Freed Israeli photographer to return home after 5 months’ imprisonment in Libya

By Matti Friedman, AP
Monday, August 9, 2010

Israeli held in Libya returning home after release

JERUSALEM — An Israeli arrested and imprisoned in Libya last March while photographing Jewish sites was returning home Monday after being freed in a complicated deal engineered by Israel’s foreign minister, officials said.

Rafael Rafram Chaddad, an Israeli-Tunisian dual national, was in Libya on behalf of an organization dedicated to documenting and preserving the history of Libya’s vanished Jewish community when he disappeared in March.

His whereabouts were kept secret until Sunday, when Israeli officials announced that he had been freed by Libyan authorities after prolonged negotiations through third parties and was flown to Vienna.

The strange details of the case were subject to a gag order from Israel’s military censor until Sunday, because of fears that publication could endanger the photographer. The case involved international diplomatic efforts and the intervention of an Austrian tycoon, and was also linked to a pro-Palestinian ship sponsored by Libya that tried to run the blockade of Gaza last month.

“The Foreign Ministry and the foreign minister worked for a long time to have him freed, along with other international bodies, and we thank all involved for their help,” the ministry’s spokesman, Andy David, said Monday.

David, who gave the first official Israeli comment on the affair, declined to provide further details. Libyan authorities have not commented.

Libya and Israel have a history of hostility and do not have diplomatic ties. Chaddad was traveling on his Tunisian passport when he was arrested.

Israeli officials said the efforts to free him involved Italy, which has close ties to Libya and is home to a Libyan Jewish exile community, as well as France, the U.S. and Tunisia.

As part of the deal, the officials said, when a Libyan charity sent a ship in July to break the blockade of Gaza, Israel allowed 20 prefabricated houses from its cargo into the Palestinian territory as a gesture to Libya’s government. The ship was not allowed to reach Gaza and was instead diverted to an Egyptian port, where the houses were loaded onto trucks and taken into the coastal Palestinian territory.

The officials said the final deal was arranged by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and an Austrian-Jewish businessman, Martin Schlaff.

Schlaff, one of Austria’s richest people, was recently described by the Wiener Zeitung newspaper as a “problem solver” who has opened doors for politicians and businessmen who were caught in a bind.

Schlaff has long had close ties with Israeli leaders, and is wanted for questioning by Israeli police in connection with suspicions he made illegal donations to Lieberman and to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In April, Schlaff did not attend his father’s funeral in Israel because police said they would question him if he entered the country.

The Israeli photographer was flown to Vienna on Schlaff’s private jet, the officials said, and was greeted at the airport by Lieberman.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the details had not officially been made public.

In March, Chaddad sent an e-mail saying he was heading to the Jewish Quarter in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, to photograph a synagogue, said Pedazur Benattia, whose Or Shalom Center had sponsored the photographer.

Chaddad was supposed to board a flight to Tunisia the next day but never made it, Benattia said, and it later emerged that he had been arrested in Libya.

Israel’s military censor subsequently banned publication of the case to avoid compromising the efforts to win Chaddad’s release.

Chaddad was open about what he was doing in Libya and was accompanied throughout his visit by a representative of the Libyan secret police, Benattia said. It was still unclear what had triggered the arrest, Benattia added.

The center has sent photographers to Libya in the past, usually European nationals, he said. In 2002, another photographer sent by Or Shalom — a French student — was detained and held for nine days before being released, Benattia said.

Libya, like many other Arab countries, was home to a large Jewish community until the middle of the 20th century, when Jews fled mob violence and state persecution linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

(This version CORRECTS spelling of photographer’s name to Chaddad.)

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