JERUSALEM (AFP) – Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has given Israel a photograph and poignant letter written by an airman missing for more than 20 years, as part of a rare prisoner swap, a newspaper said on Monday.
Ron Arad, a national hero in Israel who has never been officially declared dead, wrote the letter to his wife Tami in 1986, shortly after he was captured in Lebanon during the civil war after ejecting from his fighter-bomber.
Tami was given the letter at Israel’s defence ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv last week, along with a photograph of Arad, the existence of which was previously unknown, the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper said.
She authenticated the letter by her husband’s handwriting and its intimate endearments, the paper said.
The long letter detailed Arad’s deep love for his wife, their daughter, who was just a baby when he disappeared, and his family, causing Tami to break down in tears when she read it, Yediot Aharonot said.
The documents were the first news of the air force navigator since September 2006 when Lebanese and Israeli television broadcast footage dating back to 1988 of Arad identifying himself in captivity, and a still photograph.
Hezbollah handed over the letter and the corpse of an Israeli civilian in exchange for the bodies of two Hezbollah militants and a prisoner last Monday in the first such swap between the two enemies in nearly four years.
Hezbollah also gave Israel the introduction of a report about its fruitless efforts to find out what happened to Arad, Yediot Aharonot said.
The navigator has been missing since 1986. He is believed to have been captured by Shiite movement, Amal, headed by Nabih Berri who is now speaker of the Lebanese parliament.
Israel refuses to declare Arad officially dead. In January 2006, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said he was probably dead although he had no proof.
Israel engaged in lengthy negotiations for the release of Arad but contact was terminated when it bombed the south Lebanon village of Maydoun in 1996.
Amal security chief Mustafa Dirani, whom Israeli commandos kidnapped from southern Lebanon in 1994, was thought to have handed over Arad to Hezbollah who reportedy held him in the southern Bekaa Valley.
Israel has accused Hezbollah of handing him over to Iran, claims Tehran has long denied.
Israel released Dirani in January 2004 with hundreds of Palestinian and other Arab prisoners in an exchange with Hezbollah for kidnapped Israeli businessman Elchanan Tannenbaum and the remains of three Israeli soldiers.
Hezbollah also agreed to hand over information on Arad’s fate in exchange for freeing Lebanese Samir Kantar but the agreement was never finalised.
Kantar was sentenced to 542 years in jail in 1980 for an attack in northern Israel in which an Israeli scientist, his daughter and a policeman were killed.
The Arad family has established an association offering a 10 million dollar reward for information on the airman’s fate.