US hostage crisis differs from Iran in '80. Tangible demands and international law could bring easier resolution
As the hijacking crisis goes into its second week, parallels are increasingly being drawn to the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980. But Middle East specialists say the situation today is different in two key respects that should bring about a solution:
The terrorists in this instance are making tangible demands and demands that can be fulfilled, even if by some circuitous diplomatic route. Israel is prepared to release the 700 or so Shiite prisoners as demanded, provided it is asked to do so by the US. And the US regards holding of the prisoners as a violation of international law.
The crisis is basically in the hands of Nabih Berri, a respected leader of the Shiite community in Lebanon, who has a personal stake in satisfactory resolution of the problem. There is no religious fanatic like the Ayatollah Khomeini on the scene. Nor is there a government leader like Iran's former president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who did not have a following and hence lacked political power.
At the same time, some experts see the crisis now being played out against the larger canvas of the internal Lebanese political struggle. New players are coming to light. A half-dozen or so of the American hostages, for instance, are in the custody of an extremist Shiite group known as Hizbullah, while the remainder is under the control of the mainstream Amal group.
``You have a situation where the rules and what the players want to get out of this are shifting, and the hostages are getting further and further away from the surface of things as interested parties attach themselves to the issue,'' says William Beeman, a scholar at Brown University.
One potentially helpful factor is that in seeking a diplomatic way out of the crisis, the Reagan administration is in a position to invoke international law.
In early April, when Israel seized hundreds of Shiite Muslims captive as it was withdrawing from southern Lebanon, the State Department stated that such action was contrary to international law. It had in mind Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids the forcible transfer of civilians from occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power. The White House continues to back that position.
Israel, however, justifies the transfer as a security measure, arguing that its troops were being attacked by Shiites.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry states that the action was in accordance with another provision of Article 49, which states that an occupying power may undertake evacuation of an area if the security of the population or ``imperative military reasons'' so demand.
Under Article 49, such evacuation cannot involve transfer of persons outside the bounds of the occupied territory, ``except where for material reasons it is impossible to avoid such displacement.'' The Israelis say this exception applies, because as it was pulling out of Lebanon, it dismantled the prison camp holding the Shiites.
The legalities of the case are at the moment obscured, however, as Washington faces the political roadblocks to a diplomatic deal.
Israel wants the US to ask it publicly to release the prisoners, because hard-liners are waiting for an issue to pounce on the government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Mr. Peres must be able to say that he was asked to free the Shiites. It is also hard for the US to ask Israel publicly to release the prisoners, because the administration has adopted the principle that it will not give in to the demands of the terrorists.
It is essentially a problem of how to detach Israeli release of the prisoners from the hijacking incident.
``The problem of using the issue of international law is that it raises the question of linkage,'' says an administration official. ``If you go to the Israelis and say, `We think you should return the prisoners because of international law,' this will be linked to the crisis. The irony is that no one wants to de-link -- the crisis has become a matter of high principle and everyone has different principles.''
Still, diplomatic observers believe that a deal can be structured through behind-the-scenes negotiation, whereby each party can emerge having stood by its ``principles.'' The difficulty, say experts, is achieving this objective under the scrutiny of the news media, which are looking at each twist and turn of diplomatic maneuver in terms of ``concessions'' and who ``caved in.''
Another factor in the equation is the surge of Shiite nationalist feeling, say Mideast experts. Mr. Berri must make sure he retains the support of not only of the Amal group but of the entire Shiite community, and he takes high political risks in mediating the crisis.
``As time goes on it becomes harder for everyone, because pressures will mount in the Shiite community,'' says Helena Cobban, an expert on Lebanon. ``The Shiites are feeling their muscle -- they got rid of Israel, fought the Palestinians to a standstill, and now have the US hostages. So the community is on a power high, and it gets harder and harder to bring them down.