Missing Israeli Airman Ron Arad Died 'Under Torture' in 1988, Witness Tells Lebanese Court

The witness, a member of the Syrian Social National Party, says he didn't initially make the connection between the prisoner in his group's custody and the missing Israeli.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad.
Missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad. Credit: AP
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

A man appearing in military court on in Lebanon has claimed that he has information indicating that Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad died in captivity in Lebanon after being tortured, the English-language Lebanese newspaper Daily Star reported on Saturday. Arad was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and is widely assumed to no longer to be alive.

In the course of a complex narrative, the court witness, a man by the name of Moufeed Kuntar, told the court Arad died in 1988 "under torture" in the custody of the Syrian Social National Party, the Daily Star stated. Kuntar was reportedly active in the SSNP during the Lebanese civil war. He and four others, some of whom are no longer alive, were accused of having contact with Israeli intelligence and of providing Israel with information on the fate of Arad, including efforts to trade one of his bones for cash. Some of the information, it was said, was false and was only turned over to Israel in an effort to obtain money in return, prompting Israel to cast doubts over its credibility.

"I want to tell the story in all its details,' Kuntar told the court. "In 1988 I was an official with the SSNP military arm... I got a call and was informed that a group of young men [from his group] had arrested a person," Kuntar told the court according to the Daily Star.

Kuntar said they questioned the prisoner, but didn't get far, the newspaper reported, adding the following account: "They told me that he had entered the bathroom and stayed there for a long time... When they went to check on him they found him dead," he explained, adding that it was only after his death that they learned he was the missing pilot. "Of course he passed away due to exhaustion and of course he was subject to beatings and torture as that is how interrogations happen," Kuntar reportedly acknowledged in court.

Kuntar recounted that at one point he saw the prisoner dressed in overalls, in serious medical condition and unable to stand on his feet. The witness reportedly told the court he didn't initially make the connection between the man and Ron Arad, but explained to the court: "In 1998 we got a call from our officer telling us that the media was circulating pictures and information about Ron Arad," according to remarks quoted in the Daily Star. "I then went to our base to ask the young men who were involved where they had buried our prisoner." And the Star added: "He then says they went to the villa in Bolonia [in the Mount Lebanon area east of Beirut] and dug up the body to confirm that the corpse was indeed that of Arad."

When Kuntar began recounting that he and his colleagues sought a meeting with newly elected Lebanese President Emile Lahoud on the matter, the presiding judge in the case closed the session to the public, the Daily Star said.

Despite the dramatic nature of the testimony, it should be approached with a measure of skepticism. Within the past week, Arad's name also surfaced in another Lebanese newspaper in a profile of Imad Mughniyeh, the high-ranking leader of the Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah movement. The profile, in the Lebanese Al Akhbar daily, which is identified with Hezbollah, marked the eighth anniversary of Mughniyeh's assassination that foreign reports attributed to Israel. That article said Mughniyeh had been involved in efforts to local Arad and trade him for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Mughniyeh was particularly interested in the case of Ron Arad and even set up a special team to search for any information that could shed light on his fate, said the report, which added that this was out of the awareness that Israel would pay a major price for him. The team reportedly managed to locate Arad's parachute and personal weapon as well as items of his clothing, but the items did not lead the team to locate Arad or his body.

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