Robert Fisk: The problem with Israel’s hostage swap strategy
Al-Jazeera — much praised by the now-dying US administration until it started reporting the truth about the American occupation of Iraq — is back in hot water. And not, I fear, without reason.
For on 19 July, its Beirut bureau staged a birthday party for Samir Kantar, newly released from Israel's prisons in return for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. “Brother Samir, we would like to celebrate your birthday with you,” allegedly gushed al-Jazeera's man in Beirut. “You deserve even more than this... Happy Birthday, Brother Samir.”
The problem, of course, was that “Brother Samir” had been convicted in Israel for the 1979 killing of an Israeli father and his daughter. The Israelis claim he smashed in the head of the four-year-old with a rifle. Kantar denies this, though he does not deny that another child, this time two years old, was accidentally asphyxiated by its mother when she was trying to avoid giving away their hiding place. Kantar received a conviction of 542 years — long, even by Israel's standards — and had been locked up for 28 years when he was swapped along with other prisoners for the bodies of the dead soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, whose capture started the 2006 Lebanon war.
Kantar received a hero's welcome home from Hizbollah, even though Hizbollah did not exist when he was convicted, and was received by virtually the entire Lebanese government. I reported this whole miserable affair and referred to the cabinet in Beirut “grovelling to this man”. Al-Jazeera has now done a little grovelling of its own. But this has been accompanied by an extraordinary article in the American and Canadian press by Judea Pearl, attacking Kantar's reception in Lebanon and al-Jazeera's treatment of the man, announcing that Kantar's royal procession in Lebanon had brought “barbarism back to the public square”.
Professor Pearl, who teaches at UCLA, is the father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent butchered by Islamists in Karachi. They cut off his head. And only someone with a heart of stone could read Judea Pearl's words without being moved. Here, after all, is another father grieving for a cruelly murdered child. Not long before he died, Daniel Pearl had shown great kindness to me after I was badly beaten on the Afghan border. He shared all the numbers in his contacts book with me while he and his wife made me tea and cookies in Peshawar. After his abduction, I wrote an open letter to Osama bin Laden (whom I knew), pleading for his release. I was too late. Daniel had already been murdered.
Judea Pearl runs a foundation named after his son and dedicated to dialogue and understanding. I will not go on about a vindictive letter he wrote about me before his son was abducted, in which he claimed I “drooled venom” and was “a professional hate pedlar”.
This, of course, is the kind of incendiary stuff that produces a deluge of crude hate mail. But whatever his feelings about me now, Judea Pearl has a point.
Yet he wants al-Jazeera to apologise formally for that infamous party which has, he writes, robbed journalism of its “nobleness” and “relegitimized barbarism”. It seems the narrative is being cut off and rewritten. For if Kantar represents barbarism, why on earth did Israel release him?
Indeed, Israel released Kantar and other prisoners and 200 corpses of dead Hizbollah and Palestinian fighters at the demand of the Hizbollah militia. And when you get into the bodies game — swapping long-held prisoners for corpses — then the prisoners are going to be greeted when they are freed, whether we like it or not. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, suggested there was something noble about the prisoner exchange because it showed Israel cared for the return of its missing soldiers, alive or dead.
The truth is that Israel uses these men as hostages — the American press employ the weasel words “bargaining chips” — and if you're going to get into the grisly game of body swapping, then the result is Samir Kantar parading around Lebanon and celebrating his birthday on al-Jazeera. That doesn't justify the pathetic performance of the Lebanese government. It certainly does show the power of Hizbollah. But it shows even more clearly that, despite all Israel's huffing and puffing about “never dealing with terrorists”, this is exactly what it does. It's very easy to kick al-Jazeera, and not without reason. But the story didn't start there. And it hasn't ended yet.