Fragments of diary revive saga of missing Israeli airman

The mysterious fate of Ron Arad, the missing Israeli airman captured by Shia guerrillas 22 years ago, has been propelled back to the heart of public debate here ahead of this morning's prisoner swap at the Lebanese border.

The exchange, given final approval by a large majority of the Israeli cabinet yesterday, will see the return of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two soldiers-now presumed dead by the Israeli government, whose abduction by Hizbollah triggered the 2006 Lebanon war. In return, Israel will hand over five imprisoned Hizbollah militants, along with Samir Kuntar, the Lebanese infiltrator convicted for the notorious murder of four Israelis in 1979.

But as part of the German-brokered deal preceding the exchange, Hizbollah has handed over fragments of a diary kept by Ron Arad, along with what Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime minister, has described as an "absolutely unsatisfactory" 80-page report on its efforts to establish what happened to him, and two previously unseen photographs of the missing airman in captivity.

While Mr Arad has haunted the Israeli collective psyche for more than 20 years, the new photographs – one of which, apparently taken a year after his capture, shows Israel's most famous missing-in-action serviceman bearded, in pyjamas and seemingly wounded in the left shoulder – have received saturation coverage in newspapers and on television. The airman, who was born in 1958 and had just completed the first year of a chemical engineering course at Haifa's Technion institute when he was called up for reserve duty as a navigator, was captured by the Amal guerrilla group after he was forced to parachute out of his damaged F4 Phantom fighter jet while on a mission over the Lebanese city of Sidon in October 1986.

The lack of real knowledge of what happened to him after that has tantalised successive Israeli governments since then as the airman's family – and in particular his wife Tami – has mounted a formidable campaign to keep his name alive and to pressure Israeli ministers and others to secure hard facts about his fate. Israel has long baulked at officially describing him as dead without better information.

Unnamed Israeli security officials familiar with the report and diary sections released by Hizbollah told Associated Press this week that the latter had only "sentimental value" and did not shed light on what happened to Mr Arad in captivity. The report, the sources said, offered possible new lines of enquiry but no hard information. The Arabic writing in the background of one of the new pictures appears to be from a religious text, but not the Koran.

They said that in its report Hizbollah claimed the airman was killed on 4 May, 1988 during an Israeli raid on a village in south Lebanon, as part of its attacks on guerrilla groups in the area. The report had suggested that he had been held in a neighbouring village and may have tried to escape.

Attempting to sum up the meaning of the images, Eitan Haber, a close aide to the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, wrote in Yedhiot Ahronot: "Twenty years, perhaps more, have passed since an anonymous photographer clicked the camera button and captured the image of Ron Arad that we see today: Thin, sad, bearded, with hollow eyes. Perhaps, perhaps something in the background will disclose his location in Lebanon?"

Rami Eigra, a former Mossad official involved in the search for Arad, told Army Radio: "These pictures only show that he was held prisoner and he was not treated well. The second thing it shows, and this was known, was that Ron was apparently injured when he ejected from the airplane."

The potency of the memory of Mr Arad was underlined this week when Noam Shalit, the father of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal seized by Gaza militants in June 2006 was asked by Israel Radio to comment on the latest material about the airman. "One of the things that scares me most is that Gilad could end up in the same scenario as that of Arad," he said.

Nissim Yogev, a friend of the airman who has participated in a campaign that has offered $10m (£5m) for information about his fate, said: "When the last sign you have of someone is that he is alive, you can't declare him dead just because time has passed. Interview me in another 50 years and I will be able to say that he has died of old age."

Yesterday's cabinet vote in favour of today's swap came despite another vote to "reject" the Hizbollah report on Ron Arad. The families of Mr Goldwasser and Mr Regev renewed their campaigns for the exchange to go ahead this week.

As earlier, the security establishment is divided on the wisdom of the exchange, with the military in favour of bringing the two soldiers back dead or alive, and the intelligence agencies worried that the exchange of live prisoners for bodies may encourage further hostage-taking and endanger the lives of any future abductees.

Downed pilots

Scott O'Grady

The US Air Force pilot was shot down over Bosnia in 1995. His aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile while on patrol in a Nato no-fly zone. He survived for six days on rain water and grass, dodging Serbian soldiers until he was rescued. The film Behind Enemy Lines was based loosely on his story, but Mr O'Grady sued 20th Century Fox for making it without his permission.

John Peters

On the first day of the 1991 Gulf War, RAF Squadron Leader John Peters' Tornado was shot down in Iraq. He and John Nichol ejected, only to be captured by the Iraqis. After four days of torture, Mr Peters was paraded on Iraqi television. His ordeal lasted seven weeks.

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