Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Families of jailed Lebanese feel Israeli woman's pain

Families of jailed Lebanese feel Israeli woman's pain
But relatives of detainees in Israel urge wife of captured soldier to pressure her own government for prisoner exchange

By Nour Samaha
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: On September 16, 1987, Anwar Yassin, who was then only 19 years old and a member of the National Lebanese Resistance Front, was captured by the Israeli Army during a commando operation in the area of Jabal al-Sheikh. He then spent the next 17 years in Israeli detention, enduring hours of torture and having limited contact with his family in Lebanon, until 2004 when Hizbullah was able to secure his release through third-party negotiations. Bassam Kantar, the younger brother of the longest-serving Lebanese detainee in an Israeli prison, Samir Kantar, was only one year old when his brother was captured in 1979. Bassam has spent the majority of his life tirelessly campaigning for the release of his brother, who is still being held in Israel after 28 years. Omran Nisr, brother of Nassim Nisr, a Lebanese Jew with family in Israel who was captured by the Israelis in the 1980s, still hopes for the release of his brother more than two decades on. These are just three of many Lebanese who are forced to deal on a daily basis with their loved ones being held by Israel, with no guarantee of their release. Most have been appealing for months or years for the release of their loved ones, through coordination with Hizbullah (the Lebanese government does not deal with the matter of prisoner exchanges with Israel). Hizbullah deals with every case, regardless of religion or party membership. Yassin, for example, is a communist, not a Hizbullah member. Officially there are eight Lebanese being held in Israeli prisons, four of whom were captured during the summer 2006 war. Many more Lebanese disappeared during the 1982 Israeli invasion, arousing suspicion that they are being held in Israel.

Recently, Karnit Goldwasser, the wife of Ehud Goldwasser, one of the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hizbullah last July - an event that triggered the 34-day war with Israel in 2006 - made an appeal to the families of Lebanese detainees in Israeli prisons. She said she hopes that the latest appeal will pressure Hizbullah to release the Israeli soldiers. She asked for Lebanese women to "combine forces and to bring back their beloved ones and our beloved ones," but has not yet had any response from this side. "We are calling them whenever we can to meet us," she added.

But the families of Lebanese jailed in Israel remain skeptical toward her plea. "This is not her first appeal. It is the latest of many, prior ones having been made to state heads around the world, religious figures, and to me personally as the brother of Samir," Kantar told The Daily Star. "She should focus her efforts on pressuring the Israeli government, rather than turning to us." "Also, her appeal is contradictory; she is appealing for the families on both sides to work together, yet her government is asking for the unconditional release of the soldiers," he added. Yassin, a soft-spoken man with a melodic tone and a mixed Lebanese-Palestinian accent (picked up as a result of his time spent in Israeli prisons), agreed with Kantar. "She should turn to Israeli society first in order to pressure their government to make more of an effort," he said. He explained that the while he does feel her pain and understands the anguish she is going through, the suffering for many Lebanese goes much further back than last year's war. "We have been suffering for 28 years. We did not take the initiative to start the war, and she needs to understand that the reason for all this is because they were imprisoning our people and occupying our land. Losses were incurred on both sides, including the capture of her husband," Yassin said.

The Khiam Center for Rehabilitation specializes in dealing with the cases and the families of the detainees held in Israel. This includes international and local lobbying, social work and most importantly, psychological therapy. Mohammad Safa, the center's president, explained that on a practical level, it would be impossible to "combine forces" between the Lebanese and the Israelis families of detainees. "Technically we are two countries still at war, so any contact between the two sides is strictly forbidden," he explained. "We do feel for the families of the two kidnapped soldiers, but this is the responsibility of the Israeli government, which forced Hizbullah to take such actions. She needs to pressure her government to secure the release of the soldiers." This position was also echoed by Nisr, who spoke to The Daily Star on behalf of his entire family. "The Israeli families need to focus on exerting pressure on their own government, rather than looking at us to help them." According to Kantar, the process is not so straightforward. The Israeli government has more at stake than the Lebanese. There are the issues of Hamas' conditions of releasing its captured Israeli soldier, and the success of Hizbullah following the summer war. "The Israeli government wants to know the 'price' of release [which is more if the soldier is still alive] from Hamas first before dealing with Lebanon. Hamas, unlike previous Palestinian leaders, are specific about which prisoners they want released." He explained that in the past Israel used to release prisoners who were either criminals or had extremely light sentences, but this time Hamas is asking for the release of prisoners who have been in jail for over 15 years. "Furthermore, the [2006] war was a big victory for Hizbullah, and Israel doesn't want to add any more to their success by releasing the Lebanese detainees, so at the moment they're biding their time and watching the Lebanese political situation unfold," Kantar said. In his opinion, Goldwasser's latest appeal was more of an effort to waste time than to establish anything concrete.
Yassin said that ultimately, the appeal is an attempt to pull the heart strings of the women in Lebanon: "650,000 Palestinian prisoners have passed through Israeli prisons over the years, of which 10,000 are still in jail. Their mothers have been calling for their release and they are not heard. Now, one Israeli woman, because she is Israeli, is calling out and everyone is listening to her. I think all the Arab mothers, wives and sisters heard her call and feel for her, but has she heard them for the last 50 years?" - Additional reporting by Samer Arzouni

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