Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

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34 days of war for 4 men: Who are they?

By Rym Ghazal :: Daily Star staff :: Monday, September 11, 2006

BEIRUT: Almost a month has passed since the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon ended, and as life slowly returns to normal, many Lebanese are asking themselves: Who exactly was this war fought for?

“The whole world will not be able to retrieve the two captured Israeli soldiers except through indirect negotiations that would lead to a swap with our detainees in Israel,” declared Hizbullah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, on July 12, the day Hizbullah captured the Israeli soldiers.

For Hizbullah, four Lebanese prisoners and 45 bodies held by Israel were part of the motivation for the abduction of Israeli soldiers that marked the start of the 34-day war. The disputed Shebaa Farms and the maps of land mines left behind after Israel’s withdrawal from the South in 2000 were some of the other issues.

“Israel has never released a single Lebanese prisoner or returned a body out of the goodness of its heart,” said Sheikh Atallah Hammoud, the Hizbullah official overseeing the Lebanese prisoners issue.

Since its first invasion of South Lebanon in 1978, Israel has detained and held thousands of Lebanese in Israeli prisons or in detention camps in the then-occupied South such as Khiam, Ansar and Tel Nahas.

“Those released and returned have been due to Hizbullah’s efforts and negotiations,” said Hammoud.

In January 2004, Israel and Hizbullah conducted a historic prisoner swap mediated by Germany, in which Israel released more than 400 prisoners in exchange for the return of an Israeli colonel and businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, and the remains of three Israeli soldiers. Israel also turned over the bodies of 60 Lebanese fighters.

At the time, Hizbullah demanded the release of a Samir Qantar, Nassim Nasser and Yehya Skaff but Israel refused.

In July, two years later, Hizbullah made another attempt to pressure Israel for their release and the release of a fourth prisoner, Mohammad Farran. Hizbullah also wants the bodies of “45 Lebanese martyrs” to be returned to their families for burial in Lebanon.

Qantar, a native of Obey in the Chouf and the longest-held Lebanese detainee in Israeli prisons, is perhaps the best-known detainee.

He has spent 28 years in an Israeli prison after being given a jail sentence of 542 years by an Israeli court in 1980 for killing several Israelis in a raid on northern Israel.

During the operation, Qantar was hit by five bullets all over his body, as mentioned in one of his letters; both he and his partner in the operation, Ahmad al-Abrass, were captured by Israeli forces. Al-Abrass was released in the prisoner exchange of 2004. But the Israeli authorities held on to Qantar despite requests from Hizbullah officials to be included in the swap.

Qantar, unlike other detainees, continued to make headlines, with sudden TV appearances from within the Israeli prison, published letters or sporadic phone calls from Israel to his relatives in Lebanon.

Skaff, from Ilmeniyyeh in the north, has been detained since 1978 for an operation on the coastal road between Haifa and Tel Aviv. Israel has denied his presence, but according to Hizbullah several former Lebanese detainees claim to have seen him in prison.

Contrary to some media reports, Qantar and Skaff were not Hizbullah fighters, as their imprisonment predated the formation of Hizbullah in 1982. Both were members of Palestinian groups – Qantar with the Palestine Liberation Front and Skaff with Fatah.

Nasser is a Lebanese-born Jewish Israeli living in Holon. He was arrested in 2002 for spying for Hizbullah. According to various media reports, Nasser, whose late father was a Shiite (his mother is Jewish), had remained in close telephone contact with his brother in Lebanon since emigrating to Israel 10 years before his arrest.

According to the indictment, Nasser acquired a map designating the locations of gas depots and electrical power stations in Tel Aviv, which he also photographed on his own initiative. In addition, he relayed to his Hizbullah contact details of his conversation with an Israeli military officer.

Nasser, who confessed to most of the charges, was arrested before he could meet with a Hizbullah contact abroad to deliver the intelligence and receive payment of $1,000, according to Israel.

“Qantar is Druze, Skaff is Sunni and Nasser is Shiite,” said Hammoud. “The prisoners are from all slices of Lebanese life and yet the case gets no attention by any of the officials.”

Farran, the fourth detainee Hizbullah wants the Jewish state to free, is listed as missing by the Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture and other non-governmental organizations. At 21 years old, he made headlines due to his youth.

Farran was a fisherman in Tyre whose boat disappeared for 48 hours in October of 2005 after he went out to fish early in the morning.

Farran’s boat reappeared in Naqoura “with blood and bullet markings,” according to media reports.  The Lebanese government officially holds Israel responsible for the disappearance. According to Israeli media, Israeli forces opened fire when Farran’s unoccupied boat approached Israeli shores because they thought it might  be booby-trapped.

As for the 45 bodies, according to Hammoud, they are Lebanese martyrs who died fighting Israel between 1982 and 2004 and whose bodies were not returned for burial.

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