News in Israel this week has been about the vague announcement and gripping story of efforts to locate Ron Arad, an Israeli Air Force officer who has been missing in action since October 1986. Ron Arad was a 28-year-old Lieutenant Colonel whose plane crashed during a mission over Lebanon. It is believed he is dead, though there are conflicting reports as to when and how he died.
Arad and his pilot Yishai Aviram ejected from their plane, damaged when a bomb apparently exploded prematurely. Aviram was located and rescued a few hours later, but Arad was captured by the Lebanese Amal militia, and believed to have been turned over to Hezbollah.
In 1987, three handwritten letters and two photos of him with a beard surfaced, indicating that Arad was still alive. Since 1988, the trail following Arad became less clear. Some believe that he died in captivity then. Others have speculated his death followed an escape attempt then, or that he may have died in the 1990s. There’s wide belief that he was sent to Iran at some point (and then returned to Lebanon) for further interrogation/torture.
Over the years, there have been many efforts made to locate and even negotiate the return of, presumably, his corpse. Most of these have been covert and not reported upon, or at least not until years later. These included the capture of Hezbollah members, and an offer of a $10 million reward. In 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon indicated that an Israeli was killed looking for Arad.
This week, news surfaced, and Israel became abuzz, when during the opening of the Knesset winter session, Prime Minister Naftali Bennet made a short and vague statement about Arad. Bennett announced that there was an operation last month, involving male and female Mossad agents, to discover what happened to Arad, stating “it was a complex, widescale operation. That’s all that can be said right now.”
Speculation initially was that the Prime Minister was trying to score political points, and was criticized for revealing something that had just taken place, and was presumably a failure because it did not produce results. Last time speculation of the repatriation of an IDF soldier’s remains took place involved Zechariah Baumel who was killed in a battle in 1982 and who, with the help of Russia, was brought home for burial in 2019.
Since Bennet’s announcement, speculation as to why it was made has shifted from that of a novice Prime Minister trying to score points, to something that’s part of a wider operation. Often, sources in Israel leak information to media overseas because there’s typically a ban on Israeli media publishing details on Israel’s military and intelligence operations. Then, Israeli media is free to quote “foreign sources” in reporting the details, even if they are unclear.
One report quoted Mossad director David Barnea calling the operation courageous, daring, and complex, but nonetheless a failure. The next day, the same source reported that Barnea actually asked Bennett to reveal the operation, and that he had sent a letter to the Mossad staff calling the operation a major success.
One Israeli daily quoted an anonymous “senior intelligence source” stating that “the Mossad achieved its mission.” Another quoted another “senior intelligence source” and called it “one of the most important and successful operations to bring quality information about Arad.”
Later, whether spin or following a crafted plan, the prime minister’s office called it a “successful operation carried out while meeting exceptional operational objectives.” It seems less that Bennet was behaving as a novice to score points, and more that he was, and is, part of the operation. It’s noteworthy that at the time of Arad’s abduction, Bennet (whose military career was in an elite commando unit) was 14 years old. This underscores that even decades later, Israel will spare no effort to locate and bring home even dead soldiers.
Adding to the intrigue, a London-based Arabic source, Rai al-Youm, reported that the Mossad abducted an Iranian general in Syria last month. According to this source, the general was taken to an unnamed African country, interrogated, and then released. Because it’s likely that the Iranians had a hand in, and even fingerprints on, Arad’s interrogation and disappearance, the Mossad’s ongoing intelligence knew who was involved, and followed them, leading to this alleged abduction.
Suggestions have been made that Bennet’s announcement was to get ahead of the inevitable leak of the presumed abduction of the Iranian General, to make it clear that Israel captured and released the Iranian general, not that he escaped, in a calculated and deliberate manner. It also underscores, at a time that Israel remains concerned about Iranian plans to build a nuclear weapon, that Israel has eyes on everything, even over decades, and is able to act.
Another related report adds to the intrigue, suggesting that the operation was indeed a success. According to the Saudi media site al-Arabiya, the Mossad extracted DNA from a corpse that was buried in Lebanon, to test if it was Arad’s remains.
In 2006, Hezbollah’s terrorist leader Hassan Nasrallah alleged that Arad was dead and his burial site unknown. In 2008, German negotiator Gerhard Konrad told Israel that Hezbollah said Arad died during a 1988 escape attempt. At some point in a Lebanese court, a man named Moufeed Kuntar, testified with supposed first-hand knowledge that Arad died in 1988 "under torture." Kuntar and four others were accused of having contact with Israeli intelligence, and providing Israel with information on Arad, including efforts to ransom one of his bones.
As part of a Lebanese militia group, Kuntar claimed that in 1988 they questioned a prisoner who was later found dead, and only after his death that they learned he was Arad. "Of course, he passed away due to exhaustion and of course he was subject to beatings and torture as that is how interrogations happen," Kuntar testified.
In October 2016, reports revealed that a joint investigation between the Mossad and IDF Military Intelligence, concluded that Arad had died in 1988.
It may take some time before there’s anything conclusive on finding and bringing home Ron Arad’s remains. It’s fascinating what the speculations are, and who is reporting on it all, raising many more questions than answers. This will fuel imagination about Israel’s reach into Lebanon, Syria, and Iran where Israeli agents have clearly been operating for some time. It will make the Iranians and their terrorist allies look over their shoulders just a bit more. But hopefully, it will lead to Israel bringing Ron Arad home soon.