Gripping Memoir Spotlights Israel’s Duty to Bring Missing Soldiers Home
He would walk into a room with a mob boss. He would sit alone with a terrorist who believed in killing Israelis. They knew his name and why he was there. In a cloak and dagger world, Ory Slonim had neither.
Since 1986, Slonim has traveled the world doing whatever he could to help Israel repatriate kidnapped soldiers or their remains.
“They were tools,” Slonim said in an interview with the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), when asked about meeting with such unsavory characters. “They were, for me, the auxiliaries for getting the mission done. Because if I wanted to meet only rabbis, it’s better to stay home.”
Slonim details his efforts in a memoir — “A Knock at the Door: The Story of My Secret Work With Israeli POWS and MIAs” — that was originally published in 2019 in Hebrew. Slonim wants American readers to understand the challenges Israel faces that are different from most other countries, and why it is willing to pay such a disproportionate price in releasing convicted terrorists to bring peace of mind to the families of the missing:
Regardless of the humanitarian aspect and the pleading of the compassionate Jewish heart, we have an obligation to free those who were sent to battle on our behalf and in the name of the law. If it were up to these young people, they may well have preferred to go to university or lie on the beach in Thailand instead of serving in the army. But they were sent to war, and they should go with the knowledge that we will do everything it takes to bring them back home.
Slonim, who was injured along with his wife in a 1974 terrorist attack inside a Tel Aviv movie theater, did all of this work voluntarily for more than three decades, somehow finding time to run a thriving legal practice and also volunteer with the international charity Variety, which serves special needs children. Slonim was Variety’s international president from 2003-05.
In Israel, his official title was “Consultant to the Minister of Defense for Captives and MIAs,” he explains in the book, but his business card simply said, “Ory Slonim — Advocate.” Being the defense minister’s adviser opened doors that proved vital for his mission. He was able to work with top Israeli intelligence and military leaders, who couldn’t treat him as “the odd man out, [or] an outsider” they could brush off.
He had access to all the intelligence his country could gather on the missing. He kept defense ministers and prime ministers in the loop. But, despite all he was learning, he often could not tell anxious families about his progress for fear of compromising the operation or building false hope. Sometimes, his inability to provide answers fostered anger.
“I suffered a lot of grief and had a lot of horrible moments,” he writes. “I heard things that are hard to hear, but I certainly toughened up in the process, during which I realized that the anger and discontent were not because of me, but due to this frustrating situation and because of those whose job was to solve the problems.”
For the families, learning their loved one went missing in action often is worse than learning they were killed, he said. A death is an ending, and the grieving process can begin, complete with a grave or other marker. But to a family whose son or daughter is missing in action, it’s the beginning of years of anguish and uncertainty:
Over the years, I’ve gotten rid of the clichés most people like to use. I have never used them in my meetings with any of the families. Never did I use phrases like “Be strong” or “Take care of yourselves,” and I’d certainly never say, “It’s going to be fine.” I learned to speak without clichés.
Slonim relinquishes the pen several times in “A Knock at the Door,” letting some of those loved ones tell their stories. Those chapters make it clear how much Slonim learned from them. In one example, Yusef As’ad described the anger and confusion in the immediate aftermath of his brother Samir As’ad‘s 1983 disappearance. It took two months just to determine Samir was a Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) captive. It took another eight years to bring his remains home.
“I don’t wish on anyone this state of ignorance and helplessness,” writes Yusef, who was 24 years old when his younger brother went missing. “You think about your brother as if he were gone but then convince yourself that he might be still alive, and you try to think if he’s eating and drinking and if they’re torturing him. I tried as much as possible to repress the thoughts, not to ask myself too many questions. I was mostly busy trying to maintain my parents’ sanity, find out what they were told and weren’t told.”
A year later, the DFLP claimed that Samir As’ad was killed in an Israeli bomb strike near Tripoli.
Slonim traveled to Vienna in 1991, where he was part of a team that obtained a bag of Samir’s bones in exchange for the release of a DFLP official. A pathologist found no evidence of shell fragments, which should have been present if Samir really died in an airstrike. But one bone near Samir’s heart was missing. That led officials to suspect that the terrorists shot and killed Samir, keeping the bone and any evidence it might contain.
