A radiant Azzam Azzam waves to reporters as he boards an army plane which would take him from Egypt to Israel. (Photo: AP)Azzam Azzam, the Israeli Druze citizen who was freed at the beginning of the week from an Egyptian prison following the intervention of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, expressed his gratitude to Israel and Sharon upon his release.
“Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much, I love you very much and I don’t know how to express this. This is only thanks to you. I don’t have the words to thank you for your determination. I told my brothers that if I’m not released while Arik Sharon is Prime Minister, I would never be released. I am fortunate and proud to have been born in Israel,” Azzam told Sharon on the telephone before he boarded a plane to take him home.
Sharon told Azzam that the entire country was united in welcoming him home. “This is a happy moment in the history of the State of Israel, a moment that we have waited for a long time. Today, the entire country is united in its joy over your coming home. I am happy that you are returning to your loving family, to your brothers, to your wife and to your children, who have met with me many times and who spared neither time nor effort in working towards your release.”
“Thank you for bringing me home and granting me a new life,” Azzam said to IDF Brigadier General Yoav Galant, military secretary to the prime minister, after crossing the border from Egypt back into Israel.
Azzam, 41, of the Druze village of Maghar in the Galilee, was arrested by Egypt in November 1996 on suspicion of spying for Israel. An engineer at a textile plant in Cairo, he was accused of passing on Egyptian state secrets by soaking women’s underwear in invisible ink. An Egyptian state security court sentenced him to 15 years in prison for espionage and damaging Egyptian state security.
The Druze are an Arab-speaking minority within an Arab minority in Israel, a community loyal to the state that has suffered hundreds of casualties in its defense, and whose men serve today in high-ranking and sensitive positions within the Israeli military and security forces. The Druze in Israel comprise approximately 85,000 people, about 1.8 percent of the total Israeli population and about 10 percent of the country’s minority population. The Druze are centered in Israel, Syria and Lebanon, but also have sizeable expatriate communities in France and the United States, centered in Detroit.
The deal to release Azzam came about after appeals by Israel’s leaders to free the Israeli Druse businessman. A series of intensive contacts involving Health Minister Dan Naveh and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom contributed to the success of the deal, Israeli media reported.
Azzam’s family in Maghar was jubilant about the release of their family member, and heaped praise upon Sharon when the prime minister called them.
“Thanks to you I can say that my father is home. You lived up to your promise; you’re our and the family’s hero,” Inas Azzam, Azzam’s eldest son, told Sharon.
Azzam’s brother Wafa also thanked Sharon and said: “Our home is your home; you have an additional home in Maghar village. Azzam’s
children are your children. You made our dream come true and made possible a second exodus from Egypt. You are a man of your word and we are your soldiers forever.”
Another brother – Sami – added, “With leaders like you, the Israeli people don’t
have any problems, we love you very much.
Sharon told Azzam he looked forward to seeing him upon his return to Israel.
“Immediately after I was elected, I met with your family and I promised them that during my tenure as Prime Minister, we would release you. Since then, I have worked tirelessly in all my meetings with Egyptians and others, in order to do so, and as I promised your family, I delivered. I expect to see you soon and I say again, welcome home.”
As a gesture of appreciation and gratitude to Egyptian President Mubarak for the release of Azzam, Sharon ordered the release from detention of six Egyptian infiltrators.
Sharon said that the humanitarian gesture of Mubarak and to Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Gen. Soliman would make an additional contribution towards the deepening of bilateral relations.