Bodies of Israeli MIAs are returned in Hezbollah deal

JERUSALEM (JTA) — A decade of uncertainty and anguish for two Israeli families came to an end this week with the arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport of two metal coffins containing the bodies of Israeli soldiers Yosef Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh.

Fink and Alsheikh were taken captive in Lebanon in 1986, when Hezbollah gunmen ambushed a convoy of the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army that the two were escorting inside the security zone.

They were officially declared dead five years later, but their remains were only returned to Israel this week as part of an exchange of prisoners and bodies that was mediated by Germany.

Sunday's exchange raised hopes of a possible agreement between Israel and Lebanon for halting Hezbollah hostilities in what is the Jewish state's sole active war front.

And hopes also surfaced that the long-missing airman, Ron Arad, would be returned to Israel — alive.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he did not believe that the exchange indicated a shift in the policies of Hezbollah, which has been waging an armed conflict against Israeli and SLA forces in the southern Lebanon security zone.

"If there is such a change, we welcome it," Netanyahu told a news conference after the exchange took place.

Netanyahu added that Israel did not intend in the meantime to withdraw its troops from the security zone.

In return for the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers, Israel exhumed and returned to Lebanon the remains of 120 Hezbollah fighters killed in clashes with the Israel Defense Force in the security zone.

And in the second part of the exchange, Hezbollah freed 17 SLA soldiers it was holding in exchange for the release of 45 Shi'ite prisoners held in southern Lebanon by the SLA.

Netanyahu said he had no new information regarding four other missing Israeli soldiers: Arad, the air force navigator shot over Lebanon in 1986; and Zechariah Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, who were taken prisoner during the 1982 Operation Peace for Galilee.

Only Arad is believed to be still alive. In a surprise announcement, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said this week that his organization would not withhold any information it received on Arad, and added he had promised Germany to help locate him in exchange for prisoners.

"What happened Monday was not the end. The road is long," Nasrallah said.

Nasrallah also made the unlikely claim that Arad had disappeared from captivity shortly after he was captured in south Lebanon and Hezbollah did not know where he was even now.

Meanwhile, the German official who helped broker the prisoner swap, Bernd Schmibauer, was quoted by Reuters as saying that he has "tentative indications" that Arad remains alive.

On Monday the two Israeli soldiers were laid to rest. Fink was buried in his hometown of Ra'anana, while Alsheikh was buried at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.

"We're pleased, in a way, that it's over," said Yosef Fink's mother, Hadassah Fink. "But we're also terribly sad, because it feels so final."

Not knowing her son's burial place held a special kind of pain for Fink. Her father, Yosef (after whom she named her son), a successful businessman, disappeared from Budapest in 1945. Half a century later, the family still does not know what happened to him.

"We named our son after him, because we thought the name would bring him luck," Fink explained. "We were devastated when it looked like the two of them would share the same fate."

In eulogizing Fink and Alsheikh at Fink's funeral, Netanyahu was quoted by Reuters as saying that "thanks to them, we exist."