Atlit prison in Israel has now been cleared of the last of the more than 1,100 Arab captives from Lebanon who had been held there since spring. The freed prisoners, including both Lebanese and Palestinians of military age, had been relocated from a prison camp in southern Lebanon as the Israeli army concluded its three bitter and costly years of occupation. That cross-border transfer, as U.S. and Israeli legal experts both noted, violated international law on the treatment of prisoners. With the release of the remaining captives, another sordid chapter of Israel’s dismal misadventure in Lebanon has been closed.
None of the prisoners held in Atlit had ever been convicted of a crime against Israel. None had even been charged. The men were initially held in preventive detention, because it was suspected that they had engaged, or at some point might engage, in hostilities against the Israeli occupation army. This was enough, in official Israeli eyes, to condemn the men as “terrorists.” Yet no evidence was ever offered that the seized men had planned or carried out the kind of activities that are commonly recognized as terrorist in nature.
From the beginning Israel’s intention was to release its prisoners “as the security situation in southern Lebanon” permitted. The Lebanese among the prisoners were Shia Muslims, whose militias had become the most active in fighting the Israeli occupation. The message from Israel was clear: If the militias left the departing Israeli forces alone, the captives would be set free in stages. The prisoners at Atlit, in other words, were hostages to the good behavior of their co-religionists in Lebanon.
They also became the excuse for the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 on June 19, which led to the brutal murder of an American serviceman. Quite possibly, given the intense anti-Americanism of the Iranian-aligned Lebanese Shias, the hijacking or something like it would have occurred anyway. The point is that the captives of Atlit provided a focus for terrorism. Those men should never have been brought to an Israeli prison. Their presence was one more blunder in a chain of disasters that the Lebanon invasion forged.