On October 7, 2000, three Israeli soldiers, Sgt. Adi Avitan, Sgt. Binyamin Avraham, and Sgt. Omer Saued, were patrolling the Mt. Dov sector of Israel-Lebanese border when they were ambushed by Hezbollah terrorists. The terrorists crossed the border into Israel, detonated a roadside bomb injuring the soldiers, and abducted them back into Lebanon. Subsequent investigations found that the Hezbollah men dressed in United Nations personnel garb, used vehicles covered in fake UN insignia, and slipped inside Israel to carry out the ambush of the soldiers. The soldiers may have been lured to the border fence upon seeing the UN markings on the vehicles. When the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) discovered the vehicles, they found them covered in blood.
The attack was apparently conducted a sign of solidarity with the new wave of Palestinian terrorism against Israel. According to The Jerusalem Post, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah admitted that Hezbollah was holding the soldiers, and was refusing to allow the International Red Cross into Lebanon to visit the soldiers. Nasrallah also told reporters that he wanted to trade the three IDF soldiers for Lebanese and Palestinian terrorists held in Israeli prisons.
On October 8, less than 18 hours after the ambush, UNIFIL troops attempted to remove the contents inside the vehicles and tow away the vehicles, both of which were found wrecked after the kidnappings. One Indian UNIFIL worker was videotaping the actions of his fellow troops removing the materials. At the end of the tape, there was some footage taken of armed Hezbollah fighters storming the area and intercepting the vehicles from the UNIFIL troops. The UNIFIL troops turned over the vehicles to the Hezbollah men to avoid an armed skirmish. Official UN workers now had in their possession a videotape that might have helped Israel in some way find its kidnapped soldiers.
However, for nearly a year, top UN officials, including Secretary General Kofi Annan, denied having any possession of such a videotape. But on July 6, 2001, the UN confessed that it did in fact possess the video shot by the Indian UNIFIL worker. The exact reasons for the UN coverup of tape are unknown, but there are some indications that the denial was intentional. Hezbollah did cross over the Israeli border in a UN patrolled area, implying that UNIFIL would have most likely known about the plot ahead of time but did nothing to stop it.
After the official UN confession, Annan ordered an investigation into the handling of the tape. UN undersecretary-General Joseph Connor produced an 18-page report which stated the UN actually had two more videotapes of the incident, as well as more than 50 items taken from the vehicles, several of which were covered in blood. While Connor did say that the UN was guilty in lapses of judgement regarding the tape, he did not go as far to say that the UN cooperated with Hezbollah or that the UN intentionally lied to Israel. Annan subsequently apologized to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, saying that “serious errors in judgment were made, in particular, by those who failed to convey information to the Israelis, which would have been helpful in an assessment of the condition of the three abducted soldiers.” The Connor report also included a statement from a UNIFIL officer saying that the kidnapped soldiers died from their wounds.
As for the actual tape, the Israeli government requested the tape to help investigate the incident and hopefully recover the soldiers. Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer sent a strongly worded letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on July 8, 2001, calling the UN’s decision not to hand over the video "altogether puzzling and incongruous." The UN however, refused to give the tape to Israel, saying that it wanted to remain neutral in the region. UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno claimed that since "south Lebanon is a war zone," giving an unedited tape to Israel, “would be considered by one party as providing intelligence to another party and would certainly put in danger the security of our people in Lebanon." Israeli officials pointed out that not only was Israel the victim in this kidnapping, but that the UNIFIL officials ought to have prevented the abduction in the first place, fulfilling their mandate as peacekeepers – it was their job to keep the area from becoming a war zone.
On July 30, 2001, United States House of Representatives adopted a resolution, by a 411-4 vote, calling on the UN to release the tape. On August 5, 2001, the UN admitted that they were also in possession of a second video pertaining to the investigation. With its credibility shattered, the United entered damage control mode. The UN publicly acknowledged that “serious errors of judgement were made, in particular, by those who failed to convey information to the Israelis, which would have been helpful in an assessment of the condition of the three abducted soldiers.” UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan even apologized directly to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Finally, almost ten months after the kidnapping occurred, the UN agreed to allow Israel to look at an unedited version of the videotapes and to view items retrieved from the vehicles that UNIFIL forces removed from the scene. However, the UN placed sharp restrictions on when and how Israel could view the tape:
- The tapes would be edited to hide the identity of the kidnappers
- The first viewing of the tapes, at the UN headquarters in New York, would be for an Israeli team including Israeli military officers and Israeli ambassador to the UN David Lancry
- A second viewing session, in Vienna, would be for the families of the kidnapped soldiers
- Only some of the items taken from the car would be handed over to Israel
- Israeli officials cannot view the tape more than three times total.
The UN said it placed these restrictions on Israel in order to maintain its neutrality on the issue. In the end, Israel agreed upon the UN conditions, including the editing of the tape.
The IDF pronounced the three soldiers dead on November 1, 2001. Their remains were returned to their families in a prisoner exchange on January 29, 2004.
Sources: “Israel and the United Nations: The Har Dov Kidnapping;” Lenny Ben-David, “Israeli Captives in Lebanon,” HonestReporting.com, (November 11, 2002); Arutz Sheva (July 8, 2001); UN Wire (July 8, 2001, August 5, 2001)