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Abducted Father And Husband Reunited With Family

Israel is celebrating the release of Eliyahu Gur-el, the taxi driver from Ramat Gan who had been held captive by Palestinian terrorists for over four days.

First Publish: 7/16/2003, 10:06 AM

Israel is celebrating the release of Eliyahu Gur-el, the taxi driver from Ramat Gan who had been held captive by Palestinian terrorists for over four days.

Gur-el, 63, who was abducted on Friday night by two of his passengers, was freed late last night in a combined IDF-police mission, and returned early this morning safe and sound to his anxious family. His loved ones were forced to wait just a little longer when his arrival was delayed first by a hospital check of his health and then by a street celebration by his friends, including many taxi-drivers, who sang in the streets and danced on top of their cars. "Our prayers helped," said a laughing-crying Liat Liebowitz, Eli's daughter.

With a pleasant and relaxed demeanor and a sparkling smile, Gur-el recounted his ordeal on Channel Two television this afternoon. "At one point, they told me not be scared," he said, "and I said, 'Wouldn't you be scared if you were in my position?'" He said that throughout his ordeal, he thought of his family and reviewed his life from the time he came to Israel from Iraq. "My memory is not bad," he said, "so I had plenty of things to remember."

The abduction began when Gur-el picked up four Arab passengers - two men, a young woman, and a four-year-old girl - in Lod, who asked to be driven to Jerusalem. Gur-el admitted that he would not have taken them if not for the little girl, who in fact served as the bait. When they arrived at French Hill in Jerusalem, one of the terrorists held a knife to his throat and "informed" him that he was now their captive. The woman and child got out, and the two others continued on with him to the northern-Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina.

Some of the kidnappers - five of whom have been arrested - are from the Arab village Biet Rima, where a large Barghouti clan lives. Relatives of two of the kidnappers were involved in the murder of Rehavam Ze'evi, and the lead kidnapper was Ahmed Hajaj, 25, a PFLP terrorist who served time in Israeli prison.

From Beit Hanina they walked north through fields and hillsides to Ramallah, then west to Bituniya, then back and forth again until they finally put him into an underground storeroom, accessible only by a tall ladder. Gur-el later said that basically they treated him civilly, and even told him that they would not kill him. "I tried once to escape," he said, "but they heard me and forced me back in, but they did nothing else." They did make him walk for many hours, however.

The big break in the case came on Saturday night when Israeli security forces arrested Shirin Halil, Hajaj's fiancee who was among the original four passengers. After interrogating her, the police knew the identity of the kidnappers and that they were in Ramallah. The police established contact with the kidnappers, and began negotiations, with the terrorists demanding the release of 2000 terrorists. Among those whose release they sought were PFLP leaders, the murderers of Gandhi (held in PA prison in Jericho), Marwan Barghouti, and several Hamas leaders. They later demanded money as well, and police say that the group did not seem to have clear goals.

Last night at 10 PM, Hajaj and one of his accomplices were located in Kalandia, south of Ramallah. A gun battle erupted in the course of which one of the terrorists was shot in the leg; they were arrested, and in the interrogation divulged where Gur-el was being held. The Yamam - Special Police Unit - that had been waiting nearby on high alert went to the site, enticed the two guards out of the house and arrested them. The two ex-guards, who had been armed only with knives, led the forces to the pit and to Eli Gur-el. "I suddenly heard voices in Hebrew calling me, and a flashlight shone down, and I knew I was saved," Gur-el said. "When the first soldier came down to get me, I just hugged and kissed him."

Overseeing the entire operation was IDF Yesha Commander Brig.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkott. IDF Central Command O.C. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky said that the entire operation was run exclusively by IDF forces. IDF sources said that despite the Palestinian Authority claims that it had helped out, "it really did nothing except act as if it were helping."