JERUSALEM, Oct. 10 (JTA) Hezbollah’s kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers this week was its first operation against the Jewish state since the Israeli army withdrew from southern Lebanon in May.
But the action marked the latest in the Shi’ite fundamentalist group’s two-decade war on Israel.
Following Hezbollah’s success in Lebanon’s recent parliamentary elections, Israeli officials had hoped – vainly, as became evident after Saturday’s abductions – that the group would focus on Lebanese politics rather than heat up the border with Israel.
After the Israel Defense Force failed to stop the kidnappers from advancing north, efforts to rescue the kidnapped soldiers shifted to the diplomatic front.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan went to Beirut on Tuesday to help secure the release of Staff Sgt. Avraham Binyamin, Staff Sgt. Omar Suad and Sgt. Adi Avitan.
Israeli leaders have refrained from commenting on whether negotiations are being conducted with Hezbollah via intermediaries.
But the appointment of Ya’acov Perri, a former head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, as the head of the team dealing with the issue indicated that Israel may indeed be willing to negotiate a prisoner exchange, which Hezbollah has demanded.
“The soldiers should not be harmed,” Annan said after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, adding that the Red Cross should be given immediate access to the three.
Judging by lab tests at the scene of the kidnapping, Israeli army officials said the soldiers were wounded, but they did not know how seriously.
For his part, Annan said Tuesday that to the best of his knowledge the soldiers were in “good condition.”
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said Saturday night that he is ready to negotiate a prisoner exchange.
Mediation efforts are continuing under a thick veil of secrecy, with the hope that some deal could be worked out between Israel and Hezbollah.
The group has demanded that Israel release more than a dozen Lebanese prisoners, among them Shi’ite leaders Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, if it wants to see its three soldiers returned.
Israel also holds scores of Palestinian prisoners.
Perri has been directly responsible for negotiations aimed at securing the release of 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 has also been seeking information about three soldiers missing in action in Lebanon since 1982.
Zachariah Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz disappeared June 11, 1982, in the battle of Sultan Yakoub at the beginning of Israel’s invasion of its northern neighbor.
Obeid, a Hezbollah leader, and Dirani, a leader of the Amal movement, have been held without trial since their seizure by Israel in 1988 and 1994, respectively. Israel has been holding the two in hopes of securing Arad’s release.
Obeid and Dirani top the list of prisoners Hezbollah wants Israel to release.
In April, Israel freed 13 Lebanese nationals who had been held without trial as bargaining chips for the return of Israeli MIAs.
The 13 were released following a ruling by the Supreme Court that Israel could not hold detainees indefinitely if they do not present a security threat.
While abiding by the court’s decision, Israel’s Security Cabinet decided to initiate legislation that would give the government the legal right to hold detainees it deemed “illegal fighters” as bargaining chips.
Although Hezbollah now operates a large network providing health, education and cultural services in Lebanon, it was established as a purely military organization in 1983 to act against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.
It carried out a number of violent attacks against Israeli and American targets. Among its most deadly operations, the group was responsible for a twin attack on Oct. 23, 1983, when Shi’ite Muslim suicide car bombers simultaneously blew up a U.S. Marine base and French paratroopers headquarters in Beirut, killing 241 American and 58 French soldiers.