Israeli commandos, in a daring raid into Lebanon, on Friday abducted a leader of the militant Hezbollah militia and returned him to Israel, prompting threats of retaliation from the Iranian-backed Shiite group.
The target of the raid, Sheik Abdel Kareem Obeid, a Muslim clergyman, “was known as a preacher and instigator in carrying out attacks against Israel,” the Israeli army said.
Obeid’s cousin, Ahmad Obeid, and a villager, Hashem Fahes, also were seized. An army spokesman, Col. Ranaan Gissin, said in revealing the raid that all are “safely in Israeli hands and undergoing questioning.”
Early Friday, 25 Israeli helicopter-borne commandos landed near the village of Jibchit, about 10 miles north of the Israeli border. Obeid, 36, is both a spiritual leader and political chief in the militant Shiite village.
Equipped With Silencers
Under the cover of a mock jet attack, the Israelis broke into Obeid’s house. They carried weapons fitted with silencers.
“They stormed our house and pointed a gun at me and my mother and tied us up. Then they blindfolded my father and the two others and took them away,” Saged, one of Obeid’s five children, was quoted as saying.
A villager, alternately described as a neighbor of Obeid or one of his guards, was shot and killed when he looked out his door to see what was going on.
All of the commandos returned safely to Israel.
In Beirut, Hezbollah spiritual leader Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah urged Muslims to “stand up to their responsibilities to confront the Israeli crime” and to “let out their anger until Obeid is released safely.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the action in a statement. “This shameless act by the Zionist regime will not remain unanswered by the Muslim and combatant forces.”
Hezbollah, or Party of God, is reported to hold several foreign hostages, including at least two Israeli soldiers and an American Marine, Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, who was abducted in February, 1988, while on a mission for U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon.
Israeli government radio conjectured that the abduction Friday was aimed at setting up a prisoner exchange between the Israeli army and Hezbollah. Army spokesman Gissin fueled the speculation, saying: “Clearly, when you capture one of their top leaders, it can deter terrorism, and you also have a certain amount of leverage in your hands.”
Israeli military sources added that the seizure also was designed to convince the authors of attacks on Israel’s border area that they are not secure even in their personal strongholds inside Lebanon.
Given Hezbollah’s ground capabilities, direct attacks on Israel’s border would be difficult, Israeli experts said. First of all, Hezbollah’s forces are removed from southern Lebanon, where Israel maintains a security buffer manned by a client Christian militia. In recent months, Hezbollah militias have limited themselves to launching wild rocket barrages into the Israeli-controlled zone. None of the rockets reached Israel itself.
However, Hezbollah’s control over hostages gave rise to worry about their safety. In all, 15 Western hostages, including nine Americans, are in the hands of various Lebanese armed factions.
Also, two Israeli soldiers, Rahamim Alsheikh and Yossi Fink, were captured in 1986, when guerrillas ambushed their patrol in the southern Lebanon security zone. Israeli officials said they believe Hezbollah captured the pair.
A third Israeli, air force navigator Ron Arad, was captured by a Shiite militia later that year after his plane was shot down over Lebanon. It is not clear which Muslim group holds Arad.
Reports from Lebanon said Higgins, of Danville, Ky., was held at Obeid’s apartment for a brief time after his capture. The Oppressed of the Earth, a group believed to be linked with Hezbollah, later took Higgins to another hiding place.
In Washington, President Bush said he did not know if the incident would help Higgins or the eight other American hostages. In what appeared to be a veiled criticism of the action, he said, “I don’t think kidnaping and violence help the cause of peace.”
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said that “the United States was not consulted or involved” in the Israeli operation. She added, “We are still seeking details.”
Tutwiler said the Bush Administration “assumes” that there is no connection between the Israeli action and U.S. hostages in Lebanon. She reiterated Washington’s frequently stated demand that the hostages be released unconditionally.
The British government condemned the seizure of Obeid and called for his release. Several Britons are held hostage in Lebanon; one, Terry Waite, special envoy of the archbishop of Canterbury, was kidnaped in January, 1987, while on a mission to free other hostages.
The Obeid abduction was the second attempt to seize an anti-Israeli Arab militant in recent months. Last December, Israel dropped paratroopers a few miles south of Beirut and attacked a Palestinian base. They apparently planned to capture Ahmed Jibril, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
On that foray, the raiders clashed with Jibril’s guerrillas and were beaten back before they could reach his headquarters inside a tunnel dug in rock.
“We want to show we have a variety of means of getting at our attackers,” an Israeli military source said Friday.
Normally, Israel retaliates against assaults on its border with air or ground attacks meant to destroy militia bases and inflict casualties.
The clean finish to the abduction led observers to wonder how the commandos got into Jibchit unopposed.
The area around the village is controlled by Amal, a Shiite Muslim militia that has been fighting with Hezbollah for control of parts of southern Lebanon. Amal has long had an ambiguous relationship with Israel. Although Amal opposes the Israeli surrogate occupation in the far south, it also keeps other groups from using its territory to carry out raids on Israeli positions.
In Jibchit, Amal reportedly mobilized its militiamen to head off the abductors of Obeid, but they arrived late. Foreign observers in Lebanon said Amal had kept Obeid under house arrest for two months.
Amal and Hezbollah are divided over the tactic of kidnaping foreigners for use as a tool in Lebanon’s factional fighting. Amal, which has pressed for the Israelis to leave southern Lebanon, views the act as counterproductive. Hezbollah, which not only wants to drive Israel out but also to conquer historic Palestine, considers kidnaping a proper tool of pressure. Hezbollah is sponsored by Iran, while Amal is allied with Syria, adding a regional dimension to the local squabble.
Fierce fighting between them began last year after the kidnaping of Higgins. A recent truce between them has been tensely maintained.
Foreign observers in Lebanon said they are skeptical that Israel could hope to use Obeid as bait to bargain for the release of its soldiers or Higgins. They point out that Obeid is but one of many Muslim imams, or spiritual leaders, associated with Hezbollah.