The Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) is a local non-profit, non-partisan Lebanese human rights organization in Beirut that was established by the Franco-Lebanese Movement SOLIDA (Support for Lebanese Detained Arbitrarily) in 2006. SOLIDA has been active since 1996 in the struggle against arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and the impunity of those perpetrating gross human violations.

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May 14, 2009

March 25, 2009 - - $5 Million to Find Lebanon's Disappeared

$5 million to find Lebanon's disappeared

BEIRUT, March 25, 2009 (MENASSAT) – There are several lingering wounds that have been left unhealed since the end of the 1975-1990 Civil War in Lebanon. Among the more significant national issues is the issue of the missing resistance fighters that were either captured or killed in Israel.

A recent report in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat suggested that Israel has been burying the remains of dead fighters in secret cemeteries - "Cemeteries of Numbers."

Sources allege these cemeteries have numbers on metal plates instead of grave markers, indicating corresponding documentation for cataloging the people buried there - information presumably kept by Israel's security branch.

According to the December Al-Sharq Al-Awsat report, four cemeteries have been identified - near the Bridge of Banat Yaacoub, a military territory on the Lebanese-Syrian-Israeli borders; another in the closed military area between Jericho and Damiah bridge in Jordan Valley, as well as one in Revidim, also in the Jordan Valley, and Shahita in Wadi al-Hamam, in the northern city of Tabaraya.

On March 16, Lebanese organization the Horiah Foundation launched a campaign to help find the remains of these former fighters and turn “numbers into humans with an identity in order to bring them back home" - a daunting task without proper forensic and background information.

Which is what led to the Horiah Foundation's $5 Million Campaign - - a program that offers a reward incentive to people who provide information that would lead to the retrieval of the dead and missing.

The Foundation's campaign is directed mainly at personnel working in the Israeli security forces, but the org also hopes the website will attract a response from people living close to the "secret cemeteries" or from former Israeli officials.

Horiah also works on documenting data collected from the families of the missing, in addition to collecting financial aid to pay the reward and establish a DNA testing laboratory.

To find out more about the $5 Million Campaign, MENASSAT met with Bassam Kontar (pictured right), one of the founders of Horiah and brother of former Israeli prisoner Samir Kontar - who was released in a prisoner exchage between Israel and Hezbollah in July 2008.
MENASSAT: What is the idea behind this project?

BASSAM KONTAR: "The idea (behind Horiah) is simply that our men are no less important than any country's citizens, including Israeli citizens."

"But our main goal is turning the missing from numbers to people and from statistics to human beings; this is why we are trying to creating a complete file about all the missing."

"We face the problem of inconsistent data from the victims families. Some have very little information, while others have extensive files on their loved ones."

MENASSAT: You set up a website to facilitate info exchange and to inform the public of your issues - but what is your target-audience? And what about confidentiality?

BASSAM KONTAR: "The website is really a means to reach the Israeli audience. People who, for example, have worked in the prisons or with the Israeli police or army."

"We also have a media plan to reach the greatest possible number of Israelis, through all means available: direct fax, e-mail, direct calls, SMS, and others."

"All we need now is to collect the data on the missing and then send the letters to the Israelis."

"But we reserve the right NOT to disclose our working strategy for collecting this information - for security reasons given it's sensitive for the people working to compile the data or for people giving up information, from inside and outside the Occupied Territories."

"In case someone responds to us, your question is how can we make sure of the veracity of his statements and then give him a financial reward?"

MENASSAT: Yes, how do you know what you're being told is correct?

BASSAM KONTAR: "All this is confidential and can’t be disclosed, how can I tell it to the Israelis? If I do, they will use it against me. These are security matters, and won’t succeed if we uncover them."

"The Foundation swore confidentiality, and we don’t want to lose our credibility."

"What if someone cooperating with us doesn’t give us all the information, but just gives clues, for fear of not getting the money?"

"Then, we study the clues to make sure they are valid, and then we can answer him and ask for more information."

MENASSAT: You think you will succeed in getting correct information from inside Israel?

BASSAM KONTAR: "We can’t be sure, but we can have hope. Everything is possible, and regardless, testing this process of information exchange about the missing was a must."

"If this mechanism existed before, it would have solved many problems."

"As for an Israeli audience, in theory, it's easy for them to give up basic information on the issue of the missing. But most of it requires confidentiality and will need special security measures so that higher-ranking military personnel would feel comfortable disclosing information."

"Even so, what's important here is to break the taboos in exchanging information about the missing because it is first and foremost a humanitarian matter."

"Take the case of the young Dalal Mughrabi (Editors note: Mughrabi was a 19-year Lebanese fighter killed in the 'Kamal Adwan Operation' on March 16, 1978. He and 11 other Palestinians and Lebanese took part in the raid.)."

"There's this famous picture of current Defense-minister Ehud Barak, a special forces commando in 1978, dragging the body of Mughrabi in the street."

"Although the world saw this picture, until today, Israel hasn't said if another man in his unit, Yehya Skaff, was dead or still detained in an Israeli prison."

"If any Israeli sends us tangible information about Skaff with real proof about his death, that person would earn the reward money - the actual amount of which has not been determined within the $5 million."

