Fatmeh Balhas never knew her 19-year-old son was in Lebanon's anti-Israel resistance movement until he went missing for two days. The people who appeared at her door with the news were from Lebanon's Hizbullah organization, which fought Israeli occupation troops in south Lebanon.
The men explained that Ali Balhas had been caught following an ambush, three miles south of here, in which an Israeli soldier was killed. Ali had been wounded and captured by Israeli troops.
"When I heard the news, I lost all control of my emotions," Fatmeh says. "My husband was very upset. He walked off alone into the olive groves to cry."
Nine years later, Ali still has another 90 years of his life sentence to serve in an Israeli prison. He is one of an estimated 17 Lebanese detainees still held by Israel, more than a year after Israel withdrew its forces from south Lebanon. Now, in a region where a political brushfire could spark a major regional war, the fate of these detainees is like a match in Hizbullah's hand.
Securing the release of the detainees is a key motive behind Hizbullah's sporadic guerrilla campaign against Israeli troops occupying a disputed strip of territory along Lebanon's southeast border, known as the Shebaa Farms.
On Oct. 7, Hizbullah fighters kidnapped three Israeli soldiers from the Shebaa Farms. Ten days later, Hizbullah announced it had lured to Beirut an agent of Israel's intelligence service, or Mossad, in an elaborate sting. Israel said the man, Elhanan Tennenbaum, was in fact a businessman and reservist colonel in the Israeli army who was kidnapped while on a business trip to Switzerland.
Although the fate of the Lebanese detainees is sometimes obscured by the threat of the Shebaa Farms conflict sparking a new Middle East war, Hizbullah says the return of the prisoners is just as important as liberating the occupied farms.
"We look at the two issues through the same telescope," says Hassan Ezzieddine, a member of Hizbullah's political council. "The Israeli entity perpetrates aggressions in both cases. What we are doing is responding to this aggression. That's why the resistance will continue achieving its goals in liberating the detainees and recovering the occupied land."
Hizbullah hopes to trade the captive Israelis for the Lebanese detainees and an unspecified number of other Arab prisoners held by Israel.
Among the Lebanese detainees is Samir Qantar, who has spent more than half his life behind bars since being captured 22 years ago. He still has another 520 years left to serve. Mr. Qantar was sentenced for his role in an abortive attempt to kidnap Israelis in northern Israel in 1979. Two of the detainees were kidnapped from Lebanon by Israeli commandos. Sheikh Abdel-Karim Obeid, a senior Hizbullah cleric, was abducted from his home in southern Lebanon in 1989. Mustafa Dirani, the leader of a militant group affiliated with Hizbullah, was kidnapped by helicopter-borne Israeli commandos in 1994.
Israel abducted the two men as "bargaining chips" to win information on the whereabouts of Israeli servicemen missing in Lebanon since the 1980s.
They are held under a system Israel calls "administrative detention" - condemned by human rights organizations - under which detainees are imprisoned without charge or trial for renewable six-month periods.
Last year, Mr. Dirani filed a lawsuit, demanding compensation of $1.4 million from the Israeli authorities after allegedly being tortured during the one-month interrogation following his abduction. The lawsuit alleges that Mr. Dirani suffered beatings, sleep deprivation, shakings, and was even raped by a soldier specially brought in for the purpose, and several days later sodomized with a wooden club.
Israel's Supreme Court last Wednesday ruled that both Mr. Dirani and Sheikh Obeid should be allowed visits by the Red Cross. The ruling was condemned by the families of the three Israeli soldiers.
"When the soldiers went out to serve, they were also protecting the Supreme Court and we expect the court to be aware of the pain of the families," said Haim Avraham, the father of one of the abducted soldiers, Beni Avraham.
In the past 10 months, the parents of the three Israeli captives have visited the United States and Europe as part of a tour sponsored by the Israeli government to drum up international support for the return of the soldiers.
Hassan Balhas, Ali's father, says that the abduction of the four Israelis by Hizbullah would never have happened if Israel had released his son and the other detainees.
"They only have themselves to blame," he says, holding a photograph of his then-19-year-old son.
While the Israeli government ferries the families around the world, supporters of the Lebanese detainees say that the authorities in Beirut are ignoring their plight.
"The Lebanese embassies don't even know the names of the detainees nor how many there are," says Mohammed Safa, the head of the Follow-up Committee for the Support of Lebanese Detainees in Israeli Prisons. "If the government had any self-respect, it would have made a far greater effort to resolve this tragedy."
The Balhas family receives letters from Ali every six months, delivered to their door by the Red Cross. Sometimes, Ali sends them pictures he has made from sewn beads depicting themes of prison life: a manacled hand clutching a rose, a water jug inscribed with "Allah," a dove flying beside a barred prison window. The Balhas family hangs the pictures on the walls of their sparsely-furnished sitting room.
"There is no justification for the sentence that Israel gave him," says his mother, Fatmeh. "He was not fighting in Israel, he was defending his own land against occupiers. That is not a crime."