Israel appears to harden its stance
Jerusalem — Israel seemed to be hardening its stance Tuesday against exchanging Shiite Muslim Lebanese prisoners it is holding in return for the release of some 30 TWA passengers still being held by Shiites in Beirut. Prime Minister Shimon Peres said that Israel should not play a role in the negotiations for the hostages' release. ``Israeli action could only be harmful,'' he told an interviewer Monday.
Apart from statements that Israel would reconsider its position if officially requested to do so by the United States government, Israeli Cabinet ministers generally maintained their silence on the hijacking.
In Beirut, Lebanese Shiite leader Nabih Berri, who is handling negotiations for the hijackers, announced the release of three hostages -- two Americans and Greek pop singer Demis Roussos -- in what he called a goodwill gesture.
But the whereabouts of the remaining hostages remained a mystery. Mr. Berri, also Lebanon's justice minister, said they had all been taken from the Boeing 727, which has been parked on the west Beirut tarmac under Shiite guard since Sunday.
Berri said the passengers were taken off the airplane for their own protection, because it was feared that the US might try to rescue them.
Meanwhile, reports continued to circulate in Israel that the Americans were searching for a solution to the crisis that would involve Mr. Berri announcing the release of the hostages, followed by Israel releasing the Shiites.
``There cannot appear to be linkage,'' one Western source says.
The United States does not appear to be pressuring Israel to release the 766 Shiites before the hostages are released, observers say.
A Western diplomat in Tel Aviv said Tuesday that the best thing Peres could do under the circumstances was to do nothing.
The Reagan administration continues to maintain publicly that it will not give in to the hijackers' demands.
The prospects for a rescue attempt evaporated with the dispersal of the hostages, experts here say. The United States reportedly now has 1,200 marines in several warships off Lebanon's coast, but it would appear that the only likely action would be a retaliatory one if the remaining hostages are harmed.
Berri has told newsmen that he will return the hostages to the hijackers if Israel fails to release the Shiites it is holding in a camp in northern Israel.
But the question of whether Israel should release the Shiites it is holding in a camp in the northern part of the country, was being heatedly discussed in Israel's parliament, in the nation's newspapers, and on the streets.
Public sentiment seemed to be solidly against any appearance of giving in to the demands of the Shiite gunmen who hijacked Flight 847 on Friday morning, shortly after it took off from Athens for Rome.
The gunmen have asked that all Shiites Israel is holding be released, that two Shiites held by Spain be released, and that Israel complete its withdrawal from south Lebanon.
One Hebrew-language daily ran an editorial cartoon Tuesday that depicted a terrorist pointing a gun through the belly of the world at Israel, which was holding a bag of prisoners.
An editorial in the conservative Yediot Aharanoth complained that ``the US is pinning all its hopes on little Israel to rescue her. If the United States took some action and asked us for assistance -- that would be one thing.
``But to shirk all responsibility and to quiver through and through in hiding while uttering a silent prayer to Israel to bear the entire burden of rescuing the Americans -- this is going too far, it would seem.''
Peres's position is complicated by the fact that his government has been widely criticized in Israel for releasing 1,150 Palestinian prisoners -- some of whom were victed of terrorist crimes -- in exchange for three Israeli soldiers last month.
His fragile coalition government is experiencing another crisis, this time over the issue of thawing relations with Egypt. The prime minister also would be hesitant to again appear to be giving in to terrorist demands, political observers here say.
As if to underline Israel's continued vulnerability to terrorist attacks, two bombs exploded in Jerusalem Tuesday morning, and two more were defused in Tel Aviv. No one was injured.
In the security zone Israel continues to maintain above its northern border, four soldiers of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army were wounded Monday night. The militiamen retaliated by shelling Shiite villages to the north of the security zone.
There was shocked reaction also to the White House confirmation that six passengers, apparently those with Jewish-sounding names, had been separated from the others by the Shiites and taken off the hijacked plane.
``It's like a Jewish paranoid nightmare come true,'' said one incredulous Labor Party official.