Prisoner swap talks test families

Zaynab Dirani is fighting mixed emotions – feeling cautiously optimistic, yet braced for more disappointment.

Detainees Shaikh Abd al-Karim Ubaid (L) and Mustafa Dirani
Detainees Shaikh Abd al-Karim Ubaid (L) and Mustafa Dirani

The wife of Mustafa Dirani, a Hizb Allah leader and one of Israel’s most prominent detainees, she is weighing the latest media reports that the Lebanese resistance group and Israel are making progress in their prisoner swap talks.

A mother of five, Zaynab feels renewed hope that her husband may be released – and concern that her children’s expectations will again be let down.

“I always try to tell my children that maybe, just maybe, at the last minute some unforeseen obstacle might catch us by surprise, so we must always be aware of this and be prepared,” said Zaynab.

Israel holds 19 Lebanese detainees, many without trial or charge. The most prominent captives are Hizb Allah leaders Shaikh Abd al-Karim Ubaid and Dirani, who were kidnapped from Lebanon in 1989 and 1994 respectively.

Dirani and Ubaid are being held as bargaining chips in exchange for information on Israeli air navigator Ron Arad, whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

The two Lebanese are among hundreds of Arab and Palestinian prisoners nominated for release by Israel in exchange for three Israeli soldiers, whom Hizb Allah captured in October 2000 from the Israeli-occupied Shibaa Farms district.

Weeks later, the group also seized Israeli reserve colonel Elhanan Tannenbaum, who Hizb Allah says is a Mossad agent. Israel insists he is a businessman. 

In recent weeks, both sides have described prisoner exchange talks as some of their most positive since 2000.

“Maybe a swap will not occur but maybe it will. That’s why we’re not making preparations. We’re waiting. We’re living in an atmosphere that’s partly happy but also partly prepared for a less than pleasant event. It’s very stressful,” said Zaynab. 

There is a difference between being the mother of a person who is a resistance fighter, defending his occupied land, his honour and dignity, and the mother of a son whose boy was occupying another land and killing its inhabitants”

Zaynab al-Dirani,
wife of Hizb Allah detainee

Nevertheless, she is hopeful that negotiations will yield results.

Although Zaynab recalls many failed attempts to resolve the detainee issue, she believes “this time it’s different” because her husband’s fate has been severed from Arad’s.

Previous negotiations have linked Ubaid and Dirani’s possible release with information about Arad.

Israel claims the Faithful Resistance, an armed offshoot of the Amal movement, of which Dirani was a key guerrilla leader before he joined Hizb Allah, captured Arad after he was shot down and eventually handed the Israeli over to Iran.

Different views

Arad has not been included in the possible swap with Hizb Allah because the group says it does not have him. The navigator’s family recently started a campaign to prevent Israel from including Dirani in the deal unless new information about Arad surfaced.

Zaynab said she was unfazed by their efforts.

“Before, there was one view in the Israeli government with regard to Ron Arad but this time there are other voices being heard.

“Just as Arad’s family are trying to place obstacles in the path of a deal, there are others who are seeking to remove them. We think this is a positive development,” she said.


Ron Arad, missingIsraeli navigator

Ron Arad, missing
Israeli navigator

Sajid Ubaid, Abd al-Karim Ubaid’s eldest son, is also hopeful but for different reasons.

Sajid said Israel took seriously Hizb Allah Secretary General Sayyid Hasan Nasr Allah’s July warnings about capturing more Israeli soldiers if talks did not move forward .

Nasr Allah’s speech “guaranteed the release of the detainees”, said Sajid, adding the prisoners would have to be released eventually. 

Bargaining chips 

Sajid was only seven when his father was snatched from his bed in the early morning hours. The 21-year-old, who bears a striking resemblance to his father, said he was “very happy when the Israelis were captured” by Hizb Allah, because he felt that this was the only way to secure his father’s freedom.

The first glimpse the Ubaid family received of their father  was in 1992, on Israeli television. They heard nothing else about him for four years.

Both the Dirani and Ubaid families and their supporters petitioned international humanitarian and human rights agencies for years for news of their loved ones and for help to secure their release.

Their efforts, however, were futile. For years, aide groups were not allowed to see the detainees.

Nasr Allah threatened to capturemore Israeli soldiers

Nasr Allah threatened to capture
more Israeli soldiers

According to Zaynab, it was only in 2002 that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was permitted to visit Dirani.

After years of trying, Zaynab said, “it became clear that humanitarian gestures were of no value to the Israelis.

“The only thing they value and respond to is strength and resistance. That’s why we thought that unless the resistance had something of value that Israel will try to get back, there’s no way the detainees will be released,” she explained.

The other side

Although they felt the absence of their loved ones keenly, Sajid and Zaynab have little sympathy for the families of the Israeli captives.

“There is a difference between being the mother of a person who is a resistance fighter, defending his occupied land, his honour and dignity, and the mother of a son whose boy was occupying another land and killing its inhabitants,” said Zaynab.

The Israeli soldiers were part of an occupying force, she added, saying, “Occupiers come to kill and destroy”.

Sajid echoed those sentiments, pointing out that Arad went missing during an attack against Lebanese territory whereas his father was snatched from his home.


The Ubaid and Dirani families are hopeful that their ordeal is almost over.

Hizb Allah ousted Israeli soldiers from south Lebanon in May 2000 following a 22-year occupation. Washington includes the group on a list of “terrorist” organisations.

“We cannot imagine how we’ll receive him … We consider the release of the prisoners as part of the liberation of our country,” said Zaynab.

Zaynab said she was concerned about how her husband would readjust to being back in a family environment.

“He will find the children much changed,” she said. “The youngest was two and the eldest nine. Now they’re 12 and 19. He did not experience their childhood and they were deprived of a father’s love during this period.”

The children also wonder what their father will be like, whether they will be able to talk to him and joke around, she added. These are all questions she cannot answer.

Sajid said he often wondered about what his first words to his father would be. But he was sure that he would feel “more than love”.

His sister Mujahida, 14, was just three months old when their father was captured and Sajid speculated about their first meeting. 

“I can’t picture it in my mind because I think it will be a meeting between two hearts,” he said. “I’ll leave the hearts to speak to each other.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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