Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer yesterday announced that United Nations officials last Friday acknowledged the existence of a video tape with information on the kidnapping of three IDF soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas at Har Dov on October 7, 2000. Israeli security sources suspect the tape has scenes recorded immediately after the abduction. In a strongly worded letter, the government demanded that the United Nations immediately transfer the tape to Israel.
Israeli officials had insisted for months that the cassette existed, but the UN adamantly rejected the claim. According to Ben-Eliezer, information about the existence of the tape was leaked from New York.
While it is still unclear what the recording contains, two pictures, showing UN tow trucks removing two vehicles used by the Hezbollah guerrillas during the kidnapping were shown last night on both Israeli television news channels.
The pictures were acquired by Shlomi Afrayat, owner of Topline in Kiryat Shmona, who has worked for months to make contact with the persons responsible for the recording. Afrayat is not in possession of the original tape.
"The scene was taped 18 hours after the abduction of the three soldiers", said Timor Goksel, spokesman for UNIFIL (UN interim force in Lebanon) peacekeepers in south Lebanon. "It contains footage of abandoned vehicles the Iran-backed Hezbollah guerrillas used in the attack," he added.
"Inside the vehicles, UN peacekeepers found UN insignia, uniforms and license plates along with weapons and explosives," Goksel said.
Addressing the Labor Party Central Committee at Beit Berl in Kfar Sava, Ben-Eliezer said that for months the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs insisted that a video recording existed. As recently as Thursday, June 28, Ben-Eliezer told senior UN representative in the region, Terje Larsen, during their meeting that the tape existed. Larsen responded angrily insisting that there was no such tape. The meeting ended in a tense atmosphere.
"On Friday the same senior representative [Larsen] called me and to my amazement said `there is a tape!' He was very apologetic. I told him `I am asking that this tape be sent to us,'" Ben-Eliezer recounts.
"The tape may shed light on the circumstances surrounding the incident [the abduction]," Ben-Eliezer said, referring to security service assessments that the same soldier also recorded scenes of the actual attack.
The UN position near the area of the attack is manned by members of the Indian battalion. UN officers and officials insisted that the soldiers at the position did not witness the attack because they took cover immediately after an anti-armor missile was fired at the IDF patrol vehicle. However, Israeli security officials suspect that the UN soldiers witnessed the attack and may have turned a blind eye to Hezbollah preparations to carry it out.
The Defense Minister adds that he sent a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign affairs, in which he asks that the cassette be sent to Israel.
He also said he informed the families of the three soldiers of the existence of the tape. The families reacted with surprise and frustration and demanded that the UN hand over the tape to Israeli authorities.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday in Paris, where he is on an official state visit, that he hopes the UN will transfer the tape to Israel which he believes will shed light on the abduction of the three soldiers. He also said that he received no new information about the fate of the kidnapped Israelis in Germany.
Since the abduction of four Israelis (including the civilian Yohanan Tannenbaum), German mediators have been the sole conduit between Israel and the Hezbollah.
At the United Nations, diplomatic sources insisted that Annan was until recently unaware of the existence of the tape. Nonetheless, a senior official at the Middle East desk of the UN spokesman's office refused to comment on the request of Ben-Eliezer regarding the tape.
The official argued that "the Secretary General has not yet seen the Defense Minister's letter and therefore there is no comment nor will there be a comment until the Secretary General reads the letter."
Israeli sources in New York said "this is a very serious matter if the UN withheld information from Israel on this humanitarian matter."
However, they were also critical of what they viewed as haste by Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer, to announce the existence of his letter to the UN Secretary General.
"Acceptable procedure and polite behavior is to wait until a senior figure like Kofi Annan confirms, via authorized and official channels confirming that he indeed received the official communication," the sources said.
Diplomatic sources said yesterday at the UN that the issue of the tape is embarrassing for Kofi Annan. "For some time, and on all levels, the United Nations denied the existence of the tape, while Israel claimed that it existed," said a Western diplomat at the UN. "Now it appears that there is a tape and it is not clear what is on it."
However, in recent meeting with Israeli leaders, including Ariel Sharon, the secretary general has undeniably expressed genuine concern regarding the fate of the four Israelis kidnapped by Hezbollah, and promised to continue his efforts to get information regarding their condition and gain their release.
The condition of the soldiers is one of the details which Israeli security analysts hope to ascertain by close examination of the tape. Blood stains were found at the scene of the attack and in the destroyed IDF patrol car, suggesting that the three soldiers were injured during the raid. However, it is still uncertain what kind of injuries they sustained, and Hezbollah has refused to comment on their condition.