x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Son seeks body of long-lost father

Hoping to claim his remains of the dead PLO leader after a Hizbollah prisoner swap, Palestinian's 26-year quest to provide a proper burial ends in disappointment.

Tagrid al-Julni (left) and her son, Samer al-Zaghuyer, look at photos of her late husband, Azmi al-Zaghuyer.
Tagrid al-Julni (left) and her son, Samer al-Zaghuyer, look at photos of her late husband, Azmi al-Zaghuyer.

RAMALLAH // In the summer of 1982, Roger Rosenblatt, a journalist with Time magazine, wrote a piece titled "Seven Days in a Small War" that detailed his efforts to learn the fates of four children he had met in Lebanon earlier that year before Israel's invasion. Having located three alive and well, Mr Rosenblatt travelled south to seek out the fourth. Samer was the young son of Azmi al Zughayer, a prominent PLO leader in Tyre, who had been reported killed in the invasion. But the boy was nowhere to be found, and there was no trace of his family.

Samer al Zughayer is now 32. In July, he returned to Tyre for the first time since 1982 to reclaim his father's body in the recent Israel-Hizbollah prisoner swap. Closure, which was long awaited, beckoned for the Zughayer family. But none was forthcoming. Azmi al Zughayer's body was not among the 189 bodies released. "I was devastated," said Mr Zughayer, a 1st lieutenant in the Palestinian Authority's Special Police Forces in Ramallah. "I want my father to have a proper burial in Hebron [where the family originates]." There was no explanation. Hizbollah had earlier informed the PLO embassy in Beirut that Israel would release the bodies of those who had been killed between 1978 and 1990 in Lebanon. In Ramallah, on July 15, a day before the swap, Fahmi Za'rir, a Fatah spokesman, announced a day of festivities to celebrate the release. Among the names mentioned in the statement was that of Azmi al Zughayer.

Once the dust settled on the swap, however, it became clear that the bodies of a few prominent Palestinian fighters were not among those released. These included that of Dalal al Mughrabi, the woman who at the age of 19 led a raid inside Israel in 1978 that resulted in the killing of 37 people and in which she and several of her team were killed. Azmi al Zughayer was accused of planning that and other PLO raids inside Israel, and by the time of Israel's 1982 invasion he was one of Israel's most wanted men. In his 1999 autobiography, Strike First, Yaakov Perry, the former head of Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence service, and a special forces operative in Lebanon, writes this about Zughayer: "The name Azmi Zughayer was known to all of us. I imagine there was no one in the special units or intelligence that had not planned or hoped to kill this man."

Mr Perry goes on to write how Israeli special units arrived after dark at Zughayer's beachside residence following a tip-off from an informer. Zughayer was killed after a shoot-out with the Israeli forces. "When Israel invaded, Abu Amar [former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat] ordered my father to withdraw his men," said Samer al Zughayer, relishing a clearly well worn anecdote. "My father refused. He told Abu Amar that he had engaged the enemy in Israel for so long and now that Israel had come to him he was not about to run.

" 'I have food, my soldiers and my bullets,' he told Abu Amar. 'I will stay'." Samer was only six when his father disappeared. Most of what he knows about his father has been told to him by others (in the case of the above anecdote, by Arafat himself). "I don't remember much," he said. "I remember him taking me to his office. I remember meeting his men and playing at the base. But most of what I know comes from what my older brothers, my mother and others have told me."

But he is determined that his father be laid finally to rest and is nonplussed as to why that should pose a problem. "Why hold a body for 26 years?" Israeli officials said Azmi al Zughayer was never on the list of bodies to be exchanged with Hizbollah. Neither the Israeli army nor the Israeli prime minister's office would divulge what were the criteria for those bodies that were released, other than to say that Hizbollah asked for some and Israel decided on others. An official in the office of Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, would confirm that Israel still holds the body, but not why. "I don't think it's a political decision," said Eyal Zisser, an Israeli specialist on Hizbollah and Syria at Tel Aviv University. Mr Zisser suspects that the reason some bodies were not returned was simply that they were not immediately located.

"Nobody had in mind that one day someone would come to look for [these bodies]," Mr Zisser said. "Actually, when they came to look for [Dalal Mughrabi] they couldn't find the body. She was buried in 1978. It's almost 30 years, and since then many bodies have been buried there." Time, damage and a lack of maintenance at the closed military area where foreigners are buried means it is entirely possible that original records of the location of bodies are no longer accurate, Mr Zisser said.

"They are buried somewhere there, and with some effort they could be found. But why should someone look so hard, spend all that time and money? Hizbollah does not seem to care so much and nor does Israel." One reason why Israel might have deliberately kept back some bodies could also have to do with its ongoing negotiations with Hamas over a possible prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in Gaza in 2006.

The prospect does not comfort Samer al Zughayer, who is seeking legal support in the hope that a civil case in Israel could force the army's hand. "I don't want my father to be released because of Hamas," he said, with some passion. "My father had Fatah in his blood, so do I, so do my brothers. I would not want to owe Hamas any gratitude for securing my father's release." In Mr Rosenblatt's piece, the journalist remembers how he had once asked the young boy Samer what he wanted to be when he grew up, expecting to hear him say he wanted to fight for Palestine. Instead, the boy, to guffaws from Azmi al Zughayer's men, had simply answered that he wanted to "be married".

Samer is not yet married, and has come closer to following in his father's footsteps, serving in the PA's security forces. But times have changed. "I believe the fight [between Palestinians and Israelis] is now one that must take place in the political arena," Samer al Zughayer said. "I believe my father would have said the same if he were alive now." @Email:okarmi@thenational.ae