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Israel’s prisoner-swap deals

Israeli soldiers carry the exhumed body of one of 59 Lebanese terrorists from the army's Enemy Graveyard, Jan. 26. (BP Images)

Israeli soldiers carry the exhumed body of one of 59 Lebanese terrorists from the army’s Enemy Graveyard, Jan. 26. (BP Images)

JERUSALEM, Jan. 26 (JTA) — The debate in Israel over this week’s prisoner-exchange deal with Hezbollah is not the first time a swap deal has roiled the Jewish state. Considering Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s pledge that Hezbollah would kidnap more Israelis, this debate might not be the last. On Thursday, Israel was slated to receive Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah in October 2000 in exchange for some 435 Arab security prisoners. Many Israelis are concerned that the Lebanon-based Islamic group would be encouraged to kidnap more Israelis to secure the release of more prisoners and to strengthen its image as a David winning battles against a Goliath. “The key issue is what will happen with the terrorists that we release,” Moshe Arens, a former defense minister and foreign minister, told JTA. “If we know for sure that as a result of this deal 10 Israelis will be killed, we probably would not have agreed to it. I, for one, would have opposed it. Is there a chance that consequently 10 Israelis or perhaps even more will be killed? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.” Even before the swap, there were indications that one prisoner in particular would try to murder again. Steven Josef Smyrek, a German native who converted to Islam and was jailed after coming to Israel on a Hezbollah suicide mission in 1997, plans to rejoin the Lebanese militia upon his release, according to a German journalist who interviewed him. Despite his present position, Arens was among the ministers who supported a past prisoner-swap deal, called the Jibril deal. On May 20, 1985, some 1,150 Palestinians were traded for three Israelis soldiers — Hezi Shai, Yosef Groff and Nissim Salem — who were captured in Lebanon and held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, led by Ahmed Jibril. The deal, initiated by then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was sharply criticized at the time, but Rabin won the support of the Cabinet. Unfortunately, most of the released prisoners returned to their homes in the West Bank and Gaza and two years later became some of the foot soldiers in the first intifada. “Everyone involved in the Jibril deal is aware that we made a mistake,” Arens said. Minister Yitzhak Navon, a former president of Israel, was the only one to oppose the deal. “One should have the guts to tell the families of the prisoners that there is a line which the state cannot cross,” Navon said. In the long history of Israel’s armed conflict with the Arab world, Israel always has paid a heavy price in prisoner-exchange deals. For example, following the Sinai Campaign of 1956, Israel released more than 5,500 Egyptian soldiers in return for four Israeli soldiers. And at the end of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel released 6,708 Arab soldiers and civilians in exchange for a handful of Israeli prisoners and the bodies of fallen Israeli soldiers. However, as long as the deal was with legitimate governments at the end of a “regular” war, there was no moral dilemma. The dilemmas began only when the terrorist organizations began capturing Israeli soldiers and holding them as bargaining chips. This began only once Israel began sinking in the Lebanese mud. On April 4, 1978, six Israeli soldiers and a civilian mistakenly entered an area controlled by PLO terrorists in the Rashidiya region in southern Lebanon. Four soldiers were killed and one soldier was captured alive. The soldier was released almost a year later, in exchange for 76 terrorists held in Israeli prisons. This pattern repeated itself after the Lebanon War of 1982. Since 1983, there have been eight prisoner exchanges, and the latest is among the most controversial. The Israeli soldiers in the deal — Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad — were on a patrol mission along Israel’s border with Lebanon on Oct. 7, 2000, when they were ambushed by Hezbollah gunmen dressed as U.N. observers. The terrorists dragged the soldiers into Lebanon, leaving some evidence of bloodshed behind. A year later, Israel officially declared that the soldiers had been killed during the kidnapping. Tannenbaum, the only Israeli captive in the current deal who is known to be alive, is a controversial figure. Unlike the soldiers who were kidnapped on duty, Tannenbaum, a reserve colonel, was seized in Arab territory after having traveled there on a supposed business trip. The exact details of Tannenbaum’s capture are unclear. Tannenbaum left Israel for Brussels in early October 2000, then flew to Abu Dhabi. After that, he either went to Beirut on his own free will or was kidnapped and brought there. Tannenbaum, a former artillery commander, had faced dire financial difficulties in recent years. His inclusion in the deal was met with intense criticism by some Israelis, who asked why Israel was releasing security prisoners in exchange for a civilian who might have become a hostage because of his own mistakes. Notably absent from the release roster is Ron Arad, the Israel Air Force navigator who went missing after bailing out from his failing Phantom jet over Lebanon in October 1986. Arad is believed to have fallen into the hands of the Lebanese Shi’ite organization Amal. Some critics have argued that Israel missed opportunities to release Arad in the initial period of his captivity. However, successive Israeli governments have tried to locate him. At one time, he is believed to have been held by Shi’ite activist Mustafa Dirani, who claimed that Hezbollah had in turn captured Arad from him and passed him onto the Iranians. Israel later kidnapped Dirani and Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid as bargaining cards for Arad, but to no avail. Both men were expected to be included in this week’s deal. As part of a reported second phase of this deal, Israel hopes to receive information about Arad in exchange for the release of another high-profile Arab prisoner. The campaign for Arad’s release fueled the ongoing debate in Israel over the appropriate price to pay to free Israelis held in captivity. The debate turned particularly caustic in recent months, when Arad’s family sued to try to block the deal to release Dirani and Obeid without receiving any new information about Arad.

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