Time pressures caused by the approaching Jewish sabbath nearly held up the delicate transfer of Israeli prisoners and dead that was the last barrier to completion of the complex plan to evacuate Palestinian guerrillas from Beirut.
Late in the afternoon, captured Israeli pilot Aharon Ahiaz and the soldier seized Wednesday night by the Palestine Liberation Organization, Ron Harush, crossed a checkpoint into Israeli-controlled territory in a Red Cross van. They had been turned over to the Red Cross by the PLO in the Fakhani district of Beirut. Shortly afterward, at 5:25 p.m., the last hurdle was crossed as the Red Cross turned over to the Israelis bodies of nine soldiers killed in this invasion and the 1978 invasion of Lebanon. It was 40 minutes before the beginning of the sabbath.
An Israeli officer, who had been waiting at the port since 7 a.m., said if the bodies had arrived more than 20 minutes later they would have remained in the port because of Jewish religious laws prohibiting contact with the dead on the sabbath. The Israeli Army, he said, would have been forced to remain at the Beirut port, even though the plan called for the troops to hand control of the area over to the Lebanese Army in anticipation of the arrival of the vanguard of a multinational peace-keeping force and the PLO evacuation.
Eight wooden coffins and a gray metal coffin were quickly unloaded from the Red Cross truck at the port and opened as Israeli Army Chief Rabbi Gad Navon said hasty prayers over each of them.
Each corpse was sprinkled with a hygienic fluid as Israeli soldiers rushed to pack them onto their own military trucks. By 5:35 p.m. the trucks were ready to go and Navon opened a pocket-sized Torah, the Jewish holy book, and began to intone in Hebrew the Jewish prayer for the dead.
Several hundred Israeli soldiers joined the prayer with a chant. Those who were hatless covered their heads with the palms of their hands. Others were wearing either the floppy Israeli field hat or their yarmulkes.
Toward the end of the prayer the Army trucks began to rev their engines and by its end they raced toward the port exit leaving everyone standing in a dust cloud. They were headed to a provisional helicopter landing pad two miles north of Beirut's port. Then Ahiaz and Harush were driven to the helicopter pad for a flight to Tel Aviv.
It was 5:40 p.m. and the race was against the 6:05 p.m. beginning of the sabbath.
Besides the strictures on contact with the dead, one officer explained the rush by saying, "A Jew is not allowed to drive on Saturday unless he is on a combat mission."