabal, where several buildings were severely damaged as a result of the shelling, were forced to leave for neighbouring areas.
Israeli warplanes also raided the area between Baraashit and Bayt Yahoon, firing four missiles, whereas helicopter gunships strafed the outskirts of liberated villages and the surrounding hilltops and ravines with machine-gun fire and missiles, while coming under heavy ground fire from the Resistance anti-aircraft units.
The attack came in the wake of a number of western media reports about new strategic, operational and tactical initiatives adopted recently by the Israeli occupation forces designed to make the occupied zone impregnable and difficult to penetrate. With its remarkable valour and well-planned action, the Resistance shattered these haughty pretensions to omnipotence.
For instance, the confrontations refuted the Israeli commanders’ claims of precision and speed of coordination between its ground and air forces. Heavy and precise shelling by the Resistance artillery delayed the Israelis’ effort to evacuate their casualties. The Resistance anti-tank units also immobilized Israeli tanks, thus preventing them from taking part in the fighting. And, when Israeli helicopters intervened some 45 minutes after the clashes had started they were confronted with heavy anti-aircraft fire.
Muslimedia: July 16-31, 1998