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The ongoing search for missing-in-action Israeli pilot, Ron Arad

Author writes how Israel was abuzz with the gripping story this week of continued efforts to locate the long-lost pilot decades later

Missing Israeli Air Force officer Ron Arad, photographed by Amal militants in Lebanon in 1987 (Photo: Wikipedia)

The big news in Israel this week was not that of Facebook crashing, but rather the revelation of efforts to locate Ron Arad, a 28-year-old lieutenant-colonel in the Israeli Air Force who went missing in action in October 1986 when his plane crashed during a mission over Lebanon.

Arad is believed to be dead, however, there are conflicting reports as to when and how he died.

Arad and his pilot Yishai Aviram ejected from their plane, damaged when a bomb apparently exploded prematurely. Aviram was located and rescued a few hours later, but Arad was captured by the Lebanese Amal militia, and believed to have been turned over to Hezbollah.

In 1987, three handwritten letters and two photos of him with a beard surfaced, indicating that Arad was still alive. Since 1988, the trail following Arad became less clear. Some believe that he died in captivity then. Others have speculated his death followed an escape attempt or that he may have died in the 1990s. There’s wide belief that he was sent to Iran at some point (and then returned to Lebanon) for further interrogation and torture.

Over the years, there have been many efforts made to locate and even negotiate the return of, presumably, his corpse. Most of these efforts have been effort and not reported in the media, or at least not until years later. These iefforts ncluded the capture of Hezbollah members and an offer of a $10 million reward. In 2003, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon indicated that an Israeli was killed looking for Arad.

This week, news surfaced – and Israel became abuzz – when during the opening of the Knesset winter session, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a short and vague statement about Arad. Bennett announced that there was an operation last month, involving male and female Mossad agents, to discover what happened to Arad, stating “it was a complex, widescale operation. That’s all that can be said right now.”

Speculation initially was that the prime minister was trying to score political points, and was criticized for revealing something that had just taken place, but was presumably unsuccessful. The last time speculation of the repatriation of an IDF soldier’s remains involved Zechariah Baumel who was killed in a battle in 1982 and who, with the help of Russia, was brought home for burial in 2019.

Since Bennett’s announcement, speculation as to why it was made has shifted from that of a novice prime minister trying to score points, to something that’s part of a wider operation. Often, sources in Israel leak information to foreign media because there’s typically a ban on Israeli news outlets publishing details on military and intelligence operations here. Then, Israeli media is free to quote “foreign sources” in reporting the details, even if they are unclear.

One report quoted Mossad Director David Barnea calling the operation courageous, daring and complex, but nonetheless a failure. The next day, the same source reported that Barnea actually asked Bennett to reveal the operation and that he had sent a letter to the Mossad staff calling the operation a major success.

One Israeli daily quoted an anonymous “senior intelligence source” stating that “the Mossad achieved its mission.” Another quoted a “senior intelligence source” which called it “one of the most important and successful operations to bring quality information about Arad.”

Later, whether spin or following a crafted plan, the Prime Minister’s Office called it a “successful operation carried out while meeting exceptional operational objectives.” It seems that Bennett was, and is, part of the operation. It’s noteworthy that at the time of Arad’s abduction, Bennett – who served in an elite commando unit – was 14 years old. This underscores that even decades later, Israel will spare no effort to locate and bring home even deceased soldiers.

Adding to the intrigue, a London-based Arab source, Rai al-Youm, reported that the Mossad abducted an Iranian general in Syria last month. According to this source, the general was taken to an unnamed African country, interrogated and then released. Because it’s likely that the Iranians had a hand in, and even fingerprints on, Arad’s interrogation and disappearance, the Mossad’s ongoing intelligence knew who was involved and followed them, leading to this alleged abduction.

Suggestions have been made that Bennett’s announcement was to get ahead of the inevitable leak of the presumed abduction of the Iranian general, to make it clear that Israel captured and released the man in a calculated and deliberate manner, not that he escaped. During this time when Israel remains concerned about Iranian plans to build a nuclear weapon, this also underscores that Israel has her eyes on everything, even decades later, and is able to act.

Another related report adding to the intrigue suggests that the operation was indeed a success. According to the Saudi media site Al-Arabiya, the Mossad extracted DNA from a corpse that was buried in Lebanon to test if it was Arad’s remains.

In 2006, Hezbollah’s terrorist leader Hassan Nasrallah alleged that Arad was dead and his burial site unknown. In 2008, German negotiator Gerhard Konrad told Israel that Hezbollah said Arad died during a 1988 escape attempt. At some point in a Lebanese court, a man named Moufeed Kuntar, testified supposedly with first-hand knowledge that Arad died in 1988 “under torture.” Kuntar and four others were accused of having contact with Israeli intelligence and providing Israel with information on Arad, including efforts to ransom one of his bones.

As part of a Lebanese militia group, Kuntar claimed that in 1988 they questioned a prisoner who was later found dead, and only after his death that they learned he was Arad. “Of course, he passed away due to exhaustion and of course he was subject to beatings and torture as that is how interrogations happen," Kuntar testified.

In October 2016, reports revealed that a joint investigation between the Mossad and IDF Military Intelligence, concluded that Arad had died in 1988.

It may take some time before there is anything conclusive on finding and bringing home Ron Arad’s remains. The speculations, who is reporting them and all the questions they raise are fascinating. This news report also fuels imagination about Israel’s reach into Lebanon, Syria and Iran where Israeli agents have clearly been operating for some time. It will make the Iranians and their terrorist allies look over their shoulders just a bit more.

But, most importantly, it will hopefully lead to Israel bringing Ron Arad home soon.

Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six. Throughout his life and career, he has become a respected bridge between Jews and Christians and serves as president of the Genesis 123 Foundation. He writes regularly on major Christian websites about Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. He is host of the popular Inspiration from Zion podcast. He can be reached at [email protected].

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