“To this day,” Slonim writes, “I don’t know what the truth is.”
When Slonim distinguishes between the pain families suffer when someone is killed, versus someone taken prisoner, it’s clear that the As’ad case helped shape his thinking.
“Today, I can say with confidence, that it’s better to lose what’s dearest to you on the battlefield than to live with its absence,” Yusef As’ad writes, “because not knowing is the most difficult situation. It makes you go around as if you were sleepwalking, drives you to madness. If Samir had been killed, we would be grieving for a while and then reconciled with his death. Instead, we went through eight and a half years of madness.”
Slonim traveled to Copenhagen a year after ending his work on the As’ad case. Mohammad Hassan Dib Dirani was severely ill, so Slonim negotiated with Danish authorities to meet with him. Dirani’s brother, Mustafa, had taken Israeli airman Ron Arad captive in 1986 after Arad had to bail out of his airplane over Lebanon. Mustafa was part of the Amal militia, but it is believed he took Arad with him when he left Amal and joined Hezbollah. But no information could be found on Arad’s whereabouts. His captors released three handwritten letters in 1987, which intensified the incredible pain felt by Arad’s wife, and by the country as a whole.
Since 2008, a steady stream of conflicting reports reached Israel that Arad had been killed as early 1988, although some claimed he was still alive. Many of these reports were based on disinformation disseminated by terrorist groups knowing that it was psychological torture for the entire country.
That would mean Arad may still have been alive when Slonim met Mohammad Dirani. Slonim wanted to offer medical help in exchange for information on Arad. But he had to go into the meeting alone — the Danes would only broker a meeting in exchange for assurances that no Mossad agents would be on the ground.
Mossad officials weren’t comfortable with those conditions, Slonim writes, fearing that Mohammad Dirani might “be recruited upon his return to Lebanon by his brother Mustafa to harm you in some way. We must not forget that Mustafa Dirani was still an active member in a terrorist organization in Lebanon at that time.”
Slonim went anyway. Years later, he would learn he often had a bodyguard he didn’t know about, although it’s not clear if that protection was present in Copenhagen.
“I’m not suicidal,” he told the IPT. “I believed I was being guarded by people that I don’t see.”
He worked the relationship for nearly a year, with Dirani saying he would try to get information from his brother. But in the end, they learned nothing about Arad’s condition, or where he might be.
“I knew my chances of success were quite slim,” he writes, “but even a small chance justified everything we did. I didn’t feel an ounce of regret for this operation, not for one second. It was part of our immense effort to do everything we could, even if it involved many difficulties, as was the case with this operation as well.”
Then there was the time he asked Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to meet with a former Nazi. Kurt Waldheim, the former United Nations secretary general then serving as Austria’s president, had lied about his intelligence work for the Germans during World War II. But Waldheim was friends with Iran’s President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who in turn, might have been able to help Israel win freedom for captives held by terrorists in Lebanon.
Rabin thought the idea was a bit nutty, considering that Israel broke off diplomatic relations with Austria when Waldheim’s history was made public. Waldheim committed to try to help after Slonim pitched it as a chance to rehabilitate his image. But he, too, came up empty.
When Israel is able to negotiate a deal to bring its captive soldiers home, the deals often are wildly disproportionate. The best known example involved Gilad Shalit.
Hamas kidnapped Shalit in 2006 by using a tunnel to sneak into Israel and attack an army outpost. Two other soldiers were killed in the attack.
Shalit was set free five years later, in exchange for 1,027 prison inmates — among them, more than 450 had “blood on their hands.” One, Yahya Sinwar, has led Hamas since 2017, maintaining an emphasis on building a terrorist infrastructure to continue attacking Israel and provoking last May’s war. Now, as Hamas seeks another one-sided prisoner exchange, Israeli opinion is much more mixed. Slonim may be that rare human being who can acknowledge the merits within the conflicting arguments.
“I’ve always tried to avoid taking part in this public debate,” he writes. “After all, both sides are right and both make strong, reasonable arguments, so what’s the point? One side says a killer with blood on his hands should not be released, and the other argues that even despicable murderers should be freed in exchange for someone’s son who’s been taken captive, and in my view they’re both absolutely correct.”
