It’s never good to swap people for bodies

Al-Jazeera – much praised by the now-dying US administration until it started reporting the truth about the American occupation of Iraq (at which point, you may recall, George Bush wanted to bomb it) – 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” – whose moustache looks as if it has been modelled on that of a former German corporal – 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”. I was right. 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-Jazeer’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 currently runs a foundation named after his son and dedicated to dialogue and understanding. I will not go on at any length about a vindictive letter he wrote about me before his son was abducted – in which he claimed that I “drooled venom” and was “a professional hate pedlar”, adding that the 2001 international crimes against humanity in the United States were caused by “hate itself, of precisely the obsessive and dehumanising kind that Fisk and bin Laden has been spreading”.

This, of course, is the kind of incendiary stuff that produces a deluge of crude hate mail (which, indeed, is exactly what it did). 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”, and something in me says – whoa there! The narrative is being cut off and rewritten. For if Kantar represents barbarism, why on earth did Israel release him in the first place?

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 indeed something noble about the prisoner exchange because it showed that Israel always cared for the return of its missing soldiers, alive or dead.

And I am reminded now of how Benjamin Netanyahu released Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from prison after two of Israel’s Mossad would-be killers tried to murder Khaled Meshal of Hamas in Amman. King Hussein had angrily demanded the antidote to the poison they gave Meshal – which is how Yassin obtained his release. Then, after Yassin had been greeted by his Palestinian followers and gone ranting on about the need to avoid recognition of Israel, praising suicide bombers into the bargain, an Israeli pilot fired a missile into his wheelchair – not exactly a noble act since the old man was a cripple – and once again we heard about the barbarity of the now dead Yassin. But if he was so barbarous, why did Netanyahu, that famous enemy of “terrorism”, release him? Because the two Mossad agents had been caught by the Jordanians? Of course.

So here we go again. 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 himself 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.
http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-its-never-good-to-swap–people-for-bodies-920837.html

Robert Fisk

Middle East correspondent for London’s Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media