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ISRAEL: Al Jazeera jolts Israel with unseen footage of Israeli POWs

March 14, 2010 |  9:20 am

Israelis got a jolt last week as footage of Israeli POWs held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Lebanon during the 1980s aired on Al Jazeera and quickly made it to Israeli media.

The footage hasn't been seen before in Israel, at least not by civilians. The video was shown as part of a three-part series on Al Jazeera about the different deals made to return Israeli soldiers, the Israeli press reports.

The video from 1983 shows Israeli soldiers Yossef ('Yoskeh') Groff and Nissim Salem (today Shalem), who along with six others were captured in Lebanon a year earlier. The two are asked by one of their captors for their reaction to the Sabra and Shatila massacres, after being shown a news report.

"Now that you have seen the report, please tell us of your impressions," one captor asks Groff in very good Hebrew. Groff has tears in his eyes. "I have no words," he says, looking frightened. "...This brings back pictures from the past that I wanted to forget."

What would you call the people who did this, Salem is asked. "Nazis, Hitler," he says, his voice high and on edge.

Some question the timing of the video's release. "The question is whether this aims to pressure us or to hint that something might be moving forward with Gilad Shalit," said Hezi Shai, who was held separately by Syria until released with Groff and Salem. "My impression was that this is a victory broadcast in advance of another victory," he said, explaining how the other side perceives these deals. He too had been shown pictures of the horrors of Sabra and Shatila and thought his captors were preparing to kill him, he told Israel Radio on Friday.

Negotiations for the release of Shalit -- an Israeli soldier seized by Palestinians in a cross-border attack on his army outpost in June 2006 and held in Gaza since -- are said to have reached an impasse. But there is a connection between then and now. Groff, Salem-Shalem and Shai were released in 1985 in return for 1,150 Palestinian prisoners, in what came to be known as the "Jibril Deal" (named for PFLP leader Ahmad Jibril). Many in Israel say it was this "original sin," controversial even then, that fixed a price so high it would forever be vulnerable to emotional and diplomatic extortion.

On Friday evening, activists campaigning for Shalit's release gathered outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's private residence, a periodic reminder of the Israeli soldier's captivity. Magen Dahari, among the organizers, has been campaigning against what he calls "VIP conditions" for Palestinian prisoners in Israel, while Shalit is denied the minimum of Red Cross access. Yes, Dahari agrees, the price Hamas asks is high, but Shalit shouldn't pay the price of Israel's past miscalculations.

Dahari believes Shalit must be returned in any case and any price "because he was abducted under the norms established by the Jibril exchange." But after that, he says, Israel must adopt a new policy and make clear that the game rules will change.

Meanwhile, Shai and other former Israeli POWs have reached out to their two friends, no doubt shocked to see themselves in the dark parallel universe of their captivity. Said a commenter on the Hebrew website of the former POW foundation named Awake at Night: "It was a knockout for them. We who were there know: The voices were yours but the words were Jibril's," he said as he wished them strength.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem