Israelis Gripped by New Photos of Missing Airman

Israelis pored Monday over every detail of 20-year-old pictures just received of their most famous missing soldier — his injured arm held close, the length of his beard and the Arabic writing on a wall in the background.

Israeli airman Ron Arad was captured in Lebanon in 1986, and his unknown fate has since gripped the nation and become one of the great mysteries of the past generation. Over the weekend, the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah transferred photographs, diary excerpts and an 80-page report to Israel as part of a prisoner swap planned for Wednesday.

Hezbollah claims in the report Arad is dead, but gives only a partial explanation of the circumstances surrounding his death, according to Israeli officials.

In Wednesday's swap, Israel will free five Lebanese, including the perpetrator of one of the most notorious attacks in Israeli history. In exchange, Hezbollah will return two soldiers it captured in a cross-border raid that sparked the 2006 war. Israel believes the soldiers are dead.

For many in Israel, the centerpiece of the prisoner swap will be the return of the two soldiers. But two days before the exchange, it was the images of Arad that captured Israelis' imagination.

His story is well known. Arad was a 28-year-old navigator when he was forced to parachute out of his fighter jet on a mission over Lebanon in October 1986 after one of his Phantom aircraft's bombs apparently malfunctioned. Israeli forces rescued the jet's pilot, but Arad was seized by guerrillas from the Shiite Amal organization.

These were not the first bits of information on the missing airman. A letter from Arad was once delivered to his family and a videotaped message he recorded in the late 1980s was released several years ago. But he has not been heard from since.

The latest report contains two new pictures of Arad and parts of a diary he kept in the 1980s. Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the material has not been made public, said the diary and the pictures had only "sentimental value" and did not shed light on his fate. The Hezbollah report offered some new lines of inquiry, but no definite information, they said.

An Israeli government official traveling with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Paris said Olmert called the report "absolutely unsatisfactory." The official also spoke on condition of anonymity because the material has not been made public.

The most important question about Arad — what happened to him — remains unclear. In the report, Hezbollah says he is dead but claims not to know exactly how he died.

Yet Israelis were gripped by the images of the bewildered-looking young man with his left arm tucked inside his shirt, staring out at them from the front pages of every major newspaper Monday.

"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," Eitan Haber, a close aide to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "Perhaps, perhaps something in the background will disclose his location in Lebanon?"

Some officials tried to provide answers.

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

One of the pictures also has Arabic writing in the background. The writings appear to be religious in nature, but they are not verses from the Quran.

Security officials who saw the report said that Hezbollah claimed Arad was killed on May 4, 1988 during an Israeli raid on a village in south Lebanon, part of its ongoing raids against guerrilla groups there.

Arad was apparently held in a neighboring village and may have tried to flee, the report said, according to two officials from the Israeli army and a third from the intelligence services.

However, this account was not new to Israel intelligence, and officials said no new evidence of it was provided by Hezbollah.

Israel has been reluctant to declare Arad dead without conclusive evidence about his fate.

"When the last sign you have of someone is that he is alive, you can't declare him dead just because time has passed," said Nissim Yogev, a friend of Arad who has been involved in a campaign that has offered $10 million for information on him. "Interview me in another 50 years and I will be able to say that he has died of old age."

Arad would be 50 years old were he alive.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister, said that Israel would continue to search for Arad.

"The day that the state abandons its sons will be the day that the sons abandon the state," Mofaz said.

The father of Sgt. Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier captured two years ago by Gaza militants in a raid on an army base, was asked Monday to comment on the Arad report and pictures.

"One of the things that scares me most is that Gilad could end up in the same scenario as that of Arad," Noam Schalit told Israel Radio.