Hijack Crisis Straining U.S.-Israeli Relations
An apparent public discrepancy over whether Washington has asked the International Red Cross to help mediate an end to the TWA hostage crisis was one of several signs here Tuesday that the four-day-old drama is putting a strain on Israeli-American relations.
In Washington, White House spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters that the Administration has not asked the relief agency to discuss with Israeli officials the TWA hijackers’ demand that Israel free 766 mostly Shia Muslim prisoners held here since last April.
During a tour north of Tel Aviv, though, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said: “As of now, the Americans have approached us and told us that it is possible that the Red Cross will approach us. . . . If the Red Cross approaches us, we will receive them. We will hear what they have to say.”
In a later clarification issued by his office, Peres was quoted as adding that such a meeting would only be “out of courtesy” and that Israel “has no intention whatsoever to negotiate” with the agency over the fate of the prisoners.
In a statement released in Geneva, meanwhile, the Red Cross said that while it is willing to organize a prisoner exchange, it will not act as a mediator to negotiate a swap for the American hostages.
Both Israel and the United States have insisted publicly that they will not negotiate under pressure from terrorists as a matter of principle. However, behind the scenes both are reportedly trying to reach a face-saving agreement that would mean freedom for the approximately 40 Americans held by the hijackers and for the 766 prisoners held in Israel.
Israel has said it would consider releasing the detainees only if asked to do so by American leaders at a “senior level.”
President Reagan at his press conference Tuesday in Washington reiterated that the United States would make no deals with the terrorists nor ask any other nation to make one on its behalf.
Peres confirmed Tuesday that “no request has been made by the American government for Israel to do anything or declare anything” despite Israel’s expressed willingness “to help with whatever it can.” Speakes said publicly for the first time Tuesday that the United States wants Israel to release the 766 prisoners, but only after the American hostages are released.
Several Washington-based Israeli reporters quoted U.S. officials Tuesday as saying privately that they are not satisfied with Israel’s response to the hijacking.
The Jerusalem Post reported that State Department officials are “hinting broadly that Israel should release the Shiites even without a formal U. S. request.” Israeli officials have insisted on a public U.S. request to help defuse anticipated domestic criticism of any prisoner release, which would follow closely on the heels of a widely criticized exchange late last month when Israel turned over 1,150 convicted terrorists for three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon.
Similarly, some Israelis are starting to grumble about Washington’s handling of the incident. The country’s largest-circulation newspaper, the independent Yediot Aharonot, editorialized Tuesday:
“The U.S. is pinning all its hopes on little Israel to rescue her. If the United States took some action and asked us for assistance--that would be one thing. But to shirk all responsibility and to quiver through and through in hiding while uttering a silent prayer to Israel to bear the entire burden of rescuing the Americans--this is going too far, it would seem.”
Ironically, the 766 prisoners whose freedom is demanded by the Arab hijackers were scheduled to be released soon anyway, according to Israeli officials.
They are the last of almost 1,200 captives who were transferred to Israel’s Atlit prison, south of Haifa, from a camp at Ansar, in southern Lebanon, on April 2. More than 400 of those prisoners have been freed in two separate releases since then.
Most of the remaining 766 were arrested earlier this year during Israeli raids on southern Lebanese villages whose residents were suspected of participating in guerrilla attacks on Israeli troops.
None of the detainees has been charged with any crime and Israel has said from the beginning that they would be released as the security situation in southern Lebanon permitted. Israeli officials said they were moved into Israel only because the rapid pace of the withdrawal left no time to build a new detention facility in Lebanon to replace Ansar, which was in an area then being evacuated.
The Red Cross protested the cross-border transfer at the time, saying it violated Articles 49 and 76 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which prohibit the forcible transfer of civilians from their own country to the territory of an occupying power. The State Department also objected.
Israeli officials argued that the transfer was legal under a loophole that implicitly permits civilian prisoners to be moved across borders when it is necessary for their own safety.