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Throngs Welcome Home Freed Israeli

Meeting a man who, only three days earlier, was still, in his words, “dead,” stuck in a cement cellblock of Egyptian solitary confinement, is an experience for which few come prepared. To observe the human parade visiting Azzam Azzam, the released Israeli prisoner, last Tuesday at his home in the Galilee town of Mrar was to witness the unfolding of a rare spectacle, not seen since the arrival of prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky.

A group of schoolchildren accompanying the mayor of Kiryat Motzkin, a nearby town, stood by shyly, staring with big eyes at the man in the center of the patio as if he were the mythical emperor of an exotic land.

A delegation wearing suits and ties arrived, representing the Arab-Israeli Bank. The CEO, leading the group, bore a vast bouquet that concealed his face and much of his body. Setting the floral artifact aside, the group marched gravely up to Azzam Azzam and formally shook hands, carefully introducing themselves by name and rank. “Welcome be those freed from captivity,” one man intoned, in a biblical turn of phrase.

The minister of defense called, asking if he could come by tomorrow morning at 9:30. Army Radio called, asking for a special greeting for the soldiers. Labor Party lawmaker Ofir Pines-Paz wanted to know if it would be convenient if he came at 5. (The Azzam family is made up of Likud stalwarts.) Huge Israeli flags adorned the courtyard, and variations on Ariel Sharon’s last campaign themes could be heard all day long. “Only Sharon could do this,” the six Azzam brothers said. “All the prime ministers of Israel tried to talk with Mubarak, but only Sharon stood up to him like this. Only Sharon can do it!”

Late in the day a diverse group of casually dressed Arab and Jewish men filed in, some wearing skullcaps. The first in line, a man called Menashe, dispensed with all ritual: He raced past the five Azzam brothers shaking hands at the gates, disregarded the bitter, cardamom-scented coffee being poured at the entrance, and the piles of fruit and sweets, and walked up to Azzam directly, grabbing him in a long and vociferous embrace. When Menashe sat down, he was crying.

This was the technical team of Tifron, the company Azzam Azzam worked for when he was sequestered by Egyptian authorities November 6, 1996, and these were his buddies, those who always ridiculed the Egyptian accusation that Azzam illegally transmitted information (in invisible ink on ladies’ underwear) about Egyptian industrial installations.

Azzam, a sewing machine technician accused of spying on Israel — charges that he and the government of Israel have denied from day one and continue to dismiss — looked remarkably fit. He wore simple black pants, black shoes and a grey sweater. His hair was trim. There was no visible weakness to the man — no loose belly, no wavering gaze, no hesitation in his handshake.

After eight years in solitary confinement, allowed one visit a fortnight and having been permitted a mattress only in the last year, the man described in the Israeli press for eight years and one month as the epitome of commonness — a family man, a laborer — turned out to be a human definition of discipline.

He improvised a jump-rope in jail in order to keep fit. For months on end, he refused to touch Egyptian food, waiting for the tins brought to him by relatives or by Israeli consular officials. He refused to smoke. Nowadays he still refuses, even in the presence of TV cameras and the prime minister of Israel, to thank Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, or even to utter the man’s name.

“Do you have a few words of thanks for Mubarak?” a TV crewman screamed out. Azzam stared at him. “I thank God,” he said. Faced with almost total disempowerment, Azzam seemed to have come through the ordeal by uttering a long and loud “No.”

His Hebrew is fluid, quick and flawless. He revealed that he bribed the Egyptian guards into rigging a metal-coat-hanger-antenna onto their television, thus enabling his transistor to pick up the signal of Israel Radio. His Arabic, on the other hand, has turned a little Egyptian. His nieces tittered about the bizarre accent he has picked up.

On Tuesday, Mrar’s Regional Council head, Ziad Zagash, had more than one headache to deal with; in addition to the endless stream of guests — every single one of Israel’s 100,000 Druze came by to pay homage to the released Azzam, it appeared, and a good many more Mekorot — the national water carrier had cut off water to the entire town. Mrar, population 18,000, of which 58% are Druze, paid its water bill three days late, and Mekorot was not in a forgiving frame of mind.

Water or no water, the pilgrimage continued: army buddies; Druze sheikhs; a 13-year-old boy from Petach Tikva whose dad drove him all the way north for a photo with Azzam; Shahar, a retired cop from Tel Aviv, who had brought his new video camera.

Fandi Azzam, an older brother and the principal of the local high school, shook his head in disbelief at his brother’s “health and sanity.” Majid, a cousin, said that Azzam “is still in shock, of course.”

And Azzam himself, while continuing to kiss and shake hands, quietly but forcefully said: “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it’s true. I thought I’d die in there.”

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