When Robert Polhill’s captors released him in Beirut on April 22, after 39 months as a hostage, it seemed possible that some of the seven Americans still held by Lebanese kidnap gangs would soon follow. But by the time Polhill reached Washington four days later, after resting in a U.S. hospital in Wiesbaden, West Germany, that seemed unlikely. Instead of the reciprocal gesture that the Lebanese extremists and their Iranian sponsors had demanded from Washington, the Americans provided a rebuff.
Congress declared that Jerusalem, which is one of Islam’s holy cities, is the capital of Israel. The Israelis also angered the Iranians. They refused to release the radical Shiite cleric whom they abducted last summer or to free any but four of the hundreds of Shiites and Palestinians held by their allies of the South Lebanese Army. Said Hussein Musawi, a leader of Hizbollah, the umbrella organization to which the kidnap gangs belong: “We offered a rose and got a stone.”
Reflecting the fact that his release was a singular event, Polhill’s return to the United States was deliberately low-key. When he arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, on Thursday with his Palestinianborn wife, Feryal, the 55-yearold former hostage was greeted only by a middle-ranking government official. Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Elizabeth Ciamposi met the couple at Andrews, and no members of the public, apart from reporters and camera crews, were allowed onto the base. And Polhill, looking cheerful, but pale and emaciated, contributed to the subdued atmosphere by declining to talk to the waiting journalists. Instead, an official car whisked him to Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where hospital commander Maj.-Gen Richard Cameron said that he would undergo “several days of resting, testing and evaluation.” The following day doctors announced that they had found a growth on his left vocal cord. They planned to perform a biopsy when Polhill has regained some of his lost strength.
As the couple prepared to settle into the four-room hospital suite that will be their temporary home, Polhill told a crowd of wellwishers: “I’m very happy. Very happy.” Commenting on Polhill’s earlier remark that it was anger against his captors that had enabled him to survive, Cameron said: “Anger—it’s a great
idea, and normal. You just need anything to stir the juices.”
Clearly, Polhill’s former captors were angry as well. The start of the Moslem Eid al-Fitr festival last Thursday, which marks the end of the Ramadan fasting month, could have been the occasion for the release of many of the prisoners held in Israel’s self-declared South Lebanon security zone. But the Israelis said that freedom for those captives, and the abducted cleric, Sheik Abdel Kareem Obeid, depended on the release of three Israeli service-
men imprisoned in Lebanon. Meanwhile, ignoring threats and warnings from Islamic fundamentalists, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution already passed by the Senate that recognizes a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The resolution, which is contrary to administration policy, is nonbinding. And it was clearly intended as an election-year congressional rebuke to President George Bush for his recent remarks condemning Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, which he lumped together with the West Bank as occupied territory.
Some officials said that the timing of the resolution jeapordized the creation of an atmosphere conducive to the release of more hostages. But analyst Robert Hunter, of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the main problem was Israel’s failure to order the release of its allies’ prisoners in South Lebanon.
Meanwhile, prospects looked dimmer for the release not just of American hostages but of other Western captives. Syrian officials, who had helped to gain Polhill’s freedom, had expected the release of two Swiss Red Cross workers who were abducted in Sidon, in southwest Lebanon, last October. Mustapha Saad, leader of the Sunni Moslem militia known as the Popular Liberation Army, met representatives of the kidnap group, Fatah-Revolutionary Council, last Thursday to arrange a handover. But at the last minute, the kidnappers refused. Said a source close to Saad, whose militia controls Sidon: “They said they could not release the Swiss because of security reasons, but this is only an excuse.”
Because of the kidnappers’ refusal to free citizens of traditionally neutral Switzerland, there seemed little prospect of an early release of the four Britons, two West Germans and one Italian who are held by other Lebanese extremists. There was even less hope for the seven U.S. hostages, who included Polhill’s two Beirut University faculty colleagues, Alann Steen, 51, and
Jesse Turner, 42. In a telephone call last week from Wiesbaden to his 84-yearold mother, Ruth Polhill of Fishkill, N.Y., Polhill had said that “the terrible part was leaving those two good friends behind.” In the soured atmosphere that followed, it seemed likely to be a long time before he sees them again.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.