MENASSAT: Isn’t contacting Israelis considered a crime in Lebanese law?

BASSAM KONTAR: "We are an organization and we got our permit. We will abide by the Lebanese law, but the permit has nothing to do with collecting information."

"These matters are controlled by the law, and are not in the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry which issued the operating permit for our organization.The law states that any organization established should not be an underground movement, and that’s all."

"Interior minister Ziad Baroud knew how to apply the law, because he fought for this issue. Today, the law protects the freedom to establish organizations."

MENASSAT: What are the obstacles you face?

BASSAM KONTAR: "We would face many obstacles if the project remains restricted to Lebanon, mainly because Lebanon is in a state of war with Israel, and thus there is no legal way of communicating."

"This is why the organization is trying to get a permit from a European country. There are also the financial costs."

MENASSAT: How do you protect your website from being hacked, and how do you guarantee the privacy of the sources?

BASSAM KONTAR: "Many of the websites concerned with the detainees were previously hacked, which pushed us to pay thousands of dollars per week to get SSL service in order to prevent hacking."

"The company hosting $5 Million Campaign said they have no problem in dealing with us as long as we don’t break the law. They also assured us that they wouldn't bend to political pressures to shut us down."

MENASSAT: The amount of five million dollars is for every piece of information or the whole operation?

BASSAM KONTAR: "This amount will be distributed to all the sources that send us information. The $5 million equals the total amount of money in the bank."

"We have dozens of files already."

"Even when the Israelis launched their website to obtain information about the remains of Israeli pilot Ron Arad (whose plane crashed in southern Lebanon in 1986; classified as missing in action) they offered a reward of $10 million to be broken down in seven parts."

"If the Horiah Foundation gets information that would lead to gathering data on the fate of dozens of the missing, and after getting this information, concrete knowledge of the whereabouts of these missing fighters is discovered - we don’t mind paying the whole amount then."

MENASSAT: How is your campaign similar to that of Ron Arad?

BASSAM KONTAR: "Our campaign learned a lot from the Israeli campaign to get definitive info on Ron Arad, and our idea isn't new."

"We noticed that that campaign was successful for the Israelis and we decided to use the concept."

"We don’t know if anyone cooperated with the Israelis, but they were at least able to raise a lot of controversy in the media and kept the issue of the missing Israeli in the Arab media for free."

"The Israelis say they received dozens of testimonies about Arad, some of which were important and were thoroughly studied. They also said they kept their sources anonymous. But if the information had been correct, the fate of Ron Arad would have been uncovered."

"Israel still doesn't know where he is."

MENASSAT: How will you collect the amount of $5 million dollars?

BASSAM KONTAR: "We opened the direct contribution door through our website and other means."

"We have received many responses, for the prize and for the advertising campaign for the website."

"This doesn’t mean that we should have waited to collect all the amount to launch the project. On the contrary, we started with our project, we set the prize and started collect the contributions."

"The final budget is not yet specified, but it consists of thousands of dollars. The permanent e-ads, for example, on google or hotmail or other websites cost $10,000 at least per day."

"This is added to the cost of direct ads, the legal issues, the consultations and the remuneration of the lawyers. It is a complete project in which we directly and primarily depend on voluntary contributions, and the ideas of our youth volunteers."

MENASSAT: Who has offered to help Horiah Foundation in searching for the missing?

BASSAM KONTAR: "The international Red Cross offered help, but it's been of no use."

"The officials at the Red Cross have traditionally facilitated the search and return of the missing. Further, the Red Cross has the adequate material and equipment to do the forensic work."

"But this effort is special - It needs a DNA laboratory, and a specific method to collect forensic data and document it."

"The Lebanese government's involvement in the matter has been to established a ministerial committee to fill the applications of the families of the missing."

"Now. If we are able to collect the money, one of the first projects would be to start with the DNA bank the Lebanese government should have established a long time ago."

"The DNA tests cost a lot, and the Detainees committee, including the Committees of the Prisoners in Syria and the missing in the Lebanese civil war and all the families of the missing are demanding such a bank."

"Each DNA test costs about $30,000, and all the data will be collected to compare it with any forensic data we find."

MENASSAT: Which associations are supporting you?

BASSAM KONTAR: "We don’t get help from any associations, but many individuals have called Horiah to volunteer their services."

"Some rights groups have offered logistical support, such as the Detainees Committee, the National Committee for the Detainees, the Lebanese Committee for Prisoners and Detainees, and the Palestinian committees."

MENASSAT: What is the reason behind the diplomatic representation in the press conference you had to launch the campaign on March 16?

BASSAM KONTAR: "The Yemeni diplomat attended because the corpses of some Yemeni martyrs are still lying in the Occupied Palestinian territories."

"And the Iranian ambassador was present because of the disappearance of four Iranian diplomats (abducted in Beirut in 1982)."

"We hope their countries would support our initiative, but we are not planning to work with embassies or report to any of them."

"We are transparent in this matter. This is a very sensitive and delicate matter, and we will make a declaration of all the financial contributions we get. We are far from being a commercial project."

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