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Kozo Okamoto Returns to the Spotlight on 'Mariam' Day

Kozo Okamoto Returns to the Spotlight on 'Mariam' Day

Tuesday, 31 May, 2022 - 06:45
Kozo Okamoto (C), a former Japanese Red Army group member, arrives to attend a ceremony organized by Palestinians living in Lebanon to mark the 50th anniversary of the Lod airport attack, at the cemetery in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, 30 May 2022. (EPA)

The septuagenarian moves slowly at a symbolic grave at the "Palestinian martyrs" cemetery in Beirut.

He rises up from his wheelchair to place a wreath of flowers on a symbolic grave that holds some bones and belongings of "Salah al-Yabani" (Japanese Salah), the symbol of the Lod airport operation.

Ahmed al-Yabani (Japanese Ahmed), or Kozo Okamoto, and members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were celebrating on Monday the 50th anniversary of the operation.

Days earlier, Japanese authorities released leader of the Japanese Red Army, Fusako Shigenobu, also known as Mariam.

She co-founded the group that Kozo and his colleagues joined and later carried out the failed hostage-taking at Israel's Lod airport in 1972.

Kozo, who is regarded as a hero by Palestinians and a terrorist by Japan, marks the occasion almost every year. Tokyo has since 1997 been demanding that Lebanon deport him. Beirut has granted political asylum, the first and last time it has done so for anyone.

Lebanese authorities have turned over four of his comrades to Japan and left him alone in the country to review his "history of struggle".

Kozo, 74, is unknown to the new Lebanese generation. This was evident by how the number of Japanese journalists outnumbered the Lebanese ones at Monday's event.

They clamored for an exclusive photo of Kozo and a statement. All they got was a "hello". They are aware that they are barred from attempting to speak to him in Japanese, his guards made sure of that.

The PFLP is adamant that Kozo is a "political asylum seeker" and that he cannot make statements.

It fears, however, that he would be lured into making a statement that he wishes to return to his home.

A PFLP official told Asharq Al-Awsat that if he desires to go home, then Japan will demand that Lebanon deport him.

The PFLP also worries that he may make a statement that may imply that he is in contact with Fusako.

The official said Kozo was "physically and mentally ill. He will not be able to tolerate a lot of pressure, which is why he should be protected as much as possible."

"He is isolated and a man of few words, spoken in Arabic or English, and he prays in Japanese," he added.

The official was among others who welcomed Kozo in Lebanon during a prisoner swap between the Israelis and Palestinians in 1985.

He recalled how Kozo literally acted like a dog when he was released, barking and eating with his hands, due to the torture inflicted upon him in Israel where he was kept caged like a dog.

One Israeli jailer offered to give him a gun so he could end his life and become a "third star". The Japanese Red Army believes that their martyrs become stars.

The other two stars were his colleagues who died during the Lod operation. One was killed fighting the Israelis and another blew himself up. Kozo also sought to blow himself up, but his explosive malfunctioned and he was detained.

Kozo agreed to take the gun from the jailer, but was furious when he found out that it was not loaded.

Upon his release, Kozo was paranoid and preferred to remain isolated. He even slapped Ahmed Jibril, the late leader of the PFLP, during their first meeting. He later came to his senses and burst into tears.

Since his return to Lebanon, he sought to lead a normal life with varying success. He resides in the eastern Bekaa region and is guarded by members of the PFLP.

He often travels to Beirut and visits its renowned Hamra Street that has a special place in his heart.

The Palestinian official said he has been by Kozo's side for years.

Occasionally, he is approached by someone who recognizes him and he is warmly greeted, leaving Kozo with a smile on his face.

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