But his business card said “advocate,” and he was there to advocate for one side in the debate. Still, it was never simple or easy.
Perhaps the most gripping example involved Slonim’s meeting with Smadar Haran. In 1979, terrorists snuck into Nahariyah, a northern Israeli city close to Lebanon, on a small boat, killing a police officer. They took Haran’s husband Danny and their 4-year-old daughter from their home, as Smadar hid in the attic with their 2-year-old daughter. Danny was shot and killed by terrorist Samir Kuntar, who then killed the little girl by bashing her head with a rifle butt.
Back in the Haran home, the 2-year-old was accidentally smothered by her mother, who was trying to keep her quiet to avoid any noise that would lead the terrorists to them.
In 2008, Israel was willing to release Kuntar and four other prisoners in exchange for two reserve soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were taken in a 2006 Hezbollah cross-border terrorist attack. Israeli officials didn’t know if the two soldiers were still alive, although experts who examined blood at the scene of the kidnapping estimated “there was a 99 percent chance that Udi and Eldad were no longer among the living.” Still, the terrorists would not release a word about the condition of the two reservists and refused to allow the Red Cross to visit them. So in the 1 percent chance the two were still alive, Israel was forced to negotiate a deal.
Before anything could happen with the prisoner exchange, somebody had to talk with Smadar Haran.
“Nobody wanted to go to her house and tell her that this murderer, this arch-terrorist who killed her husband and son and caused her to kill her daughter, is going to be released for another Missing in Action — and perhaps his body, not a living person,” he told the IPT. “I can tell you that when I came to her, it was one of the most difficult issues I had.”
That dreaded assignment became “one of the most touching and extraordinary events I have ever experienced,” Slonim writes. Haran made it clear that “she felt that everyone — both the victims of terrorism and the families of the MIAs — were on the same side of the barricade, that of pain and suffering.”
In a subsequent letter to then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other government officials, Haran explained that “the abominable murderer Samir Kuntar is not and never was my private personal prisoner; Kuntar is a prisoner of the state of Israel, which sentenced him for his murderous crimes to five life sentences.”
If the country determined that the release was in “the best interests of the state in terms of security, morality, and the values,” she would not object.
“Beyond the fact of being a victim of terrorism, and maybe even before I turned into one, someone who has paid the price in blood, I am a loving and deeply devoted citizen of my country,” she wrote. “From this standpoint, I ask that my personal pain should not be a consideration when discussing what lies ahead, but rather the substance of the issue in depth, with all its different aspects and its implications.”
She added, “The burden of pain and longing for my beloved — Danny, Einat, and Yael — taken so cruelly from me, I shall bear for the rest of my life. Together with this, I do not forget the suffering of the Regev, Goldwasser, Arad, and Shalit families and the moral debt I feel I have incurred towards all those who have labored for the sake of my ability to live a peaceful life in safety, as well as for all the rest of us.”
The experts’ fears were proven true. Kuntar was released in exchange for Regev and Goldwasser’s remains. Kuntar was killed in 2015 by an Israeli airstrike in Syria.
Haran’s concern for other families serves as an illustration of Slonim’s argument in favor of doing everything possible to bring Israeli soldiers home.
“In Israel, if they send me, then they have to bring me back,” he told the IPT. He often invokes President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
“We’re a small country,” he said, “and everyone knows everybody here. And when there is [a soldier] missing in action or POWs from my neighborhood, I know the people. I served with his father.”
That’s why he worked so hard, traveled so far, and comforted so many families as best as he could and never gave in to pessimism.
“I never assumed the fate of those I would be dealing with. Hope is the name of the game,” Slonim said.
While bringing home the bodies may have been a great disappointment, it still was a win. It put an end to the uncertainty and gave families something they could have nearby to help with the grief. “Every mother and father, every family relative, would like to have a grave, someplace to go,” he said.
Steven Emerson is executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, the author of eight books on national security and terrorism, the producer of two documentaries, and the author of hundreds of articles in national and international publications.