The old man couldn’t stop crying. ‘My boy is coming home today,’ he repeated. ‘I can’t believe it. It’s finally over.’
Behind him, a woman was holding a bouquet of flowers. ‘They’re for my husband,’ she said, trembling slightly. ‘We’re going to be a family again.’
All around me, men and women were sitting in chairs in the VIP lounge of Beirut airport. Teenagers who had never met their fathers chattered excitedly. It was a grand moment for the Lebanese: detainees in Israeli prisons were returning home.
Twenty-three men were about to be flown in – some after 16 years of imprisonment.
Many were fighters with the Hizbullah resistance group and were captured during military operations. Others were snatched from villages by the Israeli army during Israel’s 22-year-occupation of south Lebanon. In May 2000 the occupation ended and Lebanon expected the detainees to be returned. But Israel held on to them. Five months later, Hizbullah showed their hand. In a tit-for-tat game, they kidnapped three Israeli soldiers from the Lebanese- Israeli border and lured an Israeli entrepreneur right into their arms.
I’ll never forget the day. Anger was in the air as I and a visiting foreign journalist stumbled along the scene during a drive in south Lebanon. I stared in horror at the blood stains on the ground as two bodies were being carried away. Throngs of people were screaming around me. From their accents, I knew they were Palestinians. ‘The Israelis just killed two of our boys,’ yelled one woman when I inquired. ‘They shot them.’
The Palestinians were apparently holding a protest at the border when the two teenagers tried to climb over the border fence and were subsequently shot by the Israelis. I remember finding it odd. The protest was taking place in a rather incongruous area along the border. On the other side, two Israeli soldiers stood staring ahead, looking rather nervous. Suddenly, there were loud bangs everywhere – the unmistakable sounds of missiles and shells.
As the protesters sped off in their buses, we drove down along the border trying to follow the noise. We didn’t get very far. Hizbullah members stopped us and shepherded us into one of their homes. The shelling seemed endless. Suddenly all was quiet and we were sent on our way back to Beirut.
And then the news came: Hizbullah had kidnapped three Israeli soldiers from the border. The Palestinian protest had very likely been a decoy.
By the amount of blood on the ground, it was doubtful that the soldiers had been taken alive. Still, their families demanded the Israeli Government take action to get the information.
In the next few days, hopes were high among the families of the Lebanese detainees.
‘My husband is sure to come home soon,’ said Zeinab Dirani, the wife of Mustafa Dirani, who was kidnapped from their family home by Israeli commandos in 1994. She and her five children – the youngest was only three months old when her father was kidnapped – could barely contain their excitement.
It took, however, three years of painstaking on-off talks between the two bitter enemies. Finally, through German mediation, a two-phase deal was reached. In the first phase the Israeli entrepreneur and the three soldiers – who were announced dead by Hizbullah – would be exchanged for 23 Lebanese detainees, the bodies of 59 resistance fighters, 12 Arabs and 400 Palestinian prisoners. The next morning the Red Cross brought the bodies on to Lebanese soil.
While the move angered many Israelis who perceive Hizbullah as a terrorist organization, to others it was a signal that Israel attaches great moral importance to getting its people back.
As the plane carrying the former detainees landed in Beirut airport, relatives screamed and cried as they recognized their loved ones.
Slowly the elderly man approached his son and clung tightly to him. ‘I can’t believe I am still alive to see him come home,’ he said, as his tears flowed.
I watched as another man, in his fifties, stared at his wife and son in silence. Without a word, he fell into their arms.
The saga is almost over. But one Lebanese and one Israeli family are still waiting for their loved ones. Samir Qantar, a Lebanese, is still in an Israeli prison after 24 years. The fate of an Israeli flier who disappeared after his plane crashed over Lebanon in 1986 remains unknown.
The families are demanding closure – another step to resolve before the two countries can ever find common ground and, some day, start a process of peace.