Arzu Merali looks at the case of Sheikh Abdulkareem Obaid, and the wider issues of the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon.
Saged is 15 years old. Like many boys, he wants to be like his father. An architect and Muslim cleric, Abdulkareem Obaid is also one of dozens of hostages abducted from South Lebanon by Israel. This month sees the eighth anniversary of his kidnap, by Israeli commandos from his home in the South Lebanese village of Jibchit, where he was the preacher.
Sitting in a modest, Beirut flat flooded with orange light from a setting spring sun, Saged is explaining to a Belgian film crew, in fluent French, the events of the night of 28th July 1989, which took his father away from him and his four siblings. He has inherited his father’s eloquence, which some of us vaguely remember from TV documentaries of the late 1980’s about the nightmare that was Lebanon. Obaid was vocal in his opposition to the so-called Israeli security zone in the South of Lebanon which exists till today. By the time he was assaulted and removed to Israel, he had become a well-known and well-liked spokesperson for the Lebanese people. I remembered Obaid’s audacious smile, as Saged told of how he would one day follow in his father’s footsteps.
It was just as Saged had told reporters from the Washington Post eight years ago, how at 2 o’clock in the morning, his mother was beaten and tied up, and how he was threatened with a gun, as his father, and two others were dragged away semi-conscious. Umm Saged, Obaid’s wife, recounted to me in meticulous detail, how the Israeli operation was well-planned, and executed at a frightening speed. The commandos knew the house’s layout – the operation could have been maybe no more than seven minutes. There were two entrances to the house, one for men and one for women. The Sheikh, as she respectfully refers to her husband, was asleep in the section that led from the women’s entrance. Around thirty men entered the house while others surrounded it. When she heard firing, she thought they had killed her husband. In fact it was a neighbour, Hussain Abu Zaid, who had come out of his house to see what the noise was, that had been shot dead as the commandos retreated. Later, the Israelis in triumph at their capture, admitted to Western press that Israeli fighter planes had enacted a mock raid over the area, masking the sound of the helicopters that came for Obaid. Israeli press report the abduction in those terms.
The guns of Lebanon’s civil war have been quiet for several years, but with threats of being bombed not only in the south, but all the way to Beirut looming since last year’s ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath,’ what everyone fears but no-one says outright is that Lebanon is simply sleeping between carnage. In the meantime, international shopping bonanzas and selective rebuilding programmes are putting Lebanon back on the map as a cultural magnet in the region. Old hostilities between communities seem miraculously buried, or at least well-policed by the Syrian troops stationed to keep the peace. Obaid’s plight and that of other hostages and abductees from Lebanon remains largely forgotten or unheard of. Jill Morrell’s campaign through The Friends of John Macarthy made sure that the British journalist’s disappearance was commemorated every hundred days. In contrast the convergence of myself and the film crew on the Obaid’s home was exceptional. Few outside Lebanon and Israel recall Sheikh Obaid. Today Lebanon, and particularly Beirut is booming economically and culturally: for the former, Obaid has become another icon of territorial violation in the South, to the Israelis he is a bargaining chip for information about their missing airforce navigator, Ron Arad, shot down over Lebanon in 1986. If you visit the Ron Arad homepage, you can listen to the song about him, or see a little movie about him, or sign a petition, or read many articles on the kidnap of Obaid.
I was reminded of Sheikh Obaid by a campaign started last year for his release. A letter from Umm Saged asking the world to remember her husband had sparked a letter writing campaign, which led to brief but fruitful correspondence between the British Foreign Ministry and the Israeli Ministry of Justice. Armed with the confirmation that the IDF had jurisdiction over Obaid’s detention, four British barristers from Justice International, went to Tel Aviv in January, to try and find him, and start proceedings for his release. I spoke to them before they left – they knew it would be a long process.
Despite increasingly vehement correspondence from the group’s leader John Platts Mills QC with various ministries and departments, no official response could be gleaned and no conferences arranged. Dismayed at the callousness of a supposedly democratic government, they tried the Mandela Institute, a human rights research organisation, and traced the whereabouts of Obaid and another abductee Mustafa Dirani, to a High Security Detention Unit in Sarafan Military Compass. Again access was denied, but for the first time Obaid’s whereabouts had become known.
Umm Saged, is a French educated teacher. She doesn’t teach now, but stays in her second floor flat, protecting her young family. She explained to me that their youngest daughter Mujahidah had been sleeping on their bed the night the commandos came. She was three months old and had been poorly. Released by neighbours from her bondage after the commandos had gone, Umm Saged went to find her child. Eventually she was retrieved from under their overturned bed. In an Israeli TV interview, two years later, Obaid spoke of not knowing Mujahidah’s fate. In last year’s Schmidbauer brokered negotiations over the fate of South Lebanon, the German Minister arranged for postcards to be delivered from Obaid and Dirani, to their families. Obaid’s card reads, “I only miss seeing you and I am missing you all very much. I don’t want to mention names because I don’t know who is alive and who is dead. Hopefully I will see you soon.”
Mujahidah poses for a picture for me – she looks like the father she doesn’t remember. He was not incarcerated for criminal activity – something a seven year old might understand, but for his political conscience. It’s hard not to share Mujahidah’s confusion at the fate of her father. In a letter to Moshe Raviv the Israeli Ambassador, the former Chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, Lord Avebury asks regarding Obaid and Dirani, whether as the Israeli Defence Minister says, they are to be held until information about Ron Arad is revealed, and “whether it is really true that [they] are detained as a means of bringing pressure to bear on whoever is holding Ron Arad?” Two previous letters about the imprisoned Israeli physicist Mordechai Vannunu remain unanswered.
Despite Beirut’s bustling commercial centre, and even the jovial if shell-cratered streets of its Shia sectors, a sense of closure remains amiss several years down the road of peace in Lebanon. The bloody civil war may have ended, but an atmosphere of unease remains. Like the letters to Moshe Raviv, many issues need answers. Obaid was kidnapped during the civil war. Dirani however was taken from the Beka in May 1994: how can the post-war Lebanese government claim to be independent when its citizens are susceptible to abduction and disappearance at the hands of an aggressive neighbour? The notorious Khiam prison camp in the occupied south, contains Lebanese arbitrarily picked up by the South Lebanon Army, Israel’s agent in the zone. Syrian troops are everywhere else, supervising a country – formerly a Syrian province – which they were removed from in 1920. The same ‘international consensus’ that removed them, put them back. What will happen if, as the Christian community wants, the Syrians go? Will there be an independent Lebanon if they stay?
Obaid’s youngest son, Hassan Al-Mujtabah, was two when his father disappeared. A shadowy memory of the man’s existence remains, but Saged to all extents and purposes, is his father now. The hope remains with him however, that one day this chapter will also be closed, and Abdulkareem Obaid will come home. Until that day, Lebanon’s unease remains, and it continues to be a hostage to its own existence.
This article is a reproduction of one dated 1 July 1997 from the old IHRC website. Sheikh Obaid and Mustafa Dirani were released in 2004. Find details of the campaign to release them via the search engine on this site.