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A 2-pronged response to Lebanese prisoners

JERUSALEM, April 19 (JTA) — The Israeli government is taking a two-pronged approach on the thorny issue of Lebanese detainees who have been held for years without trial.

The government’s Security Cabinet said Tuesday it would abide by a Supreme Court order to free 13 Lebanese detainees who have been held as bargaining chips for missing Israeli soldiers. A day later, Israel released the 13, who were handed over to the Red Cross at a crossing point on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The ministers also decided to initiate legislation that would give the government the legal right to hold detainees it deemed “illegal fighters” as bargaining chips.

The decision to pursue such legislation is apparently aimed at keeping two Shi’ite fundamentalist leaders, Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, remain behind bars.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak convened the Security Cabinet on Tuesday after last week’s Supreme Court ruling that bars the defense minister from holding onto individuals as “living human” bargaining chips for the return of the MIAs.

Families of missing and captured Israeli soldiers criticized the ruling, saying it was depriving the Israeli defense establishment of a key tool to try to obtain information about the servicemen and to secure their release.

The Lebanese have been held by Israel as bargaining chips for the return of Israeli airman navigator Ron Arad, who bailed out of his fighter plane over Lebanon in 1986 and is believed to have been held by pro-Iranian troops there.

Israel says Dirani and Obeid, who were both kidnapped from Lebanon in Israeli raids, had direct links to Arad.

A statement issued after the meeting said the Cabinet would make a special effort to ensure the continued detention of Obeid and Dirani to try to obtain information on the fate of Arad and other missing servicemen and return them as soon as possible to Israel.

In the meantime, prosecutors Tuesday asked the Tel Aviv district court to extend the detention of the two men on the grounds they endanger state security.

This argument stems directly from last week’s High Court ruling, which stated that the detention of a person could be extended only if their release posed such a threat.

The lawyer for the two detainees, Zvi Rish, called the argument a facade, and said it appeared clear that the prosecutors’ move was just a way to hold Dirani and Obeid without trial.

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