The baby is wearing a light-colored romper suit. She is sitting on her father's shoulders, her tiny fingers gripping her father's black hair tightly. Her large, dark eyes look directly into the camera.
The photo is 24 years old. Today Yuval is a young woman with long brown hair. "I still can't bear to look at this picture," she says. Shortly after it was taken, her father, an Israeli army navigator, and his pilot were forced to abandon their stricken Phantom jet fighter over Lebanese territory on Oct. 16, 1986. The pilot was rescued, but the navigator has been missing every since. His name is Ron Arad.
The Arad case is one of the greatest mysteries in the Middle East. His fate has been considered not only by numerous Israeli governments, but also by the United Nations General Assembly. The German foreign intelligence agency, the BND, has been trying to solve the case for more than 15 years. An agent from Berlin has been plowing though old documents, questioning eye witnesses and traveling around the region on behalf of the UN to try to shed light on the case.
The mystery now appears to have been solved. A new book by Ronen Bergman, the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot's intelligence expert, claims Arad has been dead since the mid-1990s. According to the book, this was the conclusion reached by a special military commission in 2005, but the then-prime minister, Ariel Sharon, refused to publish the results. So too did his successors, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu. "The military censors only released the findings of the Arad case because I threatened to file a complaint with the supreme court," Bergman says.
The documents show that Arad initially fell into the hands of the Amal movement, a Lebanese Shiite militia based in Beirut. They openly demanded ransom money, weapons and a prisoner exchange. Arad was then abducted by the group's head of security, Mustafa Dirani, and taken to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley where he was kept in hiding. Dirani subsequently left Amal and joined Hezbollah, taking his prisoner with him. A video from around late 1987 shows Arad was still alive at that time.
In early 1988, Arad was hidden in the small village of Nabi Shith in the Bekaa Valley, where he was guarded by the Shukur clan. But his captors fled when the Israeli air force bombed the region in the early hours of May 5. Arad was left behind, hidden in bushes. When the Shukur clan returned the next morning, their prisoner was gone.
Mustafa Dirani, who was captured by Israeli commandos in southern Lebanon in 1994, told his interrogators he had then contacted a leader of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. He suspects the militias had picked Arad up and taken him to the Iranian capital Tehran. Hezbollah in Beirut also assume this is what happened.
In the mid-1990s, the Arad affair took on an international political dimension. Whoever solved the mystery would be guaranteed to earn kudos. Even communist East Germany took an interest in the case when it was consulted following Israel's arrest of two suspected KGB spies in Tel Aviv. The case was assigned to Wolfgang Vogel, East Berlin's top negotiator. The Stasi, East Germany's notorious secret police, also got involved, and asked the KGB to investigate the possibility of a prisoner exchange involving Arad.
On May 28, 1989, Vogel and his wife traveled to Tel Aviv as the official guests of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. He even signed an agreement on East Germany's behalf together with a lawyer negotiating for the Israeli government. The document stated that Arad would be exchanged for one of the alleged KGB spies. The Israelis were apparently willing to talk about further prisoners, but Vogel was reluctant to do so. "Only the release of Ron Arad can be considered and negotiated at the present time," the agreement said. Vogel talked enthusiastically about his influential contacts. But then, just half a year later, the Berlin Wall fell, putting an end to the East German regime.
Reunified Germany continued to look into the case. Bernd Schmidbauer, at the time a senior official in the Chancellery, negotiated with Iranian Ambassador Hossein Mousavian, who gave the impression he could secure Arad's release. However talks broke down in 1995 when it became clear a German court would be handing down a life sentence to an Iranian intelligence agent accused of involvement in the assassination of three exiled Iranian politicians in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin three years earlier.
The German government supported the search for Arad on several levels. Because part of the Shukur family had moved to Berlin, the Israelis urged the BND to question the Lebanese about Arad's fate. Israeli agents later picked up one of the Lebanese while he was on vacation abroad and made him take a lie-detector test. However they failed to obtain any concrete information.
Shedding Light on the Mystery
For years the case lay dormant. Indeed it wasn't until 2004, when the BND helped arrange another major prisoner exchange, that Hezbollah appeared ready to cast light on the mystery, offering to provide information about the whereabouts of the missing officer on condition that Israel released several hundred Arab prisoners from its jails. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah instructed his men to search for Arad. A Revolutionary Guards commander who had been in charge of the case about 10 years earlier traveled to Lebanon from Tehran.
Shiite militiamen searched several locations in the Bekaa Valley and carried out excavations. Finally Hezbollah handed over a number of bones they had unearthed to a BND middleman in early 2005. He in turn passed them on to the Israeli government. However DNA tests in Tel Aviv revealed that the bones did not belong to Arad.
The Shiite militia's failure to find Arad or his remains also had repercussions in Tel Aviv. The head of Israeli military intelligence, Major General Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, set up a secret commission to collect and evaluate all the available information on Arad for the Israeli military.
A veteran of the Israeli army, Zeevi-Farkash is a bear of a man. He is sitting behind a tidy desk in his office in the centre of Tel Aviv, wearing a short-sleeved white shirt. In 2006, after 30 years serving the state of Israel, he went solo, setting up a private security company. Ron Arad was his last big case.
In the past, Zeevi-Farkash often worked together with the BND. He values the assistance he got from Berlin. "If anyone can help in a case like that of Ron Arad, it's the Germans," he says. His comission, which consisted of three experienced intelligence agents, reconstructed the different stages of Arad's imprisonment. They re-read Dirani's statements, checked the results of the lie-detector test, sifted through intercepted messages and all the material the Israeli intelligence service the Mossad and the military had gathered to date, including information from 2004 that Nasrallah's investigation had turned up.
The evidence was overwhelming. The secret military commission's report, which remains classified to this day, concluded that Arad had died sometime between 1993 and 1997. No signs of life of Arad have been received since 1995. Hezbollah also assumes he died around that time.
The most likely version of events appears to be that a seriously ill Arad was taken back to the Bekaa Valley in 1995. The Revolutionary Guards presumably wanted to get rid of him because he was ill and the talks with the German government about the Mykonos attack had broken down. According to Hezbollah, Arad died in the Bekaa Valley, where militiamen buried his body.
'Born for Freedom'
The tragic findings were set out in the commission's final report. Zeevi-Farkash asked to speak with Ariel Sharon. "Prime Minister, we can close the case," the agent apparently told the Israeli leader. Sharon hesitated, then replied: "Leave it alone, Aharon."
The decision not to publish the report is easy to understand from the Israeli point of view. One of the military's basic tenets is that no Jew is left behind on enemy territory, whether dead or alive. It was therefore out of the question for Arad to be declared dead without having found his body or knowing where he was buried. To this day, fully 23 years after he bailed out of his plane, bumper stickers on many Israeli cars declare: "Ron Arad -- born for freedom."
Ron Arad's wife, Tami, knows about the military report. But she refuses to give up her husband until she has DNA evidence of his death.
Twenty-four years ago Ron Arad began building a house for his family in Givat Ela, a small village in northern Israel. His wife finished it. But she says she won't move in until Ron returns.