Reagan Warning: Hijackers, Beware : Israel May Free Shia Detainees --if U.S. Asks
In an effort to defuse possible criticism at home for capitulating to terrorists, Israeli officials Sunday sought an official American request to clear the way for the release of Lebanese detainees, as demanded by the hijackers holding a TWA airliner at Beirut airport.
Stung less than four weeks ago by a public outcry over their release of 1,150 captive terrorists in exchange for three Israeli prisoners of war, the officials were under enormous domestic pressure not to yield to demands that another 700 to 800 prisoners be freed.
Yet security sources said they fear the consequences on U.S. public opinion if the hijackers carry out a threat to kill about 30 American hostages from the hijacked jetliner.
Would Consider Request
Israeli Foreign Ministry officials have stressed since shortly after the hijack drama began on Friday that they have had no official request from the Reagan Administration that Israel meet the air pirates’ demands--a clear hint that such a request would be welcomed.
And Sunday night, a senior official who requested anonymity volunteered that while Israel “will not enter any negotiations, or exchange for the Lebanese detainees held in Israel, . . . if the U.S. government will turn at a senior level to the government of Israel, asking for the release of the Lebanese detainees for the hostages, the government of Israel will consider it.”
Israel television reported in a late newscast Sunday that an International Red Cross representative was en route to Israel, possibly to try to arrange a prisoner release at the behest of the United States.
In Washington, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said that President Reagan has reiterated his policy of refusing to yield to hijackers’ demands, but he stopped short of urging Israel to reject the Beirut air pirates’ offer to trade their hostages for Shia Muslims imprisoned by the Israelis.
Israeli leaders would not comment publicly on the hijacking drama Sunday, after Prime Minister Shimon Peres imposed a blackout on such statements.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin reported on the hijacking to government ministers at their regular Cabinet meeting, but the discussions were in the framework of the Committee for Security Affairs, whose deliberations are a state secret.
Meanwhile, security sources said that contingency plans are being reviewed to cover a number of potential turns in the crisis, including the possibility that the terrorists would order the plane into Israeli airspace on a last, desperate kamikaze mission.
On Feb. 21, 1973, Israeli Phantom jets shot down a Libyan Airlines jetliner with 113 passengers aboard because it was mistaken for a possible kamikaze attack, according to an Israeli security source familiar with the incident.
“We are watching every plane in the area to make sure nobody changes his route,” one defense source said Sunday.
In Constant Touch
Defense and Foreign Ministry sources said that Israeli and American officials are in constant touch over the hijackers’ demands for the release of Lebanese Shia Muslims held at Israel’s Atlit prison, south of Haifa.
The Shias are among nearly 1,200 detainees who were transferred to Atlit from Israel’s Ansar prison camp in southern Lebanon last April, when the camp was closed as part of Israel’s phased withdrawal to the international border.
The withdrawal from Lebanon was officially completed last week, although Israeli troops continue regular patrols in a narrow “security zone” extending up to 10 miles north of the frontier. Liaison officers are also stationed inside the security strip to aid an Israeli-financed and -equipped Lebanese militia known as the South Lebanon Army.
In addition to freedom for the imprisoned Shia Muslims, the hijackers have demanded that Israel pull the rest of its men completely out of Lebanon and abandon its support of the South Lebanon Army.
Shift an Expedient
When Israel originally shifted the Lebanese prisoners from Ansar to Atlit, it stressed that the move was only a temporary expedient, made necessary in part because the withdrawal was proceeding so fast there was no time to build alternate detention facilities in southern Lebanon.
Nearly 500 of the former Ansar inmates have already been released from Atlit, and earlier this month Israel was on the verge of turning loose an additional group of more than 300 when the release was suddenly postponed indefinitely for unspecified security reasons.
The fact that it supposedly planned to release the Shias soon anyway might appear to make it easy for Israel to accommodate the hijackers’ demands.
However, while they may have been willing to release them unilaterally, Israeli officials are loath to do so now lest they appear to be caving in to terrorist demands. This is a particularly sensitive issue because of the lopsided prisoner exchange late last month with the radical, Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
That exchange, in which three Israelis captured during the Lebanese war were traded for 1,150 people convicted of terrorist acts was almost universally criticized here.
“It is clear to everyone that the plane hijacking is a direct result of the encouragement the terrorists got from the last release,” asserted Noam Arnon, spokesman for the rightist Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) settlers organization. Speaking in an interview with Israel radio, Arnon added, “We call on the government to stop this erosion . . . and to prevent from now on any cooperation with any terrorist action at all.”
On Sunday night, tens of thousands of Israelis turned out for an anti-terrorism rally in Tel Aviv sponsored by Gush Emunim. The head of the settlers’ movement called on the government to re-arrest about 600 of the prisoners released in May in the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip.
Despite what security experts called growing sentiment in Israel against further capitulation to terrorist demands, many of the same experts added that if Washington were to ask the government to free Shia prisoners, it would be difficult to refuse.
“If they do ask it, it doesn’t seem that we have any moral grounds for refusing,” said Ariel Merari, an Israeli terrorism specialist.
As one source put it, refusal would open Israel to the charge that it considers the lives of three Israelis more important than those of the Americans still held hostage in Beirut.
However, a Foreign Ministry official rejected that view. The two situations are “completely different,” he said. “The prisoner exchange was a prisoner exchange. This is a negotiation being held at gunpoint.”
Another concern here was for the seven TWA passengers who were taken from the plane Friday and held separately at an undetermined location. Some of the group were reported to have “Jewish-sounding” surnames, and some Israelis fear that they might be the subject of a separate ransom demand.